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2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara Review

2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara(select to view enlarged photo)
2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara

SEE ALSO: Jeep Buyers Guide - Specs, Pics an Prices

Have you driven a Jeep? Lately?

By Thom Cannell
Detroit Bureau
The Auto Channel

Yes, it is a homage to the familiar Ford slogan of the 90’s, but absolutely applicable. For me it encapsulates the days I tested a 2009 Wrangler Unlimited.

I was trapped at the North American Auto Show with no way home. A Sunburst Orange Pearl colored four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara was offered, and since I’d not driven a Wrangler in three years I eagerly accepted an opportunity to rediscover my favorite off road vehicle. Making it a supremely attractive proposition was the Alberta Clipper predicted to add more inches to the already snow saturated highways of Michigan.

Accepting keys from the Marriott Renaissance Center valet, I first thought to raise the drivers side window against penetrating cold. Unfamiliarity can create confusion; it took me several minutes to locate the power window controls centrally located in the center of the broad dash. Given how abusively the vehicle can be used off the road it seems, in hindsight, sensible to put electrical controls out of casual reach. This is a clue to the uncompromising intent of a Wrangler, one reinforced by the considerable amount of body-colored painted steel exposed in the interior.

The rear seat easily swallowed two enormous wheeled duffels plus a camera bag and backpack through wide opening rear doors. I rejected opening the rear swing-away hatch with its exterior mounted spare tire as another vehicle was parked close behind.

At first I found the six-speed manual transmission a bit of a challenge. The gate for reverse felt sometimes too difficult (swing through the neutral gate with vigor!) and once too loose as I shifted from fourth into a grinding, embarrassing discovery of reverse. A day’s familiarity resolved that issue.

The promise of nasty snow dissolved into bountiful sunshine and I enjoyed the drive, particularly the high vantage point, abundant heat—Jeeps have always possessed powerful heaters—and surprisingly good audio from an Infinity sound system and Sirius Satellite radio. Another surprising fact, when equipped with the optional Freedom hard top, a Wrangler is pleasingly quiet inside. All of my previous test drives had been limited to warm weather soft-top and no-top driving, so this made my Wrangler a hospitable wintertime highway driver. Though the Freedom top has removable panels andcan be opened to the air in different ways, sub-teen temperatures effectively discouraged any experiments!

The engine, on wide open throttle, sounded a bit hectic and metallic. I thought the motor might be a robust four cylinder engine instead of the 3.8-liter V-6 actually under the hood. Its 200+ horsepower made joining traffic easy, and when my foot wasn’t on the floorboard, the engine was suitably quiet and restrained.

The Wrangler Unlimited, regardless of model, features a longer wheelbase at 116 inches. This makes it a smooth driver on the highway and allows seating and decent leg room for four, or five in the second row of seats, and rear seats fold 60/40, also folding flat to make 83 cubic feet of storage space. A new hidden under-floor storage space can keep important items away from unauthorized eyes. Wranglers are also equipped with the latest safety advances like electronic stability control, ABS and brake assist, multi-stage air bags, and seat-mounted side air bags.

Overall, the Wrangler Unlimited is “better” than the Wrangler in terms of comfort. When compared to its sibling, the standard Wrangler the extra space for passengers and luggage is welcome. But get it out onto tight switchbacks in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, or any mountain range and the longer wheelbase becomes problematic. Thus you have a choice of useful off road vehicles.

On the day weather did turn nasty I engaged the manual Command-Trac NV241 transfer case and shifted into four wheel high gears, feeling safe while others crept cautiously on glare ice and slippery packed snow.

Where the package could use a bit of improvement is in its ergonomics. I found the clutch pedal rode high, making it difficult to remove my foot with ease and speed. Fortunately there was sufficient variability in the seat and steering wheel to somewhat mitigate the problem, however it remained a source of distraction.

Here’s the Bullet Points:


  • Jeeps are absolutely not for everyone, with their higher center of gravity, stoutly sprung suspensions and tall step-in height. However they remain the premier off road vehicle by design and rugged construction, robust off road capability, and affable demeanor.
  • A solid model lineup with short and long wheel base models, and a option list that can create a real mountain warrior should you choose.
  • Available 6-speed manual transmission for serious drivers.
  • Interior that although minimalistic is pleasing and appropriate to the vehicle’s nature and purpose.
  • Far better interior than past Wranglers, and with the hard top, the quietest I’ve tested.

Needs improvement:

  • Optional four-speed automatic needs two more gears; many off roaders actually prefer automatics and a six-speed would easily offer improved low speed crawl.
  • Manual transmission clutch and brake positions are not pleasant for shorter drivers in regular commuting.

In short, if you are an aspiring outdoors-person a Wrangler Unlimited will get you and three or four companions almost anywhere, any time, under any conditions. It will do so with an easy grace that is as home at climbing a mountain as the gravel road to that cottage “up North.”