First Drive: 2007 Jeep Wrangler Story and photos by Paul Williams Additional photos by Russell Purcell September 5, 2006 Rubicon Trail, Northern California - The vehicle that most people know simply as a "Jeep" receives comprehensive changes for 2007. The Jeep Wrangler - formerly called a CJ, YJ or most recently TJ in Canada - gets a new engine, frame, shape, suspension, interior, and new standard equipment for '07, but you'll still have no trouble identifying one on, or off, the road. True, Jeep has other models in its stable, like the Grand Cherokee, Liberty and Compass, but it's the Wrangler that defines the Jeep brand. In all areas, this new Wrangler maintains its character while improving the on- and off-road driving experience. And with a starting price of $19,995, it costs less than the outgoing model. Casual observers won't see much change in the exterior, but Jeep enthusiasts will notice that just about all of the lines and angles are revised or massaged. A Jeep Wrangler will never look like a sports car, however, and Jeep engineers freely admit that to improve its aerodynamics, you can't do too much to a Jeep given its square, upright, structure without unacceptably changing its character. But a wind tunnel was used to round out the edges, position the mirrors, and better manage the movement of air over and under the vehicle for 2007. The main reason was to produce a quieter cabin with less wind noise, explained Jim Issner, the Wrangler's Chief Engineer, although given that the coefficient of drag was lowered, there is an improvement in fuel economy as well. Contributing to that improvement is the new-to-Jeep 3.8-litre V6 engine (it's also found in the Chrysler brand's minivan line-up). This is the first longitudinal application of this engine, and in the Wrangler it makes a useful 202 horsepower and 237 foot-pounds of torque. Mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission, a four-speed automatic is also available. Fuel consumption is 14.8/11.2 litres per 100 kilometres, city/highway (automatic transmission). The foundation of the 2007 Wrangler is the all-new boxed frame, which Jeep engineers describe as 100% stiffer in bending and 50% stiffer in torsion than the previous model. The multiple cross members are also boxed, and sections of the front frame rails that bear the front suspension load are hydroformed for additional strength. The five-link coil suspension is tuned for a more comfortable ride, and features new steering geometry with a new recirculating ball steering configuration, and new shock absorbers and springs. Inside, too, are a suite of changes that include all new seats, new instrument panel and controls, new steering wheel (from PT Cruiser, it appears), new fabrics and materials. The new Wrangler features an approach angle of 44.3 degrees, breakover angle of 25.5 degrees, and 40.4-degree departure angle. You can buy your 2007 Jeep in several configurations (door, top options), but the biggest decision will be between a two-door Wrangler, and four-door Wrangler Unlimited. The two-door Wrangler is longer and wider (114 mm) for 2007, and compared with the TJ, its longer wheelbase provides additional (and welcome) rear seat legroom. It also permits the gas tank to be placed in front of the rear axle: a new safety feature. The four-door Wrangler Unlimited adds considerably more cabin room and transforms the rough-and-ready Wrangler into a vehicle that can be used more efficiently as a general people and cargo mover. Its added length is all between the front and rear wheels, making it quite spacious and comfortable for its occupants. It's also the only four-door convertible vehicle on the market. After you've made your choice between two or four door Wrangler, the next task is to select from three versions: X, Sahara or Rubicon. The $19,995 "X" is the base vehicle, with the new engine, manual transmission, Command-Trac transfer case, soft top, Electronic Stability Program, Electronic Roll Mitigation, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock, 16" steel wheels, vinyl interior, fold and tumble rear seat, full size spare tire, tilt steering and AM/FM CD radio with MP3/auxillary input. Optional is the four-speed automatic transmission, 4.10 axle ratio, remote door locks, air conditioning, and, for the first time in a Wrangler, power windows. Also available is a hardtop and a "Sunrider" soft top that can be partially opened to simulate a sunroof. The $26,445 Sahara adds air conditioning and cruise control, premium cloth upholstery, height adjustable driver's seat, integrated (into the bumper) fog lamps and tow hooks, power windows, door locks and remote entry, a six-disc CD changer with seven-speaker Infiniti audio system, a three-piece modular hard top, 17" cast aluminum wheels and body colour fender flares. The $28,150 Rubicon isn't so much a trim package, as it is a specialty version of the Wrangler. As Jim Issler explained, "You can't make a Rubicon out of an "X" or a Sahara, because some of the base structural components are different." The Rubicon is the Jeep lover's Jeep, designed for extreme (even by Jeep standards) off road pursuits. Standard are a heavy-duty front axle, 4.10 rear axle, lockable front and rear electronically controlled differentials, heavy-duty rock rails, heavy duty transfer case with 4:1 low range, electronic sway bar disconnect, roll-up windows, 17 x 7.5-inch cast aluminum wheels with BF Goodrich Mud Terrain off-road tires, and black fender flares. Power windows and air conditioning are optional. Starting at $24,505, the Wrangler Unlimited offers the same three versions: "X", Sahara ($28,190) and Rubicon ($29,895), and both two and four-door Wranglers offer optional front-seat mounted side air bags, half doors, 18" wheels and a dual top group. For its Wrangler launch, Jeep brought journalists to the famed Rubicon Trail in Northern California to test its, and their, mettle. Veteran Outdoorsman and Jeep enthusiast Mark Smith was present at the event to give his advice and support. Mr. Smith founded the Trail as a location in which to challenge and enjoy extreme off-road adventures in a Jeep nearly fifty years ago. From Reno, Nevada, a helicopter deposited us pretty much in the middle of the trail, and after a night camping under the stars, the convoy of Jeep Rubicons (both two and four-door) shifted into four-low, locked the differentials, and set about traversing boulders. The Rubicon Trail is a severe test for any off-road vehicle, and while we weren't at the level of winching up and over obstacles, there were enough rocks, trenches, fallen trees, ruts and steep inclines to keep us busy for about four hours and 15 kilometres. Those Jeeps with the manual transmission benefited from the new Wrangler's easy method of defeating the clutch start interlock (you simply pull a fuse) which permits the truck to start in gear, and creep along the severest of terrain without touching the gas. For off-road novices like myself, this feature, combined with the Wrangler Rubicon's special features and sturdy skid plates, makes pretty much any driver look good. The Unlimited version, with its much longer wheelbase, is perhaps less nimble over the tough stuff, but is equally competent. Surprisingly, all the heavy-duty gear hardly detracts from the on-road driving experience. The soft top has been re-engineered for a tighter fit, and along with the suspension modifications, this has to be the smoothest riding, quietest Jeep in its history (even with gnarly Rubicon BF Goodrich off-road tires). The Unlimited version with its four doors should considerably broaden the Wrangler's appeal. It's satisfying to be able to buy a product that does exactly what it purports to do. Jeep Wranglers may not be pretty, but they're not crazy expensive, open up a whole world of off-road adventures, can be practical and safe around town, and they're built like… Well, they're built like a Jeep.