A couple years back I drove the newly redesigned Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and was wowed by how much better it rode, and drove, than previous Wranglers.
For those who don’t worship Jeeps as God’s gift to off-roaders, the Wrangler (2-door) and Wrangler Unlimited (4-door) are Jeep lovers’ favorite Jeep. They look decidedly Jeepy, like updated World War II workhorses, but with today’s interior finery and much better fit and finish outside. Plus they aren’t all olive drab. My test unit was Firecracker Red, a bright red that looked great.
This one was the Sahara trim, just two levels from the top Sahara Altitude. So you know this one is loaded with goodies and options galore. That leads to one of its downfalls (price), but more on that in a bit.
First, most of what I said two years ago still goes, but I was surprised by what I perceived this time as a less comfortable ride and mediocre handling. I’ll explain.
Jeep (now owned by Fiat-Chrysler) added a new 5-link suspension system and stretched the Unlimited’s wheelbase two inches to 118.4 inches during its redesign. That, I said last time, created a much more civilized ride for the majority of miles we all put on driving on city streets and highways. At the same time improved body mounts were added and the shocks retuned.
There has always been bounce to a Wrangler’s ride, and last time it seemed a big improvement. Now, and maybe it’s because of all the luxury utes I’ve driven the past few months, it seemed more bounce was back. Ride is never punishing and it’s still an improvement from past Wrangler rides, but severe bumps seemed to create more rock and roll this time.
Likewise, the steering, which was improved during that earlier test drive, seems to have become more loose. Part of that is by design as Jeep engineers know a portion of its owners will go off-roading and rock climbing with their Jeeps. A looser wheel is less likely to snap back on you and screw up your wrists when bounding over boulders.
But this time I found myself constantly correcting the steering to stay in my lane on the highway. That’s where lane wander was most prevalent. Certainly the wheel effort seems modest and easy, but after about 20 miles on the freeway I found myself tiring of seesawing the thick leather steering wheel to stay in my lane.
The big news here though is the addition of a 3.0-liter V6 turbo-diesel. Jeep’s 3.6-liter 285-horse gas-powered V6 that is in most models feels strong and gives the Unlimited zip. The diesel feels heavy and slower, but still strong and capable for off-roading, plus it gets better fuel mileage.
Diesels are slower to accelerate and grumble a lot more than the gas-powered V6, so it’s noisier in the cab. Power is good as it’s rated at 260 horsepower and a monster 442 lb.-ft. of torque. So you know there’s a load of pulling power here, although I could find no tow rating yet for the 2020 model. The diesel adds $4,000 to the cost too, but you also get all-terrain tires (may add to the road noise and harsher ride), an 18.3-gallon fuel tank and anti-spin differential rear axle.
Mileage was stellar at 25.3 mpg and the diesel-powered Jeep is rated at 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. My driving was about half and half city and highway, so my numbers seem to reflect those EPA figures. In a gas-powered Unlimited I’d managed just 21.6 mpg in summer driving. Remember though, diesel fuel costs more than gas by about 50 cents a gallon, and diesel fuel pumps are nearly always sloppy with oily nozzles that necessitate you washing your hands after pumping fuel and before touching your steering wheel.
While I know I’m being tougher on this Unlimited’s ride and handling, I don’t want to lose sight of the Wrangler being a stout off-roader, probably the best I’ve driven. Two years ago I drove the Wrangler Unlimited on an off-road course at Road America. What a blast! We crept down steep hills littered with loose rock, we climbed over major boulders, and ran along a ridge at such an angle as to nearly roll other SUVs. I’m a believer. If you intend to go off road, a Jeep will handle it, no problem.
Note too that you can electronically disconnect the anti-roll bars for more wheel travel if you’re romping over big rocks, plus the Wrangler has four skid plates underneath for protection. And while no luxury ute while driving on the freeway, Wrangler Unlimited will do all that off-roading and not crack your ribs or splinter your coccyx.
Jeep’s upgraded 8-speed tranny ($2,000 option here) includes Hill Descent too, which can be engaged for easing down a steep hill. This is especially good on gravel to help the Jeep avoid getting loose, turning sideways and becoming tippy. It’s a super feature for off-roaders and Jeep’s Selec-Trac full-time AWD system works well too. Plus you can manually engage the system via a second shift knob on the console, allowing the driver to adjust for various road conditions.
Inside, Jeep’s flat dash is easy to figure out and the big 8.4-inch screen is simple to see and use. It’s especially helpful when backing up as the backup camera is crystal clear and there’s cross-traffic alert too. Blind-spot warning also lights up in the side mirrors when someone’s vehicle is in your blind spot. An $895 safety group includes the blind-spot, parking sensor s and cross-traffic systems.
An advanced safety group adds adaptive cruise control, advanced brake assist, and forward collision warning for $795.
