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1997 Jeep Wrangler Sahara 4x4

by Nick Hromiak

SEE ALSO: Jeep Buyer's Guide

Drive through any college campus in the country and you'll surely see a proliferation of Jeep Wranglers, many of which are being driven by females. Does this endorsement by our future leaders signify anything? Perhaps that the '97 Wrangler appeals to a wide group due to their dependable performance, ruggedness and macho outdoors appearance. Wranglers have become known as fun (transcribed as cool) and commuter cars that'll get its occupants through deep snow, mud or beach sand.

The vehicle's qualities have only recently changed after a ten-year run. New Jeep Wranglers went on sale last year as '97s and have seen numerous improvements. For anyone who has driven in a '96 vintage or earlier will attest, the Wrangler was a rough-rider. That has all changed though, for Chrysler added coil springs, reworked the entire suspension system and outfitted it with softer, more supportive and durable seats. Ride quality is much improved although it's still not car-like due to its inherent short wheelbase and rugged underpinnings.

But despite the transformation, Wrangler hasn't sacrificed toughness or handling. It's still the vehicle of choice for the trying Rubicon Trail or the Red Rock mountains and canyons of Ouray, Colorado, and Moab, Utah. This is a troika of premier off-roading destinations favored by hard-core 4WD enthusiasts and where Chrysler's annual Jeep Jamborees are held.

The vehicle tested was the Wrangler Sahara, a hard topped version sporting a more snazzier (than standard Wrangler) interior, extra equipment and options. The optional hardtop with roll-down windows lends itself to cold weather country, provides extra noise deadening and better insulation when Wrangler's mighty heater is cranked on. If both a hard and soft top are desired, order the hardtop factory installed, then when it's delivered, buy the soft top from Mopar Accessories Group. It's cheaper this way, says a Chrysler public relations source.

New generation Wranglers now sport round headlights favored by many Jeep traditionalists, turn-signals that have been moved from the grille to the front fenders, and a windshield that has been angled to improve aerodynamics and offer greater interior space. The fuel filler port was also moved from behind the license plate to the driver's side rear fender. Additionally, both hard and soft tops can be in place at one time and the soft top can be raised once the hardtop is removed.

The interior has realized six more inches of hip room, a genuine glove box with door and latch, a more modern dash with car-like appearance and controls, dual air bags and a console with sizable box round out the new riding quarters.

The cargo area is accessible through the rear tailgate which swings out (with the full-size spare intact) after lifting the rear window. This exposes a tiny storage area suitable for a duffel bag or five bags of groceries. With the rear seat folded there are 36.9 cu ft. of space; with it removed, 53.5 cu. ft.

As for powerplants, Jeep offers two; a 2.5-liter I-4 churning out 120 hp, and a 4.0-liter I-6 producing 181 hp. The latter is the most powerful offered for a vehicle of this size. Each engine can be coupled to either a 5-speed manual transmission or an archaic 3-speed automatic. Most Wrangler buyers, however, opt for the 5-speed, which is a wise choice for this fun vehicle.

The 4WD system remains the same and offers 4-high, 4-low and 2WD positions. All these are manually shifted via a console mounted lever.

Acceleration and passing power with the proven I-6 are more than adequate and it has enough grunt (torque) for snow plowing or towing a utility trailer.

Handling has improved and the Wrangler offers a tight turning radius and quick steering. In turn, parking in tight spots is very easy.

What is a bit shocking though is the sticker price. My test Sahara had a base of $19,210. With some normal options it escalated to $22,894. Now that's a chunk to shell out for a fun-mobile when similar or less dollars will buy a number of compact sport utes like the RAV4, Sidekick, Tracker and Honda's new entry, the CR-V, all of which offer more cargo and interior space. On the other hand, it's doubtful the aforementioned vehicles could negotiate the true rough and tough and survive as the Wrangler can. And lest you think the smallness of the Wrangler makes it economical, its 17/21 EPA miles per gallon rating is not exactly miserly.

But despite these nuances, the Wrangler continues to be a big seller and is a subject I often hear about from my college daughter who wants the new pewter-colored model.

SPECIFICATIONS

ENGINE:            4.0-liter I-6
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 181-hp & 222 lb/ft of torque @ 2800 rpm 
TRANSMISSION:      5-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY:      17 city, 21 highway mpg
WHEELBASE:         93.4 in.
OVERALL LENGTH:    151.8 in.
OVERALL WIDTH:     66.7 in.
OVERALL HEIGHT:    68.9 in. (hardtop)
CURB WEIGHT:       3,229 lbs.
FUEL CAPACITY:     19 gallons (standard on Sahara)
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:  35.7 cu. ft. w/rear seat folded, 
                   53.5 w/rear seat removed
TIRES:             30x 9.5x15 OWL (opt.)
INSTRUMENTATION:   Large, easy to operate HVAC controls, 
                   large easy to read instruments
EQUIPMENT:         (Standard) Fuel tank skid plate, 
                   high pressure gas shocks, alloy 
                   wheels, full floor console, 
                   AM/FM stereo cassette w/4 speakers 
                   and clock, leather wrapped tilt 
                   steering wheel, HD electrical package, 
                   padded sport bar, right outside mirror, 
                   fog lamps, power steering, carpeting, 
                   cargo net, front floor mats. 
                   (Optional) ABS ($599), 30-inch tire 
                   and wheel package ($317), Rear Trac 
                   Lock Differential ($278), Rear window 
                   defroster ($164), A/C ($878), Hardtop 
                   group includes tinted glass/rear wiper 
                   washer ($923).
STICKER PRICE:     $22,894 which includes $525 destination charge