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2006 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4x4 Review

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2006 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4x4

I was hoping for rain last week. Gully-washing, mud-sliding, heavy rain. After all, I had a long-wheelbase Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and what's a little mud or a minor washout to a Wrangler? A minor annoyance, and possibly even fun, right?

It rained, but barely more than a drizzle, so there was no need for 4-Hi, let alone 4-Lo, to get through. Sigh. Still, the Unlimited, as the long-wheelbase model, has some important advantages over the short-wheelbase Wrangler for most potential customers. Only the most committed off-road stump-hopping and Jeep-bouldering enthusiast would find the Unlimited's extra 10 inches of wheelbase a disadvantage. Everyone else will find its 13-inch longer cargo area and two inch increase in rear-seat legroom to be advantageous. Even at 15 inches longer than the regular Wrangler, the Unlimited is still short enough to easily thread through trees and boulders on the trail, or into tight parking spaces in town.

Unlike the increasing number of car-based ``crossover'' SUVs, a Jeep Wrangler is the real deal. In many ways, it's the last of the original small utility vehicles, with a lineage straight right back to the Willys of World War II. It's still made with serious off-road use foremost in mind - meaning not your basic stadium parking lot after a light snowfall but rutted, rock- and stump-riddled two-track trails that may have first been traveled by a Conestoga wagon. The Wrangler's frame and suspension are optimized for the toughest off-road conditions, which means that a Wrangler is not a vehicle for everyone.

Looking for luxury? Look elsewhere. The only wood trim you'll find in a Wrangler is a leftover from that little oops into the shrubbery up in the mountains last summer. ``Luxury'' in the context of a Wrangler means roll-up windows, as in hand crank, no power. The wiring for power windows would be a problem when it comes time to take the doors off. The lower-priced short-wheelbase models still have side curtains. Suspension is by rugged live axles front and rear, with soft, long-travel springs and shocks and large semi-knobby tires. They're the business at low speeds in loose dirt or gravel, have their limitations at higher speeds back in civilization. The drivetrain is also optimized for low-speed off-road use, with low gearing even in 2-Hi. Aerodynamically, it's a barn door. So highway travel, even with the optional hardtop, is not quiet, and more than a little bouncy.

But that's fine for the people who want a Wrangler. Unlike most cars and even trucks made today, a Wrangler has character. Even with all of the modern safety and convenience equipment that's either standard or optional, a brand-new Jeep Wrangler is still as close as you can come to the basic elemental motoring experience today. It's entertaining to drive, even in town, and if you happen to live where the weather is nasty part of the year, or the pavement ends a mile or two up the road, it's even practical.

APPEARANCE: Think ``Jeep'' and what comes to mind? Likely a Wrangler or one of its ancestors, the Willys MB of the World War II era or the CJ-2A that followed. The 2006 Wrangler is not too different from those venerable vehicles, with simple, slab-sided bodywork that features external door hinges and hood latches and a flat windshield that can fold down against the hood. The trademark seven-slot hood and round headlights look to be right off the original Willys. Fenders are of the simplest variety possible, and there is no lack of ground clearance. Look underneath, and important items are protected by skid plates. The optional hard top blends well with the basic styling, is removable, and features a heated rear window with wiper and excellent visibility. There are still separate steel bumpers, all the better for mounting a winch.

COMFORT: The Unlimited's extra length is readily apparent inside. It's still cozy, but with the rear seat up there is room for four, and the front seats are designed to easily move out of the way for access. Access is a little tricky for anyone because of the high sills, but they come in handy keeping water out during stream crossings. The high-backed front buckets, part of the ``Customer Preferred Package 24H'' on my tester, provide modern levels of comfort and support - no WWII-vintage seats here, thank you. With glass windows and an un-lined hardtop, and a very good heater, rain and cold were successfully kept at bay. Headroom is not going to be a problem, ever. The instrument panel is also modern in design, with all the necessities and no frills. A good AM/FM/6-CD in-dash changer stereo is an option, but don't look for power windows or mirrors, or a built-in navigation system. - the power stuff wouldn't like water, the nav system wouldn't have topo maps for areas far from civilization, and the electronics might not like situations that the Jeep mechanicals would shrug off.

SAFETY: The Wrangler Unlimited comes with front next-generation air bags, four-wheel disc brakes (antilock optional), and the windshield frame and sport bar form an integral part of the body structure that exceeds passenger car rollover standards.

RIDE AND HANDLING: If ``road'' is merely a suggestion, a Wrangler can probably get through it. It's optimized for low-speed crawling in tough terrain. A dual-range four-wheel drive system (actuated by a mechanical lever, no complex electronics, thank you) actuates sturdy solid axles front and rear, held by leading arms in front and trailing arms at the rear, with coil springs and gas shocks all around. Tires are large semi-knobbies meant to find traction on most uncivilized surfaces. Spring and shock rates are appropriately soft, unsprung weight is massive, the center of gravity is high - all fine at five mph on the trail, but ``car-like'' is not in the description on pavement. It's not a sports car, and too much speed in a tight corner could lead to testing the integrity of the ``sport bar'' superstructure - not a fun idea. But a sports car won't do dirt like a Wrangler, and potholes, curbs, and other hazards the Wrangler will happily ignore can do thousands of dollars of damage to any mere car. The Unlimited's long wheelbase noticeably improves ride comfort, with no adverse effect on turning radius, and steering effort is light.

PERFORMANCE:The low-speed torque needed for serious trail work is just as useful on pavement, and the Unlimited's 4.0-liter inline six delivers. A simple pushrod overhead valve design with a cast iron block and head, it puts out 190 horsepower at 4,600 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm. Low- and mid-range torque is its strong point, and even with the optional four-speed automatic transmission fitted to my test vehicle, instead of the standard six-speed manual, acceleration was good enough to keep up with traffic, at least up to highway speeds. Over about 65mph, mechanical, wind, and tire noise are noticeable, and the low gearing and boxy shape's high aerodynamic drag limit acceleration, but it will happily cruise at that speed. A Wrangler is not a highway vehicle at heart, so enjoy the scenery. Explore the scenery, just tread lightly and stay on the trail.

CONCLUSIONS:Still the best turn-key off-roader on four wheels, the 2006 Jeep Wrangler is also capable in town.

2006 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4x4

Base Price			$ 23,995
Price As Tested			$ 28,670
Engine Type			12-valve pushrod overhead valve
				 inline 6-cylinder
Engine Size			4.0 liters / 242 cu. in.
Horsepower			190 @ 4600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 			235 @ 3200 rpm
Transmission			4-speed automatic (opt)
Wheelbase / Length		103.4 in. / 167 in.
Curb Weight			3,721 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		19.6
Fuel Capacity			19 gal.
Fuel Requirement 	        87 octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				30x9.5R15LT Goodyear Wrangler
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear		live axle with leading arms and
				 springs /
				  live axle with trailing arms and coil
Minimum ground clearance         8.3 in under rear axle
Drivetrain			front engine, on-demand dual-range
				part-time four-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		14 / 18 / 15
0 to 60 mph				est. 10  sec
Towing capacity 			3500 lbs.

Customer Preferred Package 24H - includes:
 premium cloth two-tone bucket seats, security
 group, Sentry Key theft-deterrent system, 
 auto-dim mirror w/lamps, compass, thermometer,
 premium appearance group, bright grille, front
 floor mats, silver instrument panel bezel, premium
 fender flares, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 
 7-speaker audio, cruise control		$1,670
Smoker's group					$   30
4-speed automatic transmission			$  825
Body side steps 				$  150
Engine block heater				$   35
AM/FM/6CD audio 				$  300
Sirius satellite radio				$  195
Black hardtop	with rear window washer, 
  wiper, and defroster				$  795
Locking fuel cap				$   15
Destination charge				$  660