I was waiting with great anticipation when the media fleet company delivered the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara to me on Thursday morning. I had a week-long trip planned to showcase the Wrangler’s abilities and to take some time to enjoy myself. The new Jeep didn’t disappointed.
The four-door Jeep SUV was a Sting-Gray clear coat finish, what we less artistic or sophisticated call Gun Metal Gray. The almost new Wrangler showed only 700 miles on the odometer when I slipped into the driver’s seat. The manually operated leather seats bore the Sahara logo and were matched with leather-wrapped shifter, steering wheel, park brake handle, and dash. The award-winning U-Connect 8.4-inch infotainment system highlighted the dashboard.
The corners of my mouth turned down a bit when I walked around the Wrangler and noticed that it did not have a towing package. No trailer hitch! The plan was to tow a small trailer and my new Harley to ride the mountain roads of Northwestern Arkansas. I quickly got over that realizing that now I would devote my full attention to the Jeep, un-diverted by the twisty roads in the hills. Little did I know then that the Jeep is almost as much fun to drive around corkscrew roads as a motorcycle.
Within an hour of delivery, I was loaded up and off on the trek to Kingston, Arkansas, some 620 miles distant. The goal was the Wilderness Rider Buffalo Ranch. The Ranch is aptly named being almost 3000 acres of mountaintop wilderness, adjacent to the Buffalo River and hosting its own herd of, you guessed it, Buffalo. The Ranch claims 50 miles of off-road trail, most of which are Jeep or side-by-side accessible.
A couple of miles of city driving gave me time to feel out the Wrangler for handling, braking, and maneuverability. Everything seemed great, so onto the open highway I went. Well, not so open crossing through Houston, but that gave me a chance to evaluate the SUV on its ability to zig-zag through road construction, lane-swap past congestion and race for the open spot on a lane merge. Yep, all good!
Once past the congestion, I was able to experience one of the new Wrangler’s strengths, the feel of control and confidence as the truck hugged the center of the lane, ignoring ripples, ruts and grooves, and even passing 18-wheelers. Anyone who has driven earlier model Jeeps knows you had to herd them down the highway, continually nudging the steering back to center, fighting every imperfection in the road surface, not so with the 2019 Wrangler Unlimited.
I also found the first weakness of the SUV. At high speed there was a lot of wind noise. I felt around the doors, top, windows, and windshield expecting to find a leak, and found none. I decided that the sound was due to the boxy, less than aerodynamic design of the Jeep. Jeeps don’t slice through the air like a sports car; they plow it aside like a bull-nosed truck. Within the first 100 miles, I no longer noticed the background sound.
The new for 2019, 4-cylinder, turbocharged motor did a V6 job moving the Wrangler down the road. I found better than expected acceleration from stops or when trying to pass slower traffic. There was still a lot of power left even at speeds of 75mph. I kept a watchful eye on the fuel economy gauge and saw it gradually inch up from the 22 mpg it had earned in its first 700 miles of life to over 24.3 after a couple of hundred miles of sustained freeway driving.
The little motor is a powerhouse. Technology such as direct fuel injection, variable timing and turbocharging have the mighty mouse motor pushing 275 horsepower and 295 pounds of torque. That’s more torque than the V6 makes. Part of the secret of the 2-liter engine is the eTorque system used to boost low-end performance. A belt-driven starter generator combination also works as an electric drive motor to help spin the crankshaft during low rpm operation when torque is needed. ETorque can add up to 71 foot/pounds of assistance to get the load moving.
The Unlimited can tow up to 3500 pounds, regardless of which engine you choose, V6 or 2-liter. The optional towing package, which our test Jeep lacked, includes a class II hitch, wiring for 7 and four pin connectors, four programmable auxiliary switches, and a heavy-duty battery and charging system. The Wrangler could tow a small camper, a motorcycle trailer, or a couple of Jet Skis to get you to the few places a Jeep can’t go.
The driving experience is far better than I expected. The longer wheelbase of the Unlimited adds just enough space between wheels to spread out road bumps and allow the improved suspension to isolate jars and jitters from the cabin. Seating comfort is superior. All controls are clearly marked, easy to reach, and big enough to operate. While the U-Connect is touch dependent for most functions, it has large enough icons that misplaced touches are rare. Drive fatigue is minimal, even after my 10-hour journey to the Ranch.
The 8-speed transmission moved the engine power to the wheels in smooth shifts and downshifts that never seemed to be on the hunt for the right gearing. At highway speed a push of the throttle to the floor kicked the transmission down a couple of gears, and the powerful little engine pushed the Jeep forward with more than respectable zip.
I turned off Interstate 40 onto Arkansas 21, and the twisting roads began. Where I was going was about 30 miles as the crow flies, but it took more than 50 miles of asphalt to wind, climb and twist the route there. With the full-length power retractable roof open and all the windows down to enjoy the crisp mountain air, I began negotiating turn after turn. A series of 120 degree climbing blind turns would be followed closely by descending switchbacks. The LED headlamps lighted the way as the sun set beyond the mountains.
