2005 Jeep Wrangler Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
New long-wheelbase model smoothes ride.
The 2005 Jeep Wrangler lineup includes a new Unlimited model. This stretch version not only increases the amount of room for people and cargo, but also improves handling and ride quality on the pavement where most of us spend most of our time. Yet it still offers no-nonsense, world-class off-road capability at affordable prices. Introduced late in the 2004 model year in Sport trim, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is also available in Rubicon trim for 2005, bringing added creature comfort to serious off-roaders.
Jeep Wrangler remains an icon, a symbol of go-anywhere adventure. Although it's been re-engineered at least a half-dozen times over the past 60 years, the Wrangler is still as close as you can get to a direct descendent of the World War II-era Jeep.
Today's Wrangler is far more civilized than those early models, though it still resembles them. A four-speed automatic is available on all models. Four-wheel disc brakes are available for much better stopping ability. The side mirrors have been massaged for less wind noise and a better view over your shoulder, and many convenience features are available.
This still isn't the most practical everyday vehicle, however, and may not be the best choice for someone drawn to it simply because it's cute. (And it is cute.) Getting in and out is awkward. The interior is Spartan. The ride quality is rough by today's standards, though many young people won't mind that. And it doesn't handle very well, so care should be exercised, particularly in the rain. The reason for all this discomfort is that the Wrangler is designed primarily for performance off the road.
For the ultimate in off-the-shelf off-road capability, Jeep offers the Wrangler Rubicon. Jeep looked at the aftermarket modifications off-road enthusiasts were making to their Jeeps, and engineered many of those features into a turn-key vehicle you can buy (and finance) right off the showroom floor. Built along Jeep's 'Go anywhere, do anything' design philosophy, the Rubicon is a 4x4 gem. We found it performed admirably on Hell's Revenge, Cliff Hanger, and other challenging trails around Moab, Utah. Front and rear Dana Model 44 axles with locking differentials and a transfer case with a stump-pulling 4:1 low-range give the Ruby trail capabilities far beyond those of the average SUV.
2005 Jeep Wrangler models come standard with a new six-speed manual gearbox that replaces last year's five-speed manual.
The 2005 Jeep Wrangler is available in six models: SE ($17,970); X ($20,280); Sport ($23,140); Rubicon ($27,365); Unlimited ($23,895); and Unlimited Rubicon ($28,365). The Sahara is no longer available.
The Wrangler SE comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. The 2005 Wrangler SE features a new six-speed manual gearbox; a four-speed automatic ($825) is optional. Also new for 2005 is the availability of the 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine ($1,280) as an option. The SE is a basic machine. It comes with a padded roll bar, steel half-doors with side curtains, tilt steering column, a mini-console with cupholders, skid plates for the fuel tank and transfer case, gas-charged shock absorbers and P215/75R15 Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires. Rear seating (a fold-and-tumble bench) and carpeting are now standard, as is a four-speaker, AM/FM/CD stereo. Air conditioning ($895), cloth upholstery ($130), and full-metal doors with wind-up windows ($125) are extra-cost options.
The 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine comes standard on all the other Wrangler models. The six-speed manual transmission is standard; the four-speed automatic is optional.
Wrangler X upgrades to cloth upholstery. More options are available. Among them: cruise control ($300) including leather-wrapped steering wheel); upgraded stereo ($295); hard top ($1,160).
Sport upgrades to air conditioning, full metal doors with wind-up windows, a full-length floor console, courtesy and underhood lights, fog lamps, a seven-speaker stereo, and other features. Options expand to include anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes ($600), side steps ($150), and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror ($295). Nostalgia buffs can order a Willys edition, with green body paint, camouflage upholstery, unique badging, green sill guards and front and rear tow hooks ($1,490).
Rubicon comes with diamond-plate sill guards, beefier front and rear axles (two Dana 44s, rather than the Dana 30 and 35 used in the front and rear, respectively, of other Wranglers), a heavy-duty transfer case with an ultra-low 4:1 ratio, driver-actuated locking differentials, a special off-road suspension and four-wheel-disc brakes. Also standard are 31-inch tall LT245/75R16 tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels. Otherwise, Rubicon is generally comparable to the Sport for comfort and convenience equipment.
