On the Road Review: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara

If you were a marketing or division manager at Jeep right now, you would be deeply engaged in the discussions about the pending changes with the iconic Wrangler model.

Just like the special places that the Chevy Corvette and Ford Mustang or Harley-Davidson motorcycles hold in our motoring consciousness, the Jeep Wrangler is a unique product offering that cannot be messed with unless you tempt the ire of the massive fan base. Just ask Ford how the planned Mustang replacement vehicle, the Probe, worked out in the early 1990s.

Jeep has moved to a dominant position within Fiat/Chrysler, or what is now known as FCA, the multinational car company that also owns Fiat and Ferrari. Jeep leads the former Chrysler divisions here in the United States, catapulting over Dodge, Ram and Chrysler brands, while jumping over Hyundai on the sales charts so far in 2015 with 18 percent growth. Very, very impressive for a car company that only builds crossovers such as the Wrangler, Grand Cherokee and the new Cherokee.

But this growth has produced strains. The venerable Toledo, Ohio, Wrangler assembly plant is stretched to the max — the complex is running multiple shifts and can’t keep up with sales demands here or in other markets. The paint shop is not large enough for more production either, plus these production constraints don’t allow Jeep to build the Wrangler pickup version that marketers know will sell very well.

Therefore, FCA is in intense negotiations with Toledo and greater Ohio about keeping Wrangler production in the area, but with new facilities. Tax incentives are surely in play, as FCA has the upper hand in where the thousands of employees will report for work; Ohio or someplace down South where costs are less.

There is also the internal battle about what the next Wrangler will be. Obviously, the styling must remain true to the vehicle’s roots — the iconic WWII design is depicted all over the current Wranglers, on the wheels, the windshield, even the floor mats. With 1941 embossed on the passenger-side grab handle on the dash, it is hard to miss where the Wrangler’s roots were established.

Yet, as much as the current Wrangler has evolved, with countless features and amenities being added to a basic solid-axle design truck through the years, there are several key points in the Wrangler’s production that must be changed to meet pending fuel economy standards as well as looming safety changes.

The Wrangler weighs too much: over 4,500 pounds as seen here in four-door Unlimited Sahara trim. The Wrangler is only the size of a Nissan Rogue, but weighs half a ton more. This girth affects on-road driving dynamics and crimps fuel economy. EPA fuel economy rankings, 16/20/18-mpg, and realized fuel economy, 17 mpg, put the Wrangler behind several full-size V-8-powered pickup trucks despite the Jeep’s V-6 powerplant. Power is ample, and the five-speed transmission is adequate — for now — but the Wrangler needs to be more fuel-efficient. Look for a turbo-gas engine, or one of FCA’s new turbo-diesel engines to at least be an option in forthcoming Wrangler models due on sale in 2017.

Much of the Wrangler’s allure has been its unmatched off-road prowess — some of which comes at the expense of on-road performance. Using beefy Dana solid axles at each end, the Wrangler possesses a tight turning radius and capable agility off-road, aided by electronic features such as Hill Start Assist, downhill descent control, traction control, Roll Mitigation and even a decoupling front sway bar on Rubicon editions. The Wrangler still features a floor-mounted (tradition again) shifter for the part-time four-wheel-drive system, a sharp contrast to what Jeep has employed in more recent Grand Cherokee models. The company must surely want to try different four-wheel-drive components that could aid with fuel economy, giving buyers drive-train options just like it now does with interior features.

The combination of all of this hardware, those heavy axles, lots of beefy springs and a thick steel frame, have laden the Jeep with some pounds that might be lessened by using aluminum, composites, high-strength steel or further electronic improvements, as we have seen in recent Land Rover, and even Jeep, vehicles. Heavy steel doors, still with fabric straps instead of regular spring hinges, also add weight where aluminum and composites have helped other automakers lower the girth of their designs.

Despite the awkward ingress and egress of the Jeep, there is some attraction to the unconventional aspect of the Wrangler’s doors, so buyers will expect some variation of this theme to remain on the next Wrangler. The rear door splits now (upper glass panel separate from the lower door with the fixed spare tire mount) and makes sense for future applications as well, however a window that opens without swinging the tailgate first might make more sense for convenience and rear cargo access.

The Wrangler’s interior is as unique as the rest of the vehicle. Cozy, close and narrow to the point of being almost intimate, the Wrangler is not conducive to large-sized occupants comfortably fitting at the helm. The steering wheel tilts, a little, yet the proximity of controls and the dash, as well as the door panel, is both a virtue and a hindrance — depending upon your physical stature. Upgrades such as one-touch power windows — switches still on the dash — plus Chrysler’s user-friendly U-Connect info/entertainment screens with navigation and satellite radio, are boons to modern functionality. Add some heated leather seats, convenient steering wheel controls, plus an upgraded Alpine sound system with new rear woofer and the Wrangler’s Sahara trim proved to be rich in human-friendly components.

The Sahara also proved to be “rich” in pricing, too, reflecting both the content level, but also the vehicle’s popularity and where FCA can command higher margins for higher trim levels that are proving to be no impediment to increased sales. With base level 2WD Wranglers in soft-top and stick-shift versions starting at a lowly $22,700, the Sahara Unlimited begins at $32,300 before pieces such as the color-matched three-piece removable Freedom top, automatic transmission, U-Connect, remote starting and other pieces pop the retail price up to $41,515.

The Wrangler’s engineers have pushed the current design to the limits of what can be reasonably accomplished with this platform. The elevated sales are testament to how successful they have been with this design, a truck that started life as a military support vehicle.

Yet buyers will want the next Wrangler to retain many of its current virtues while extolling greater on-road comfort as well as content levels and interior comfort that matches every-changing lifestyles and taste. These are tall challenges: save weight, increase economy, be more user-friendly and still conquer the Rubicon trail on Sunday with family and friends. All while still retaining the allure and appeal of a Jeep. Best of luck, guys.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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