The 2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited was probably a mismatch for my lifestyle. Like most drivers, I rarely or never venture offroad. My duties are common: commuting to work, buying groceries, visiting relatives 60 miles away. For those chores, the Wrangler is a poor choice. It's better than its predecessors, but a long way from what most folks expect in transportation. Prices: US $24,385 base; as tested, $25,815. Warranty: 7 years/70,000 miles powertrain; 3 years/36,000 basic.
There is just no mistaking a Jeep Wrangler. Today's design still mimics the famous World War II vehicle that GIs traveled in as they fought the enemy in Europe. Back then, it was a Willys. Today, it's a product from a German-owned company called DaimlerChrysler, which has said Jeep is extremely important if the company is to rebound from its long slumber. Our tested Wrangler Unlimited was canary yellow with a black ragtop and plastic windows for all but the front two doors, which now have crank-up glass windows. The headlights are once again round and the grille features those famous Jeep slots. The Jeep Wrangler sits high off the ground with a variety of skid plates protecting parts on its underside. A full-size spare tire is on a rear door, where it partially blocks the view to the rear and invites maximum damage to the vehicle should it back into something. But worst of all, the reason I would never buy or own a Jeep, is the location of the composite gas tank rearward of the rear axle, only inches from the rear bumper. This location invites rupture in rear-end accidents, and lessons learned from the infamous Ford Pinto and GM "saddlebag" gas tanks haven't yet been translated into a safe location for the gas tank in a Jeep.
In the Driver's Seat
I once owned a Jeepster bought used. It had vinyl seats, plastic windows, and a ragtop. It would be 55 years old today, and it was better than the 2004 Jeep Wrangler. Open the door to today's Jeep Wrangler and note the poor exterior door handles. Entry is difficult, despite an optional running board. A person must step high and then over a tall body piece before moving feet onto the floorboard. You'll drag pants or dress across the dirty running board on exit. Cloth seats mean the Jeep can't be left with the top down if rain is a possibility. The floors are now carpeted, instead of the rubber mats with a drain plug that let you wash out the car and drain the water. The glove box is lockable, as befits a ragtop car, but the ignition key would not lock the tester's box. The outside mirrors must be adjusted manually - very difficult for the right one, which could not hold its position at even around-town speeds. The left one vibrated. The sun visors do not cover even half of the side window area, so you'll be blinded driving north in late afternoon. The rear seat flips forward to open cargo area. Front seats fold and slide, but don't return to a preset position. The seat belts are just plain awkward. Side air bags are not available.
On the Road
In the boonies, this vehicle offers almost everything an adventurer could want to get to and back from some secret location. But the most offroad adventure many folks undertake is a dirt road to a vacation cabin. For many, it's running through a flower bed. We mostly drive on paved roads, and around town, the Jeep Wrangler is awful. Its ride is harsh, although improved from some earlier models; its steering is jerky; accelerator touchy; entry and exit worse than a sports car. Its ragtop removal is complicated. The owner's manual devotes about 15 pages to explaining how to lower the top. Frankly, I gave up. It had to stay up or down, and since rain was a possibility, it stayed up. In that position, it flapped its protest at highway speeds. Noise intrusion was extreme - from wind, from offroad tires, from lack of sound deadening insulation. Tractor-trailers sounded as if they drove through the Jeep. Fuel mileage from the 4-liter, inline six-cylinder is a weak 16 city and 19 highway. The quick steering and inability to hold center made control of the Jeep difficult at all times; crosswinds made it a nightmare. And numerous stickers in the Jeep warned me this has a "high rollover hazard". On the road experience? As bad as it gets.
As test week wore on, I got somewhat accustomed to climbing into and falling out of the Jeep. I learned that even resting a toe on the accelerator leaped the Jeep into motion. I watched creases form in the plastic window pieces, knowing they would be cracks in a year or two. I never adjusted to the huge turning radius, more like that found on a full-size truck. I didn't like the absence of anti-lock brakes, or the fact that in a side impact crash, any rear seat passenger would be "clubbed" by the soft-top side bars. The lower tailgate swings curbside, the wrong direction for Americans who park on the right side. I put up with a tornado of wind inside the Jeep when I had my driver's side window down. I apologized to people who had to ride with me. And I always watched my rearside through the two out of three mirrors I could keep in place. I didn't want anyone running into the back end of this Jeep. Not with a gasoline-filled bomb inches from my rear bumper. I do recognize the cult following this Jeep has. They live for offroad adventures they say only a Jeep can provide. Go for it. More power to you. But I won't join the chorus of hurrahs until offroad prowess doesn't have the downside of onroad danger and discomforts.