1999 Jeep Wrangler

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2003 Jeep Wrangler

This 2003 review is representative of model years 1997 to 2006.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 7.5

Bottom Line:

Jeep's Wrangler stays on the true SUV path, retaining its rugged off-road persona, compact size and four- and six-cylinder engines. Who says an SUV has to have leather, power windows and three rows of seats?
Pros:
  • Authentic SUV
  • Convertible SUV is a market rarity
  • Affordable starting prices
Cons:
  • Ride can be bouncy
  • Interior has barebones appearance
  • Road, wind noise

Gosh, we have ventured far from the roots of sport-utility vehicles. Even the Hummer H2 comes standard with Bose speakers, power front seats and garage door opener.

Thankfully, the Jeep Wrangler remains true to its SUV roots, and deep roots they are, going back about 60 years and World War II.

You won't find leather seats here, not even on the new-for-2003 top-of-the-line model, the Wrangler Rubicon. You won't even get power windows.

What you get is an authentic SUV—I almost want to say "historic." In any event, the experience in the Wrangler is something that is difficult to find elsewhere in today's burgeoning SUV market where luxury amenities and car-like ride are the trends.

In contrast, even the Wrangler Rubicon—not an inexpensive model, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price in its introductory year of just under $25,000—is all about off-road capability and bristles with equipment that's typically found on vehicles that have been modified for off-road duty.

Examples include locking differentials that can be engaged as needed by the driver, durable Dana model 44 axles and substantial, off-road tires.

Aspirational vehicle for many
Don't think only hardcore offroaders are attracted to the Wrangler and especially its new Rubicon version.

According to company spokeswoman Carrie McElwee, Rubicon sales were a pleasant surprise, surpassing the expected 8,000 level and requiring a boost in production to approximately 14,000 in the Rubicon's first year.

Even actress Angelina Jolie drives a Wrangler Rubicon in the Paramount film "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life."

In the summer 2003 movie, you see "the Jeep driving 80 miles an hour across harsh desert and jungle terrain without any difficulty,' said Jeff Bell, vice president of Jeep at DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler Group.

He noted it's not movie magic that makes the Rubicon perform. "That's real Jeep 4-by-4 capability and that's Jeep adventure," he said.

Movie actresses aren't the only ones who can find inspired adventure in a Wrangler.

I found myself taking country roads, rather than interstates, whenever possible in the test Wrangler Rubicon. Dirt paths beckoned, and it was easy and unique to drive right up to a scenic creek and enjoy a quiet lunch amid nature on a friend's private property.

No wonder McElwee said many buyers of the Wrangler, which is offered in several models—all with standard soft-tops, which is a rarity in today's SUV market—say they have always wanted the free-spirited vehicle and don't view it as a typical small SUV for day-to-day use.

"It's a convertible, and it's often a weekend vehicle," she said, adding that for many buyers, it's a third vehicle in the driveway.

Note that more than two-thirds of buyers are men.

Rugged persona evident
The test Wrangler Rubicon got attention even after it was coated in dust, as an airport toll booth attendant asked how I kept the Jeep "so clean."

I realized it was a testament to the brightness of the bright blue exterior paint that shown through the dust, because I hadn't done a thing to protect against dirt.

Climbing inside the two-door, four-wheel-drive Wrangler can be difficult, even for front-seat passengers.

The terrain-clearing off-road design and 16-inch off-road tires on the Rubicon model meant the driver seat cushion was about at navel level for me, and there's a sizable raised sill at the door entrance.

Once situated on the cloth bucket driver seat and under the optional hard top, I noticed a decent amount of headroom and a dashboard that doesn't intrude too far into the interior.

The windshield, with a sharply vertical slant, seems a bit small, too.

My high-seat position gave me a great forward view over the traffic ahead. Drivers just must be sure to check around the sizable pillars at the edges of the windshield.

Two engines offered
Though a new-for-2003, 147-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is available on the base Wrangler SE that starts at just over $16,000, the other four Wrangler models have the powerful, 4.0-liter overhead valve Power Tech inline six cylinder that better suits this rather heavy SUV.

The six cylinder develops 190 horses, which means it doesn't strain on highway runs.

This is no sports car. Note the speedometer, even inside the uplevel Rubicon, is calibrated to 100 mph only.

Torque, which is key for off-roaders, is a healthy 235 lb-ft at 3200 rpm and can be expertly managed via the Rubicon's Rock-Trac transfer case with 4:1 low range gearing.

Manual is standard
As expected in a rugged vehicle like this, the standard transmission on all Wranglers is a 5-speed manual. A new 4-speed automatic, smoother in its shifts than the previous, 3-speed automatic, is an option.

In the test vehicle, the manual gearshifter had a long stalk and a notchy feel, and I modulated the vehicle's performance easily via the gears.

Fuel economy with the six-cylinder engine is lackluster at just 16 miles a gallon in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway. Look to be stopping at the gas station to fill the 19-gallon tank quite frequently.

Note that all Wranglers are four-wheel-drive vehicles. No 4X2s are offered.

Unique ride
The hard top on the test Wrangler was a pleasant surprise, as I heard no squeaks or rattles.

There is a lot of wind noise at highway speeds as the exterior isn't exactly aerodynamic.

Tire noise is plentiful as well, especially with the Rubicon's special off-road tires, and I spent a considerable amount of time tuning the radio volume up and down as my speeds—and noises—rose and fell.

The ride is bouncy in the short-wheelbase Wrangler on uneven pavement, and can become tiring for older riders, though smooth asphalt provided quite a nice ride in the test vehicle.

I liked how nimbly this SUV maneuvered in tight quarters. Sometimes, it felt as if the Wrangler was merely pivoting around its center, that's how impressive the turning circle in the tester was.

There can be a 'tippy' feeling if you drive this Wrangler too aggressively.

Despite being a compact vehicle, the two-door Wrangler has a heaviness about it. Indeed, the top Rubicon model has a curb weight of 3,716 pounds. This is more weight than a Dodge Intrepid, which is classified as a large sedan.

Final notes
All Wranglers have new front seats for 2003, and I found the Rubicon's front seats provided good support, though I might have liked a touch more lumbar.

There's nothing real plush here. Carpeting or vinyl pieces don't cover the body color paint at the points where the floor and walls meet. Even the windows in the Rubicon manually roll down.

That's the appeal—a sense of hardiness and ready-at-any-moment adventure.

Don't look to carry a lot of gear inside. Even with the rear bench seat for two folded and tumbled forward, cargo area totals some 42 cubic feet. Removing the rear seat adds another 5 cubic feet or so.

In comparison, the Jeep Liberty offers 69 cubic feet of cargo space with its rear seat folded.

Casual observers don't necessarily recognize a new Wrangler since exterior styling—complete with exposed door hinges, hood latches and flat body panels—hasn't changed much over the years.

Blinkers click loudly in the Wrangler, and the sharply vertical side windows tend to reflect lights from nearby cars at night and the Rubicon's own illuminated instrument panel.

I also disliked how close the manual shifter was to the dashboard. On a few occasions, I jammed my thumb into the hard plastic of the dash as I shifted.

There aren't many open-air, small SUVs to compete with the Wrangler.

The 2003 Chevrolet Tracker with soft top comes only with a four-cylinder engine and is offered in two- and four-wheel drive, while the 2003 Land Rover Freelander SE3 has permanent four-wheel drive and standard hardtop.

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BB03 - 9/15/2014 6:37:02 PM