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Four-door Wrangler tested

2009-02-09 06:42
Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Jeep
Model Wrangler Unlimited
Engine 2.8l, in-line four turbodiesel
Power 130kW @ 3 800r/min
Torque 410Nm @ 1 800r/min
Transmission Five-speed auto
Zero To Hundred 11.7 sec
Top Speed 180km/h
Fuel Tank 79.5l
Fuel Consumption 11.5l/100km
Weight 1 969kg
Steering Power assisted
ABS Yes, with ESP
Airbags Dual front
Tyres 255/75R17 Goodyear Wrangler SRA
Front Suspension Five-link live axle with coil springs
Rear Suspension Five-link live axle with coil springs
Service Intervals 20 000km
Price R364 900
Rivals Defender 110, Land-Cruiser 70

Lance Branquinho

The serious 4x4 market is not a place where customers suffer fools gladly. Metallic paint options, iPod connectivity and noise, vibration and harshness level ratings are usurped by approach angles and ground clearance as the primary considerations when purchasing.

South Africans have traditionally only had three utility off-road wagons to choose from. Land-Rover’s Defender and the two oriental overlanders – Toyota’s Land-Cruiser 70 and Nissan’s Patrol in GL trim.

With Jeep’s decision to add four-door models to its Wrangler range two years ago – distinguished by the Unlimited moniker – one of the 4x4 world’s most recognisable brands now offers enough space for real family off-roading.

Featuring a removable three-piece hardtop, appraising the Unlimited’s aesthetics is an exercise in duality. With the top down (a 30min exercise not to be taken lightly, or engaged in with someone you enjoy fragile personal relations with) it looks great, those exposed roll-bars adding an authentic Indiana Jones vibe.

Conversely, with the top in place and those huge, protruding plastic bumpers and exposed door-hinges in focus, it comes across as a cross between a Hummer H1 and a Land-Cruiser FJ-40 series.

Utterly Utilitarian

The entire Wrangler range, despite its fashionable urban popularity in short-wheel base form, majors on old-school, terrain conquering design.

With the Unlimited configuration it retains an off-road biased, live-axle suspension set-up front and rear. Employing coils instead of leaf-springs and considering the additional wheelbase (enabling a proper rear bench seat and some luggage space) ride quality is appreciably better than the two-door Wrangler.

Our Sahara spec test unit – the mid-range option – was well equipped for its raison d'être - off-roading - sporting heavy duty Dana 30 front Dana 44 rear axles. You do without differential locks on the axles, but Jeep’s Command-Trac transfer case sports a 2,72:1 low-range gear ratio, and the off-road traction control system is as good as having limited-slip differentials on both axles.

Jeep says Wrangler’s recirculating-ball steering features a cross-car steering linkage system, providing the stiffest possible steering linkage in a solid-axle vehicle. We say it sounds fascinating and technically laudable, until you actually come to drive a Wrangler on tar and find yourself perpetually correcting its wandering nature with steering inputs.

Despite those plastic body mouldings (more ding resident off-road and easier to replace afterwards) and the oddly proportioned styling, Wrangler Unlimited is a pretty honest vehicle. Configured to take four people and some luggage (it only carries 454kg) across forbidding terrain, it does so with admirable capability.

The punishing ergonomics are not quite in the Defender league, but close. Thanks to Jeep’s legendarily lop-sided left-to-right-hand drive conversions, there’s hardly any space in the footwell and no footrest to speak off - and ours was an auto, on tri-pedal versions it’s even worse. The flat-slab interior architecture is horrid in terms of texture and design. In mitigation the driver’s seat is height adjustable…

It's tiresome to drive on tar, thanks to those live-axles and oversized Goodyear 255/75 17s bouncing occupants along. The Wrangler Unlimited is a veritable nightmare to manoeuvre in dense urban areas too, thanks to a plethora of blind spots and poor all-round visibility due to the removable hard-top roll-bar supports.

Does what it says on the box

Off-road it has a roguish charm, especially in two-pedal, turbodiesel configuration.

