Review: 2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4x4

Easily one of the most recognizable vehicles on the road today, the iconic Jeep Wrangler is the patriotic off roader that has prioritized evolution over revolution since it arrived on the scene in 1941. Despite a trademark seven-slot grille, however, we still managed to encounter one curious non-enthusiast who asked if our 2009 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara was the new Toyota FJ Cruiser.

It was a sad day for mankind.

Unmistakably a Jeep - even with a pair of extra doors (new for the 2006 redesign), bulging fenders and - gasp - 18-inch wheels, the 21st century Wrangler is nonetheless the real deal.

What is it?
It's a svelte, sporty, powerful two-door coupe.

No, no it's not.

It's a boxy, lumbering, slow four-door off roader. Unless you're the confused guy in the Cadillac DTS we encountered in a strip center parking lot, you probably have a good idea what a Jeep Wrangler is. This is the latest iteration of the utilitarian beast that has its own dictionary entry.

What's it up against?
There are few vehicles that can compete against the Wrangler when the pavement ends. With articulation-friendly solid axles up front and out back, gobs of ground clearance and a super low-range transfer case, the Wrangler aims to go where few others can tread. Count that dastardly FJ Cruiser in as an obvious rival, for sure, as well as the Nissan Xterra and the Hummer H3.

Since Jeep also offers the Wrangler Unlimited in poseur 4x2 form, rivals might include the decidedly on-road-oriented Ford Mustang convertible. Seriously, who buys a 4x2 Jeep Wrangler? Talk about a neutered rig for image-conscious weenies.

Any breakthroughs?
The current Wrangler - known in Jeep circles by its JK platform code name - is the first Wrangler available from the factory with four doors. Designed to be passenger-friendly, the four door design also gives the Wrangler a longer wheelbase, which helps not only the on-pavement ride, but also off-road stability in all but serious rock-crawling.

Our Sahara test model is Jeep's high-content model, though don't expect too find too much in the way of luxuries here. In fact, for a top-end model, we didn't think there was enough to set the Sahara apart from its X brother.

Jeep's optional Freedom Top allows buyers to remove a panel above each passenger's head to give the Wrangler a sunroof-esque driving experience with the rest of the hard top in place. A rather difficult-to-erect soft top is standard.

How does it look?
When it was first introduced in 2006 at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, we thought the Wrangler had gone a little soft on us. Bulging fenders - painted on the Sahara - as well as a massive front bumper helped out with aerodynamics and crash protection, but struck us as cartoonish.

The look has grown on us - a little - but we still like the previous TJ (1997-2006) model's chiseled good looks. Styling, of course, is subjective, and we look forward to hearing what you have to say about the Wrangler's appearance.

What isn't subjective is the Wrangler Sahara's detailing. Let's start with those 18-inch wheels - they look good, but do they belong on an off-roader? Sure, the sidewalls are fairly tall with the 255/70-series Bridgestones, but we think Jeep could have slipped some 16-inch wheels with even larger tires under those fenders and made a lot of off-road enthusiasts happier.

Our Sunburst Orange Pearl Coat test model was swathed in a shade that should require proof of a diploma from either UT - the Knoxville one or the Austin one.

And on the inside?
Customers don't buy Jeep Wranglers because they're plush - and Jeep knows this. The interior is utilitarian at best, though the materials and overall design seem fitting with the Wrangler's mission as a hose-it-out off-roader.

Drivers sit close to the PT Cruiser-steering wheel (though it looks better here than in that ill-fated vehicle) with their knees bent at a nearly 90-degree angle. Ideal for off roading, this position allows drivers to see over the high, long hood without any struggle. On long road trips, however, the position grows uncomfortable since the seat doesn't go back very far. Fortunately, the chairs themselves are firm and supportive, even if the rubber headrests are a bit too unforgiving - not to mention cheap-looking.

Rear seat room is ample, though again the seat position is a bit awkward. Cargo space rivals that of more traditional midsize SUVs, meaning weekend off roaders can carry everything their passengers might need.

We were disappointed in the feature content of our top-tier Sahara tester. A few rugged goodies - like maybe a more unique seat fabric (maybe not quite the dark green that once covered Wrangler Sahara seats), a multi-gauge similar to that pesky FJ Cruiser and maybe some Land Rover-like rubber floor mats could do the trick. We don't mind getting back to the basics, especially in a rugged Jeep, but we're having a hard time seeing why anyone would pay the approximately $1,500 premium for the Sahara's minimal upgrades over a well-equipped X.

But does it go?
Keeping in mind that the Wrangler is not intended to be an on-road runabout, it actually performs quite well - even with our tester's optional four-speed automatic. The 3.8-liter V6's 237 lb-ft. of torque peaks at a relatively low 4,000 rpm, meaning the Wrangler has reasonable around-town and low-speed rock-hopping muscle. Horsepower is a modest 202 ponies at 5,000 rpm.

It's only on the highway that this boxy vehicle begins to struggle. A combination of low speed-oriented gearing (a 3.73 rear axle ratio comes with the automatic) and the aerodynamics of, well, a Jeep, means that passing requires substantial planning. Fuel economy also suffers, though we recorded a surprisingly high 16 mpg in mixed driving.

The gas pedal takes a hefty push, another byproduct of the vehicle's off-road heritage, where jerky acceleration results in bogging-down wheelspin.

Steering is improved substantially over the previous generation to the point where around-town driving is no longer a chore. There's precious little road feel, but when the going gets bumpy, the steering is tight and reasonably direct, even if the front solid axle intentionally hops around a little as it tries to find grip for the wheels.

The 116-inch wheelbase is about the same as a Chevrolet Tahoe's, despite the Wrangler's much shorter overall length courtesy of its off road-ready short overhangs. That endows it with a pleasantly composed ride over even the most rough pavement, where only subtle side-to-side rocking detracts. Sure, it doesn't ride like a Lexus LS460 , but it's at least as composed on pavement as many far less capable 4x4s.

We didn't get much of a chance to take our Sahara off road thanks to heavy ice storms that left our favorite legal 'wheeling trails closed, but we can say from previous experience with a four-door Wrangler X and a two-door Rubicon that the Jeep is the mountain goat it has always been. The longer wheelbase aids it over certain obstacles, steep inclines, though it can make it easier to high-center over rocks.

The Wrangler's Comand-Trac part-time transfer case is about as simple and basic as they come - just tug the lever back and you've locked the axles together. Jeep offers a limited slip differential for $295, but it wasn't on our tester.

Why you would buy it:
You genuinely enjoy leaving the pavement and you're not afraid of scratching a $32,000 vehicle.

Why you wouldn't:
You're scared of dirt: Buy a Mustang if you want your top-down jollies. Weenie.

Leftlane's bottom line
At $32,705 as tested, the Wrangler Sahara is not an inexpensive proposition. We genuinely enjoy the basic Wrangler platform - it's capable and rugged without any excuses - but we question the Sahara trim level. For a good bit less, we could be in the nearly identical X trim level if we were looking to save pennies. Conversely, if we wanted to experience the full capability offered on this rugged and versatile platform, we could see wanting to pony up the extra cash for the sophisticated Rubicon.

Whatever Chrysler's plans are for Jeep in the future, we're confident the automaker will continue to invest in the Wrangler, one of the few genuinely unique vehicles on the road today.

2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4x4 base price, $28,320. As tested, $23,705.
Dual Top Group, $1,585; Four-speed automatic transmission, $825; Navigation system, $1,275; Destination, $700.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.