The two Unlimited models mirror the features on the Sport and Rubicon models, as appropriate, primarily adding the extra interior room allowed by the lengthened wheelbase.
All models in the lineup include a fold-down windshield, removable doors and top, and a weatherproof interior. Drivers may choose the standard soft top or the extra-cost steel hard top or a package that includes both ($1,435) in matching colors. The hard top comes with roll-up windows, a rear wiper-washer and rear defroster.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most widely recognized vehicles in the world. Its round headlights, jailhouse grille, and square-edged fenders hark back to the 1940 original.
Bumpers are black on all models. Fender flares are one of two shades of gray or dark khaki, although body-color flares may be ordered on the Unlimited.
Rubicon features neutral gray metallic fender flares and other special features to distinguish it from its fellow Wranglers. A 22-inch Rubicon nameplate is emblazoned on either side of the hood. Heavy-gauge diamond-plate sill guards are bolted to the body sides to protect the rocker panels from damage and dings from rocks and stumps in the backcountry. Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires are mounted on 16-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels with a dished face to protect them from debris and obstacles. Generous ground clearance helps the Rubicon traverse the trail.
One of the biggest decisions when buying a Wrangler is selecting the top. Purists prefer the soft top, a high-quality piece of equipment that can be configured according to the weather. If a screwdriver is handy, the windshield can be flipped down for breezy, low-speed touring in the backcountry. Doors may be removed for the maximum open-air experience. The Unlimited models have a multi-functional soft top that folds completely or only from above the front seats in a sunroof-like configuration called the Sunrider.
The optional hard top is more practical and offers better protection from weather and thieves. The hard top comes with full-height doors and roll-up windows. Rearward visibility is better, and it's further aided by the rear-window defroster, wiper and washer. Wind noise is greatly reduced. The hard top can be removed, although we haven't tried this. Either top is far easier to remove or install than those of pre-2001 models and provides much better sealing from the elements.
The exterior mirrors are made of plastic, which Jeep engineers say holds up better than metal when going off-road.
Getting into a Jeep Wrangler requires a tall step up. (Running boards are not available as they'd be vulnerable on rough trails.) Once inside, the cabin is Spartan but highly functional.
Seats and fabrics are comfortable. The front seat offers enough rearward travel to allow taller drivers to sit a comfortable distance from the steering wheel. The easily removable, fold-and-tumble rear seat is equipped with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and upper Tethers for CHildren) system for mounting child safety seats directly to the structure of the seat. It's a long reach to access gear stowed in the rear seats, so don't attempt it while driving.
A dark gray or khaki interior, four-spoke steering wheel and padded sport bar give the Wrangler its unmistakably utilitarian look, while a simple dash with a 12-volt power outlet adds functionality. On all models, the interior is weatherproofed, and can be cleaned with a hose, thanks to drain plugs in the floor. The interior light continues to be managed by a switch in the door frame, so a fuse must be pulled to extinguish the light when the Wrangler is operated sans doors.
The Wrangler remains miles away from luxurious. Recent improvements, however, make the interior more comfortable than it used to be. Softer trim pieces are used inside so it doesn't hurt quite as much when you bang your head. An electrochromic rearview mirror with map lights and compass display is available to help keep you on the intended route. The mirror automatically dims when headlights shine on it; this bit of luxury technology may sound out of place in a Wrangler, but it's an important feature when the top is off. Radio controls are located in the center stack. Corner pods located just behind both B-pillars house interior lamps, providing theater lighting.
The 10-inch longer wheelbase on the Unlimited translates directly into more interior room, especially in the back seats and cargo area. Rear-seat legroom is up by two inches over the standard models, and the space behind the rear seat grows lengthwise by 13 inches. The Unlimited's towing capacity is 3500 pounds compared with the shorter Wrangler's 2000 pounds.
Research firm J.D. Power and Associates gave the Wrangler high scores for the quality of its interior features (such as the seats, windshield wipers, door locks, heater, air conditioner, and stereo system) a few years back (the last time we checked), and those features have only gotten better since.
Few vehicles can match the Jeep Wrangler off road and certainly none in this price range. Driving a Wrangler every day on the road, however, requires concessions.
The tall tires and off-road suspension, which add capability in the backcountry, become a liability around town. This is particularly true of the Rubicon. The ride is harsh and choppy. On the plus side, however, is a torque-sensing limited-slip feature on the rear axle for better traction on the road.
The Unlimited offers a smoother ride, a benefit of its longer wheelbase. Directional stability is much improved, with less dartiness and more confident on-center feel in the steering.
We sampled both the smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission and the well-geared six-speed manual, and both match up well to the power of the inline six-cylinder engine.
Jeep's inline-6 produces ample power in all conditions. It's rated at 190 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. The inline-6 gives up 2 mpg to the manual-shift four-cylinder around town but for 2005 returns the same 20 mpg on the highway with either the six-speed manual or the four-speed automatic.
The Wrangler SE with the four-cylinder engine is an appealing vehicle. It does not offer much power and we wouldn't want to drive all the way across the U.S. in one, but we still like it. There's something poetic about its simplicity, right down to the skinny tires. The low-cut doors and soft top are cool. The low price is attractive, assuming you resist options. The SE's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is rated 147 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 165 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It works best with the new six-speed manual gearbox. Still, the SE does not offer thrilling acceleration. If you like the easy-to-clean vinyl upholstery, and don't feel the need for speed, then the SE is a good vehicle for fishing, hunting, exploring. Having one attached to the back of your motor home comes in handy when tooling around small towns in the American West. We drove one at Jeep's proving grounds in Michigan where it performed flawlessly.
The Rubicon model offers the ultimate in off-road capability. The Rubicon is designed to reflect the original go-anywhere vision realized in 1940. This specialty model was named for the Class 10 Rubicon Trail on the California-Nevada border, a location that has been part of Jeep's evaluation for all its vehicles. Jeep re-created sections of the famed Rubicon Trail at its proving grounds in Michigan to test the durability and capabilities of its newest offering.
We've found the Wrangler Rubicon to perform flawlessly in the rough and rugged. It boasts a cadre of 4WD technology that includes a transfer case designed with a 4.0:1 low range (the low ratio in the standard transfer case is 2.72:1), which delivers more torque at the snail-like speeds often required for off-road driving. Locking differentials, actuated when the driver presses a switch on the dash, prevent power from being directed away from the tires with the best grip. Dana Model 44 axles, considered by enthusiasts to be the cream of the crop, come standard on the Rubicon and are strong enough to handle all manner of off-road conditions.
Boasting Big Foot stature in a mini footprint, the Rubicon wears aggressive Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires that help it achieve 10 inches of ground clearance on a short 93.4-inch wheelbase (93.4 inches). That makes it a nimble vehicle in the backcountry. Added to that are laudable approach angles (42.2 degrees, 43.1 in the Unlimited), departure angles (31.5 degrees, 27.7 in the Unlimited), and ramp breakover angles (22.6 degrees, 21.4 in the Unlimited). This means you can drive up, down and over steep grades, tall boulders and fallen logs with ease.
Jeep Wrangler is a classic symbol of summer cruising and off-road rambling. Wrangler Rubicon is the ultimate off-road rig, as capable as some modified rock-crawlers but available right off the showroom. Purists might decry the adoption of the Trail's mantel by the stretched Unlimited, even though the long-wheelbase Jeep successfully navigated the Trail before top management signed off.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Chrysler's proving grounds in Michigan; with NCTD editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Southern California.
Jeep Wrangler SE ($17,970); X ($20,280); Sport ($23,140); Rubicon ($27,365); Unlimited ($23,895); and Unlimited Rubicon ($28,365).
Options As Tested
four-speed automatic ($825).
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon ($28,365).
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