2008 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara Review
By Igor Holas with Melissa J. Sanchez
While creating a four-door version of a Jeep Wrangler might seem as heretical as transforming a Bronco into an Expedition or a Bronco II into an Explorer, Jeep did something unprecedented – they made the Wrangler family-friendly without sacrificing its soul and its DNA. So, while Explorer and Expedition immediately became no better than grocery-getting minivans, the Wrangler remains a Wrangler with all that comes with it.
Melissa and I had the pleasure to drive one of these for a week and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, if you think we will recommend it using our usual “would we buy it as a daily driver” test, you are way off mark – after all, Jeep did not create a daily-driving Explorer; they simply lengthened the Wrangler keeping all the good and bad that comes with it. So while we thoroughly loved what the truck did, we became painfully aware just how unfit it is for a duty as grocery-getting commuter vehicle.
If you think of Wrangler, you probably think of a small rugged 4×4 SUV. While the Wrangler Unlimited stays true to the “rugged” part, in standard form, it is powered by only its rear wheels and is nowhere near small. With overall length of 186 inches, the Wrangler Unlimited is about the size of Ford Explorer, but with wheels pushed all the way into the corners, the big Jeep sports almost an Expedition-class wheelbase of 116 inches. This unusually long wheelbase made the Wrangler Unlimited feel bigger than it was, but somehow also made it easier to parallel park; go figure.
Despite this growth spurt, the Wrangler is still undeniably a Wrangler with all the classic design cues, such as round head lamps, bulging fenders, and the all-important Lego-like body with removable top and doors and foldable windshield. On the inside, everything stays true to the Wrangler motto – basic shallow dash, very simple door panels, roll cage, and fully manual seats. However, unlike the short Wrangler, the Unlimited offers true rear doors, a full-size back seat, and a nicely sized cargo area. Moreover, while the last generation of Wrangler barely offered air conditioning, the new generation adds power windows, Navigation system with MyGIG hard drive and Bluetooth, and traffic information.
Wranglers are not cheap (any more), especially not the Unlimited ones. Ours was in the mid-range Sahara trim with 4×4, basically all options and a soft top. The base price for the Unlimited Sahara 4×4 is $27,490, but our tester added extra-cost Red Pearl Paint ($225), trailer tow group ($220), Front-seat side-airbags ($490), four-speed automatic transmission ($825), limited slip differential ($295), MyGIG multimedia system ($1,275), black soft top (no charge), and remote start system ($185). Overall, the price of the tested vehicle, including destination was $31,665 – or $70 more than the Liberty Limited we tested recently.
There are very few competitors to the Wrangler Unlimited on the market. The closest one is the Toyota FJ Cruiser which is priced just above the Wrangler. However, the FJ Cruiser has been experiencing quality problems such as frame cracking under off road use; this is obviously an important consideration for those looking for an off-road capable ride. Another reasonably close competitor is the Nissan XTerra, which is in its second generation and has found a following among some off road enthusiasts, while offering better on-road manners with still-excellent off road capabilties.
Other, more pedestrian choices, such as the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, or Toyota 4Runner are significantly cheaper (except for the 4Runner), but are very differently-focused vehicles and such comparisons would not be fair to the off-road capable Wrangler and FJ Cruiser. As usual, all price comparisons were feature-adjusted per True Delta’s tools.
As mentioned above, the exterior of the Wrangler Unlimited stays true to the Wranglers and CJ’s of the past – the whole theme is just elongated with the addition of rear doors and functional cargo space. For those familiar with the Wranglers of the past, there are no surprises here, but for those new to the SUV, there are a few surprises to be encountered. First, the Wrangler has an extremely high floor with comparably low headroom. Upon first encounter, we instinctively used the step-bars, but my 5’11” frame then had trouble fitting into the door without an unpleasant head-metal encounter. Consequently, we both simply dealt with high step-in and ignored the step-bars – it made fitting in much easier.
The doors also lack the usual hinges that keep them open – instead the Wrangler’s hinges are the simple kind found on your house doors, with only a fabric strap limiting their motion. Of course this makes it easier to remove the doors, but if you plan on doing no such thing, the refuse-to-stray-open doors are annoying. Even more annoying is the access to the cargo space. The low swing open gate also refuses to stay open, and thanks to the spare mounted on it, is quite heavy when it slams into your behind.