I wasn’t sure how the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited would handle on the treacherous roadway, so I took it easy until I got a feel for its abilities. I soon found that the off-road suspension liked curves! The Unlimited scooted around bends in the pavement with minimal body roll, tracking a true line through the corner and pulling out with good power to climb into the next one. Many of these curves are posted with a 10 or 15 mph speed limit. Good sense kept me from finding out just how adept the Jeep would be, but crawling around them wasn’t necessary.
The Unlimited did an equally excellent job on the downhill. The Jeep transmission and brakes handled the downhill cornering well, even in place posted as steep and twisty for the next several miles. Eleven percent grades are common in those hills.
I used Apple Car Play connected through the U-Connect system for navigation for most of the trip, but began to lose my cellular connection in the mountains. The 4C U-Connect never let me down, and I switched to the impressively clear and complete mapping that came with the car.
Ten hours after leaving home I arrived at the Ranch. I was not fatigued by the long drive. My backside didn’t ache, and my back didn’t hurt. I wouldn’t have felt better if I had made the drive in a new luxury SUV.
The off-road adventure revealed the Wrangler to be more like a cat than a bull. It maneuvered over rough terrain with nimble surefootedness. The two-speed transfer case shifts with a lever in the floor just like in the old days. Somehow it seems more real when I reach down and pull the lever back for 4-wheel low. Wrangler offers a 4-wheel auto setting, and most of the off-road driving I did was in that range. I was a bit concerned about the factory all-terrain tires on the Sahara trim, but they proved up to all trials I attempted.
I began with serious doubts about the 4-cylinder motor in the Wrangler. By now, I knew it could handle the highway but wondered about how it would behave in the back-country. The turbocharged engine makes 290 pounds of torque that peaks at 3000 rpm, but the etorque motor kicks in as soon as you hit the throttle. That instantaneous torque, combined with the rapidly climbing curve of engine power makes it possible to ease up the trail without tire spinning throttle operations.
The Ranch has many steep climbs strewn with loose rock, washed out channels and deeply planted boulders of all sizes. Jeep’s Command-Trac part-time 4-wheel drive and the 3:45 ratio Dana differentials made easy work of them all. The electronic Hill Decent control eased the Jeep down the steepest grades with the driver only needing to steer. The articulation of the suspension was impressive. Even with one wheel off the ground, the Jeep plowed on sending power to the wheels with good contact. Not once did I lose momentum due to tire spin.
Crossing the streams and creeks that feed more than 24 waterfalls on the Ranch was child’s play. Most were sold rock channels, but covered with wet moss that a person would find difficult to walk on. The Jeep had no such problem. I drove down one of these streams to park at the head of a waterfall.
FCA was nice enough to send me a brand new, fully loaded Sahara, and I felt the need to be a responsible journalist and not do anything to put the Jeep in danger or to inflict damage. I avoided some of the more gnarly narrow runs where I could end up with Arkansas pinstripes. However, those I did conquer proved the ability of the Wrangler Unlimited to live up to its long-held reputation.
I spent five days in the Ozarks driving trails, crossing grazing land to pose with the Buffalo herd, through the woods to visit the RV campers on site and up and down the mountain roads to shop in town. In every situation, the Jeep Wrangler unlimited was at home.
Back home I had another five days of in town driving, and the fuel economy slipped back to 21.5 by the end of my experience with the vehicle.
The fully loaded Sahara I had for the trip was not as plush as many high-end SUV’s, but it was more than comfortable enough and aesthetically pleasing, in a rugged, outdoorsy way. Entry requires a pretty good step up, but once inside the cabin is roomy, and five could ride without a problem. Storage space is good with a 2 section console, door pockets, 6 cup holders, and several non-slip surfaces to place things. There is also a hidden storage bin in the rear compartment.
Jeep makes all of the latest electronic driver aids available for the Wrangler. Our test car had blind spot monitors, cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, and both front and rear park sensors. The Alpine stereo sound system managed to keep the tunes alive even with all the doors off and the top open. Jeep also includes a tools kit to with everything you need to remove the doors.
The 4C U-Connect system in our Jeep is just one of three that are available. Every Jeep comes with at least the 5-inch screen. U-Connect is the award-winning infotainment system that is arguably the best currently available.
The Sahara Unlimited base price is $38,395, and as equipped, our test car was $54,540, including destination charges. You can get into a Wrangler Sport for as little as $27,945. Every Wrangler is a fully capable off-road machine, but if you want to go for the best adventures, you might consider the Rubicon edition.
In an era when SUV’s are becoming mobile living rooms, the Wrangler Unlimited puts the sport back in Sports Utility Vehicles.
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited – PART 1