Those solid axles keep you from bottoming out and the unrefined turbodiesel engine – combined with a frightfully obnoxious five-speed automatic tranmission - comes peculiarly into its own when traversing undulating terrain in low-range.

Khaki-wearing 4x4 acolytes will lament the lack of locking front or rear axle differentials, in my experience though, Wrangler Unlimited is pretty much the business off-road. With 410Nm available at only 1 800r/min it idles over most obstacles with only a feathering of the throttle in low-range.

Traction control is off-road biased when low-range is engaged, applying ABS hydraulics to counter spinning wheels whilst simultaneously apportioning torque to the opposite drive wheel, thereby enabling the Wrangler Unlimited to keep on going. Like the limited-slip differential action it mimics, momentum is required to get the system to engage properly.

Fortunately the Wrangler, suspended by solid axles, has the requisite toughness to absorb the severity of a more momentum based approach to obstacles, something soft-roaders with similarly geared traction control system don’t.

Flotation is excellent – in sand or mud – and the serendipitously named Goodyear Wrangler tyres can take much credit for the Unlimited’s, well, essentially unlimited off-road ability.

Unfortunately, although the tyres provide sterling off-road service, their size – 17 inches – seriously constrain outbound ability beyond our borders, where a secondary puncture will have you in quite a sport of bother sourcing 17-inch rubber…

Descents can be a little too speedy in really extreme situations. The lack of hill-descent control and the automatic transmission’s unhappy marriage with the turbodiesel engine, renders insufficient compression braking. You end up feathering that ABS boosted left-pedal more often than not.

It’s quicker on the highway and more refined than a Defender, not quite as bulletproof as a Cruiser 70. Safer than both too, with a complement of front dual airbags. Gauge your requirements accordingly.

Off-road ability is prodigious, even without diff-locks, thanks to the 37-degree approach angle. Aptly named Goodyear Wrangler SRAs provide superb traction, until you go north of the Orange river or Sodwana Bay…


Looks like the lovechild of a Hummer H1 and Land-Cruiser FJ-40 series. Pedestrian impact friendly protruding front bumper looks terrible at first, but grows on you as an awesome three-abreast viewing seat for the beach or dam. Looks best in darker colours.


Suicide inducing ergonomics are straight from Dante’s seventh circle of hell. Space utilisation would be punishable by firing squad if it was designed in Japan. Roll-over bars and fold-down soft-top practically ruin luggage space and general loadability. Inexplicably no satellite steering wheel controls – and how un-American is that?


On road it’s better than a Defender, with worse visibility than as a Cruiser and is much quicker than either with a sub-12 sec 0-100km/h time. The gearbox is maddeningly lethargic in its kick-down execution, which is something to ponder when considering any overtaking manoeuvres. Off-road? Uncomfortably close to Defender/Cruiser 70 ability with a convincing blend of old-school solid axles and new school traction control…


Wrangler, Jeep’s ultimate off-roader, has always been a strictly two-door, weekend toy. Unlimited, featuring two additional doors and more space, makes a week in the bush or family trip to Inhambane (pack an extra spare tyre though) genuinely doable.

Loadability could be better though, it’s only rated at 454kg  - Defender takes a full ton; Cruiser 70, 820kg.

Those who enjoy the four-door convertible idea, particularly a wind in the hair Vleesbaai dune drive when you’re holidaying on the Garden Route, won't complain about impractical tyre dimensions or a lack of carrying capacity.

At R364 900, you'll struggle to buy more off-road capability and image for less.


Quickest of the live-axle 4x4 diesel wagons
Genuinely capable off-road
Gay-pride parade removable hard-top


Agonising ergonomics
Obstinate auto box
Atrocious packaging

Those plastic bonnet latches and oversized bumpers look tacky at first, yet they’re durable. Huge front bumper makes excellent three-abreast viewing seat. Recovery spec Boerboel optional.

Electric assistance is a mixed bag. Side view mirrors are manually adjustable, yet the R14 900 optional MyGig entertainment system reads DVDs and downloads your digital camera images…

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