Finally, our tester was equipped with the soft-top. The hard top is also available and makes this car more daily-use friendly with flip-up rear glass, and better noise and temperature insulation, but the soft-top proved to be yet another piece of Wrangler-DNA that hindered daily use. Most notably, the rear window is a zipped-on piece of see-through plastic. As a result, you will find yourself leaving it zipped on and sliding in through the narrow opening created by the aforementioned gate – removing the rear “glass” is just too much hassle. Needless to say, this access to the cargo space is annoying and hinders utility.
We already touched on some issues with entering the vehicle, so let’s settle in and explore what Jeep has served up. The dash is reminiscent of Wrangler dashes of yore with tall, shallow and simple design. The center stack is organized in stepped tiers that retreat towards the firewall as they descend – as a result, the bottom controls are quite far to reach.
The stack is neatly organized with navigation prominently placed atop, with vents and window controls below, HVAC controls further down, and two power outlets and a hazard flasher button all the way down. However, the construction of the stack was unusually flimsy. On a car that is Wrangler, we did not expect any semblance of soft touch plastics, or some car-like flash – after all this interior is quite likely to actually get dirty – however upon slight pressure the center stack travels in and out by as much as a third of an inch. Interestingly, the air vents can be completely removed, leaving only a gaping hole in the dash.
Besides the flimsy center stack, and the buried hazard-flasher button, the dash was well-functional and we were quite comfortable driving and riding in the car. The seats are only three-way adjustable (back-forth, and seat-back recline), but are incredibly comfortable. Both Melissa and I were surprised just how much we liked the seats. In another odd move, the headrests are not covered in fabric (as the seats are), but are simply blocks of soft-touch plastic – like the removable windshield, manual side-view mirrors, and soft-top, we just assumed this is part of the Wrangler experience.
One thing the front cabin is missing is storage. The door pockets are only good for holding maps, and the tiny glove box is taken up by the manual, leaving only the center arm rest for storage. The armrest is large enough, but it is not big enough to be the only compartment available. There is a big blank panel at the very bottom of the center stack just begging to be a storage cubby. Luckily (and smartly) both the glove box and the center arm rest both lock.
The back seats offered only minimal “luxuries”, but the seats are comfortable and spacious – “sitting behind myself” I had no lack of space. One odd part of riding in a Wrangler is the “car inside a car” feel – you see the padding covered roll cage, and then you see the soft-top roof over it – it is unlike any other car on the market – and it makes the car feel special. One advantage of this design is the plethora of options for “grab handles” – you can grab any part of the roll cage to help you get in the car, or to just rest your arm – I appreciated it.
The cargo space is quite large, but as I mentioned before, it is difficult to access with the soft-top. Once the rear “window” is unzipped, the space is nice and flat and comfortably held what we needed for a one day trip to a beach: tote bag of clothes, two beach chairs, towels and a backpack – not much I guess. The rear seats fold in one motion, and automatically let their headrests “tuck back” as they hit the backs of the front seats. This neat feature eliminated the frustrating guessing game of “will they fit” when deciding whether or not to remove the rear-seat headrests.
Trip to the Beach
As I mentioned in passing already, we scheduled a trip to the beach with the Wrangler. We figured, we need to at least approximate the lifestyle for which the car was built – we felt a commuter/grocery getting duty would be simply – insulting – to the mighty Wrangler. We packed up everyone, the aforementioned gear and set off for a 60 mile trip to Cape May, NJ. As usually we did not do an iota of off-roading, but the parking lot was gravel, and was five steps from the beach – so that counts, right?
The drive consisted of mostly highway travel, along with some rural roads. The Wrangler proved to be a reasonably comfortable cruiser. The very long wheelbase and very tightly sprung axles made for very sure-footed drive at speeds, but many repetitive distortions such as rumble strips jarred the whole car into an uncomfortable shake. The soft top did let in quite a bit of wind noise, and while we did get used to it after a while, once we stopped we felt like we were getting out of a plane; our brains tired from trying to make out voices and music from all the white noise. One more note on driving the Wrangler – thanks to its nearly vertical styling, it loves to catch bugs and rocks – after only about a hundred miles of driving, the windshield was covered with insects, and the very first encounter with flying road debris resulted in a rock chip in the windshield.
