The Jeep Wrangler is arguably older than anything beyond pickup trucks, tracing its roots to military duty 70 years ago. Wrangler has been modernized with a contemporary engine, electronics inside and underneath, and the body panels are now artfully curved for stiffness while appearing flat. The current-generation Wrangler was introduced as a 2007 model.
However, the Wrangler remains the most maneuverable and trail-capable vehicle from a showroom, and will go places most owners don't dare drive. Or hike. If you're not used to hanging in your seatbelt like a puppet, you have no idea what one can do.
Still trail-capable but not so maneuverable is the four-door Wrangler Unlimited. There are enough differences between Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited that a mere two- or four-door reference wouldn't do it justice. The delta in wheelbase (the distance from front wheel center to rear) is similar to that between a regular cab and crew cab pickup.
A new limited-production Wrangler Unlimited Dragon Edition joins the lineup for 2014, featuring black and bronze satin-gloss exterior and interior treatments. Jeep has reissued the Freedom Edition as a value-priced model.
Also new, the 2014 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon X promises added off-road capability, including a winch-capable bumper and wider rock rails. A newly available Trail Kit features two D-rings, a tow strap, gloves, and storage bag. Parking lamps and turn-signal indicators are now clear rather than amber. Sport models may now be equipped with a Uconnect touchscreen radio with hard-drive storage.
Heated leather upholstery is available for Wranglers. You can swap the doors to half-size and fold down the windshield (though it's quite a chore), or power up the windows to indulge in climate control.
All Wranglers are powered by Chrysler's 24-valve 3.6-liter V6, here rated at 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. There's a choice of 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission. A Wrangler gets away from a stop with no problem, but falls off the acceleration curve as it runs into aerodynamic resistance at highway speeds.
But if you buy a Wrangler for highway cruising, you've missed the point. Indeed, they will travel the Interstate with a modicum of comfort and civility, but that's not what they're built for. Wranglers are better suited to all-weather urban runabouts, for folks living on a beach or off the grid or beaten path, or for those whose idea of a freeway is a fast section of dry wash or graded dirt run.
The standard soft top slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, augmented by a rollbar. The removable hardtop comes off in three pieces: a pair of T-tops, with a sunroof over the rear seat. With T-tops removed, at 65 mph the buffeting grates on you; but with the top on, it feels smooth.
In the popular two-door Wrangler, there's very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks fills it to overflowing. But the rear seat can be removed, creating a voluminous 61.2 cubic feet of cargo space. That's the setup we like.
Less likely, the rear seat can be removed from the four-door Wrangler Unlimited making 87 cubic feet. But that doesn't make much sense, either. Wrangler Unlimited is best for parties of four. Our recommendation: Remove the rear seats in the two-door Wrangler, leave the rear seats in place in the four-door Unlimited.
Wranglers are available with all the electronic trimmings, including touch-screen navigation, but sunlight plays havoc with display readability and on a trail you're moving around too much to touch the screen accurately.
Wrangler is not built for gas-mileage. Typically, it averages in the teens and doesn't change much between daily driving and long highway runs.
Wrangler has little direct competition. A Mercedes G-Class has off-highway ability of an Unlimited, a more luxurious cabin, and costs three times as much. The only factory trail vehicles approaching a Wrangler are the Toyota FJ Cruiser or a Land Rover Defender 90.