2004 Jeep Wrangler
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
The Jeep Wrangler is perhaps the most All-American vehicle out there. It still looks like a refugee from World War II, where it became a household word throughout the world because of its legendary prowess.
The good news for 2004 is the mid-year introduction of the $24,385 stretched Wrangler Unlimited version. It looks virtually the same as shorter Wranglers, but is the first one that's fairly comfortable to live with on a daily basis.
That's because its wheelbase is (distance between axles) has been increased from a short 93.4 inches to 103.4 inches.
Better Ride and Roominess
The Unlimited also is about a foot longer than other Wranglers. That extra length allows more cargo and rear-seat passenger room—although tall drivers will wish their seat moved back farther.
The Unlimited is the first Wrangler with enough back seat room to accommodate two 6-footers, although the rear seat has an uncomfortable design—it's best to flip it forward to increase the cargo area. However, the Unlimited has decent cargo room with the rear seat in its normal upright position.
The Wrangler designation didn't appear until 1987. Before that, the Jeep was called the Willys MB and Jeep CJ-2A and CJ-7. It evolved at a glacial pace after World War II, partly because it was produced by several different companies and had a steady stream of civilian and government buyers.
The Wrangler last was given major improvements for 1997, when it got a coil-spring suspension for a better—but still uncomfortable—ride.
The pre-1997 two-door convertible Wrangler had wonderful off-road abilities, but wasn't comfortable for anything but short, low-speed, top-down drivers on summer pavement.
Nothing Like It
All Wranglers have 4-wheel drive. It has to be disengaged on dry roads, but has low-range gearing for unusually tough off-road driving. Sturdy body-on-frame construction and a strong ladder chassis help out here.
A Wrangler Unlimited I tested had the Wrangler's removable hardtop, which costs $795 for the Unlimited, Sport and Sahara models and $920 for the SE, X and Rubicon versions.
The top is worth the money—if only because it comes with full metal doors with roll-up glass windows, rear wiper-washer, defogger and a cargo light.
Otherwise, you get plastic side windows like those found in classic 1950s British sports cars such as the MG and Triumph.
However, manually cranking the glass windows is a chore, and the metal doors are held open by straps—not metal hinges.
Fun to a Point
The SE has a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine with 147 horsepower. Other Wranglers have a 4-liter inline 6-cylinder with 190 horsepower.
Average Highway Performance
However, the Unlimited with the hardtop comfortably cruises at 65 mph despite poor aerodynamics—a speed that's uncomfortable with other Wranglers equipped with a soft top partly because they have excessive wind noise.
The manual gearbox is standard on all versions except the Unlimited, which has a responsive 4-speed automatic transmission that costs $515-$825 for other Wranglers.
Low Fuel Economy
The entry SE doesn't have much equipment. Besides the 6-cylinder engine, the X adds an AM/FM/CD sound system. The Sport adds metal doors with roll-up windows, and the Sahara adds such items as air conditioning and cruise control. The Rubicon has heavy duty off-road components, and the Unlimited has 4-wheel disc brakes.
Anti-lock brakes are optional for $600 on the X, Sport and Sahara, but not on other Wranglers.
High Step Needed
Occupants sit high, making top-down drives more fun, but it's a hassle to lower or raise the soft-top. The Wrangler doesn't have much sound insulation, but the hardtop helps keep down cabin noise levels.
Gauges can be quickly read, and all controls are nicely arranged. But there isn't much elbow room and there are no armrests. Radio controls are small, but climate controls are fairly large.
The Unlimited's added space and comfort promises to enhance the appeal of the rugged Wrangler, which has had remarkable staying power despite lots of competition.