Once we were finished with the beach, we did something we were very much looking forward to – we opened up the top. The original plan was to take the whole thing down, but upon review of the five pages of instructions in the manual, we gave up before we even began. Instead, we simply removed the sides – the rear quarter windows, and the rear window. Adding to it the rolled-down power windows, we quickly found out what owning a Wrangler is about. I can open the windows (and the sunroof) on my Mazda, or any car, all I want, but I would never get the feeling of open driving. Even with the roof still over our heads, the Wrangler felt open, airy, and made the trip memorable. Sure, it took us ten minutes to put it all back together again, but it was worth it – I can only imagine just how great it would have been completely open.
This trip also allowed us to use the navigation and multimedia system more extensively. And while we did not ‘rip” any music into the built-in hard drive, we continued to enjoy the extremely easy-to-navigate audio controls, and gave the navigation a spin. The navigation guidance was pretty good, but when we were trying to avoid the most popular route of toll highways by selecting the “Avoid Tolls” option, we were told “Could not find route without tolls.” So despite the fact that the route now shown was pretty much what we wanted, that warning made us uncomfortable relying on the guidance, and we brought our standalone TomTom along as well (just in case). In the end we were able to easily find our way, and the system quickly recalculated the route when we missed a turn and later again when we had to follow a detour due to an accident.
The system now also includes traffic information from Sirius, and while we did not encounter any traffic (and the accident was too fresh to be reported), the system seemed to work nicely – just like internet-based traffic maps, it showed the major highways with color-coded traffic flow, as well as incidents – nice.
Daily Life with the Wrangler
During Melissa’s commuting time, the Wrangler proved to be happy to tackle uneven surfaces, but was otherwise uninspiring. We never felt out of control, although the Wrangler is quite a bit stubborn in its will to crawl when in drive, or accelerate down a slope – at times we felt the car wanted to do it its way, not ours (whatever the difference), and it did require a little bit more attention to driving.
There is not much Jeep could do with a body-on-frame SUV with two solid axles in the handling and “refinement” department – and we did not expect anything in those areas. Driving the Wrangler was not a torture, but it was obvious the car was not in its element. Unlike the Liberty, however, the 3.8 liter pushrod V6 was happy to go and provided plenty of pep, despite producing only 202 horses, 237 foot-pound of torque, and being paired with a four-speed automatic. The engine was happy to take off from standstill or any speed, and delivered power whenever we needed it. The gearing did have an odd weak spot at about 50 – 55 miles per hour, but once past the speed, it lumbered happily forward.
On highway we were able to sustain 21 miles per gallon, but in the city fuel economy dropped to eight or nine miles per gallon.
After driving the Wrangler for a week I realized the true merit of this car. It is a purpose-built off road-tackling second-car-in-the-family fun-mobile. It is the car that sits in your garage for weeks at a time seemingly useless. But then you load it up with family and gear, remove the top, and head for the mountains or beach. It is in that moment that the Wrangler will deliver joy and fun to the trip like no other car can, it will immediately put you in the vacation mood, and hopefully get your kids to shut up and enjoy the trip. It is in that moment it will become worth every penny you paid for it.
If you can use this getaway car in your driveway, the Wrangler is just the car for you and you will love very minute of driving it. However, if you plan on driving the Wrangler to work, to buy groceries, and drop the kids off to school not only will you hate the Wrangler, the Wrangler will hate you for being so ignorant and greedy that you bought a car that sees roads as a necessary evil and relegating it to a full-time on-road torture.
The Wrangler Unlimited, despite adding the family-friendly rear doors and larger dimensions is still a full-blown Wrangler with all the good and bad that comes with it. The off-road tuned suspension is easily jarred, the car is overweight (for what you need on-road), there is no independent suspension, the step-in is ridiculously high, and the doors shut close at any opportunity they get. The car gets lousy mileage and lets in incredible amount of noise. Do I really need to go on?
This is not a commuter car. And while similar case could be made of many cars – SUV’s and crossovers among them – the Wrangler (Unlimited included) is by far the most extreme case of a car unfit for day-to-day commuter lifestyle. Sure it will get you there, and you might look cool (depends where you hang out), but why would you do it? Why would you do it to yourself and to the car – you both deserve better.
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