The test Jeep featured black leather seats with gray stitching and a big grab handle for the passenger to use when engaged in off-roading. Satin chrome trims the door releases and there’s a flat black dash face, good for when the top is off and the sun would reflect off a chrome or gloss dash’s face. The leather trimmed seats with Sahara logos are part of a $1,495 option package and feature relatively flat bottom cushions. All seats are manually adjusted.
Overall I found the Jeep interior a bit cramped, although four adults will fit comfortably. Rear door exits are tight for adults and the tailgate is that, not a hatch, so opens out like a door with a big tire hanging on the back. Pluses? There are plenty of plug-in spots for electronics.
The Unlimited includes two separate shift levers, one for the transmission, the other for engaging 4-wheel drive in varying configurations. Ground clearance is 10 inches, with running boards that aid in the step up and into Wrangler’s cockpit. Those are so high though that they are less useful when exiting as they provide barely any step down. I stretched over the running board most times when descending from the Jeep.
The test Jeep came with both hard and soft tops, so you could swap them out in summer and winter. That’s cool, but my drive was in winter, and with the soft top. It kept the rain out to be sure, but road noise was much more pronounced than in the hard-top model I’d driven previously. Still, if you want to romp in the outback and take in the sun and wind, having the soft-top option will be perfect for you. Cost is $2,295 for the dual tops.
That big infotainment screen mentioned earlier is also part of a $1,695 option package, but one that makes sense if you’re a traveler and love music. It includes Fiat-Chrysler’s Uconnect system for managing music and infotainment features and it works smoothly and simply. Plus the screen is big and easy to see and there are radio volume and tuning knobs on either side. Bravo! The package also adds a bunch of satellite radio features, GPS and a Wi-Fi hotspot.
There’s also a $1,045 lighting group and a few minor options. You may have noticed by now that there are a LOT of add-ons for this Jeep, which took it from a reasonable $40,140, including delivery, to a whopping $55,925. Ouch, that’s luxury ute territory.
So when shopping you may need to decide if you’re an off-roader that needs all the functionality of a Jeep Wrangler (2-door models can be had for $30 grand or less), or the functionality and interior space of a Wrangler Unlimited (4-door). For the later you can start with a Sport model at $33,290 and get a 268-horse turbo I4 engine. Move up several trim levels (there are seven), and you can still keep your Jeep below $40 grand and upgrade to the 285-horse V6.
If you want luxury more than off-road rumble and grunt, then a Grand Cherokee or other luxury ute may be a better fit.
FAST STATS: 2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4×4
Hits: Looks like a Jeep and will go anywhere off-road (10-in. ground clearance), with good power and both hard and soft tops. Heated seats and steering wheel, big infotainment screen and easy Uconnect audio system, radio knobs, smart cruise control and blind-spot warning. Has grab handles and running boards, plenty of plug-in spots. Diesel provides improved fuel economy.
Misses: Optional diesel engine is noisy, slow to accelerate and is messy to fill up, as are all diesels. Diesel fuel is costly. Ride seems rougher than gas-powered model, still too much play in the steering wheel for highway drives, so vehicle wanders. Major road noise with soft-top in place. Interior feels crowded, rear door exits are tight and tailgate opens like door, not hatch. Yes, it’s a Jeep.
Made in: Toledo, Ohio
Engine: 3.6-liter V6, 285 hp
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 118.4 in.
Length: 188.4 in.
Cargo: 72.4 cu.ft. (rear seats down)
MPG: 25.3 (tested)
Base Price: $40,140 (includes delivery)
Leather package (leather-trimmed seats w/Sahara logo, leather brake handle, shift knob, instrument panel bezels), $1,495
Cold weather group (heated steering wheel, heated front seats, remote start), $995
LED lighting group (LED reflector headlights, LED fog lights, daytime running lights with LED accents, LED taillights), $1,045
8.4-inch radio screen, audio group w/Uconnect, 5-year SiriusXM and Travel Link, Alpine premium audio system, HD radio, Sirius Guardian, Wi-Fi hotspot, GPS, rearview auto-dimming mirror, $1,695
Dual-Top group (premium black soft top, black 3-piece hardtop, storage bag, rear-window defroster, rear wiper/washer), $2,295
Safety group (ParkSense rear-park assist, blind-spot and cross-path detection), $895
Advanced safety group (adaptive cruise control w/stop, advance brake assist, forward collision warning), $795
Soft-top window storage bag, $75
8-speed automatic transmission w/Hill Descent Control and Tip Start, $2,000
3.0-liter V6 turbo-diesel with all-terrain tires, anti-spin differential, 18.3-gallon fuel tank, $4,000
Keyless entry, $495
Test vehicle: $55,925
Sources: Jeep, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage