When the Jeep Cherokee (XJ) was discontinued at the end of 2001, there were grumblings from Jeep enthusiasts who felt that the Liberty with its independent front suspension was an unworthy successor. Had they known that the four-door Wrangler (JK) was just over the horizon, they wouldn't have been so upset. Jeep has done an amazing thing with their JK series of Wranglers which debuted in 2007. They've rolled the best parts of the TJ and the XJ platforms into a single product line while retaining the unique look, utility and ruggedness that was established back in the 1950's with the Willys Universal Jeep.
If you're a fan of Jeeps, you'll probably get a strange sense of deja vu looking at the four-door JK. That's because back in '97 Jeep teased us with a 4-door, full-frame, solid axle, coil-sprung concept vehicle called the Dakar. It was a vehicle that excited many four-wheelers, and ten years later with some nifty features added, you can pick one up from your local Jeep dealer.
Speaking of which, I need to talk about those rear seats for a moment. They have two features that need to be emulated by all SUV makers. First, the seats can be folded flat in one smooth motion by releasing a single latch. As the seat back folds forward, the seat bottom flips out of the way and even the head rests fold back. It's a fast and incredibly simple process. Second, when in their upright positions, the space under the seats is available for storage. Passengers can easily stow their bags or jackets under the seat in this conveniently accessible location.
The rest of the interior was laid out in a very functional manner. It didn't have the plush look that you'd expect in more street-oriented SUVs. There was greater use of plastic than fabrics, but this made sense considering the off-road nature of the vehicle and the fact that it is a convertible. Off-road + no top = a very dirty interior. Plastic is much easier to wipe down than fabric. Fortunately, this didn't translate into a tinny-sounding experience. Daimler-Chrysler has done a good job with the noise quality engineering on the JK's body. The doors close with re-assuring "thunks" and wind noise is very muted when on the highway. It reminded me a lot of my XJ Cherokee, and was not what you'd expect from a vehicle with a removable top and doors.
Our test vehicle was equipped with the optional Freedom Top roof and even though it was January, we still felt compelled to remove the roof panels to see how the process worked. Without reading any instructions, we had one of the roof panels off in less than two minutes. The other one came off even faster because it utilized some of the same latches as the first. It's a very neat and simple design. Installation took a bit longer mainly because of the necessity to thread two bolts into the roof panels. I'd say it took about the same amount of time as attaching a bikini top on my YJ. With both panels off, the opening was significantly larger than your typical sunroof, providing a great open-air feeling. Well, maybe not so great in January, but you get the idea.
Our JK was equipped with a CD deck capable of playing MP3's and featured an external input jack which is a great feature considering all the personal devices that are now capable of playing music (cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, GPS units). I found the feature set and layout to be very good and the Jeep was quiet enough to really enjoy the sound quality. In addition to speakers in the dash and tweeter pods mounted near the bottom corners of the windshield, there was also a speaker box mounted atop the roll bar above the rear seat. Even with the top off, I'd expect that you could hear the music pretty well despite the wind noise.
All in all, the interior of the JK is very refined, more so than any of its predecessors. In fact, the JK is the first Wrangler series to feature power door locks and windows! And yes, the windshield still folds and yes, the doors are still removable. As I said, it's an amazing blend between your modern SUV and the classic open-top Jeep. The doors automatically lock when you drive past a certain speed, and the airbags automatically de-activate if the seats are moved too far forward. These are safety features you just don't expect in a vehicle with a folding windshield. Speaking of which, the JK is also the first convertible Jeep to use a curved windshield (better aerodynamics) and it is for that reason that it has to use a single center hinge for the folding windshield.
Off-road, the 3.8L was great. As equipped, our JK wasn't lacking for low gearing. The six-speed NSG370 transmission's first gear ratio of 4.46:1, combined with the 2.72 ratio of the NV241 transfer case and 4.10 gears in the axles (towing package) produced a 50:1 crawl ratio which is very respectable for off-road use. The 4.0L's lower rpm torque was helpful for overcoming the relatively poor gearing of earlier Jeeps but in the JK, it wasn't missed.
So, all-in-all, we thought the 3.8L V6 was a good match for the JK. Sure, more torque would have been nice but realistically, it wasn't needed. By the way, it's nice to see that the NSG370 is using a lower first gear and also has a lower ratio over-drive (0.84:1) than previous Jeep transmissions. The reason for wanting a lower first gear is obvious, but why a lower ratio over-drive? Because we four-wheelers typically install taller tires that tend to wipe out the usefulness of the over-drive gear. Having a slightly lower geared over-drive means that it can be used with taller tires without bogging down the engine as easily.
The six speeds will also come in handy when people start building their JKs taller and heavier. The engine will have to work harder and being able to keep the engine running in its sweet spot will help keep fuel economy reduction to a minimum. I found the NSG370 to be about average as far as shift feel goes. I still prefer the shift quality of my past Toyotas to those of my Jeeps', but that's a minor point. Also, sixth was a little bit tricky to find. Many times I grabbed fourth when I wanted sixth but by the end of the week, my aim was improving.
From the outside, there's no mistaking this JK for anything other than a Jeep. The JK's extra width is clearly evident from the back, and it is partly emphasized by the squared off corners of its hard-top. From the front, it's got the trademark (literally) 7-slot grill, round headlights, and the open front fenders that immediately identify it as a Jeep. And what fenders, indeed! Big, bold, black plastic fenders have replaced the traditional steel fenders. I think this was a brilliant choice. They're more resilient to small dents, much easier to replace if damaged and you never have to worry about painting them to match the body colour.
Our X package also came with a Dana 44 rear axle loaded with a Trac-Loc limited slip and 4.10 gears. On our test drive, it worked quite well in the snow. It took a lot time before we finally got stuck, and that was only because the Jeep finally got high centered in the deep, hard-crust snow. But for best performance, you can get the optional (standard in the Rubicon) Rock-Trak, electrically activated locking differential. Speaking of electrically activated stuff, our JK also came equipped with the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) that modulates engine output and brakes if it detects the vehicle going into an unstable situation. I left it on (although it shuts off automatically when you shift into low-range) and didn't notice it at all. In fact, I didn't even notice when I purposely fishtailed the Jeep around one particularly icy corner, nor did I notice any unusual behaviour when driving it off-road. It didn't get in my way, and that's how I like safety systems to be.
After a few kilometres, I aired the Goodyear Wrangler SRA (P245/75R16) tires down to 15 psi. This produced a very satisfactory bulge in the sidewalls. We continued on our way, and as the elevation increased, the rutted, muddy road became a hard-crust snow trail. The top layer was about 2 to 3 inches and very hard, with a coarse powder underneath. To maintain our forward momentum, we had to keep the speed up while being rocked side to side as we tried to stay in the deep, frozen tracks left by a tall 4x4, probably the week before. The long wheelbase really helped to keep the fishtailing under control. After a few kilometres of this, I could hear the undercarriage scraping the crust and knew it was just a matter of time before we got high centered. I was quite satisfied with the performance of the JK. While it was able to maintain decent contact pressure on the snow, it kept going. About 200 metres past where the JK got stuck, our chase vehicle (dual transfer cases, dual lockers, and 39.5" IROKs) had quite a bit of trouble turning around. So as you can see, this wasn't exactly a cakewalk. The hard crust, combined with the coarse powder underneath, made for difficult snow conditions. By the way, kudos to Daimler-Chrysler for mounting some decent, and easily accessible front tow hooks on the JK. Because this JK had the towing package, we were able to use the receiver hitch for rearward pulls.
Having had enough of the snow, we headed for lower ground to see how the JK handled rocks and uneven terrain. As expected, the first thing we dragged was the under carriage when we tried to drive through a ditch. The long wheelbase was definitely detrimental to the JK's break-over angle. It wasn't bad enough to stop us from going on any trails that we would expect to take a stock 4x4, but it does require some consideration and due care on the part of the driver. The approach and departure angles, on the other hand, were quite good. My only comment here would be that the front valance should be removed by all new JK owners. It hangs down too low and will soon get hung up on something, particularly when backing up. For that matter, I'd also remove the side steps and replace them with some real rocker armour (like the kind found on the Rubicon package). As I mentioned earlier, the overall gearing on the JK is quite good. It was very easy to control it, which is saying a lot for me, since I haven't 'wheeled a manual transmission in a long, long time.
Because of the recent weather, we also did extensive driving in deep pools of water. The four wheel disc brakes were absolutely fantastic. No worrying about water logged drums when exiting the puddles, and no ABS issues, either. Again, I like safety systems that don't get in my way.
In one of the water logged trenches, I was reminded of why I like flat-sided 4x4s that have protruding wheels. I entered the trench at an off-camber angle so that one side of the Jeep was riding outside of the trench while the other was leaned heavily into it (I was, um, testing the center of gravity, ok?). Anyway, the high side slipped and fell down the near-vertical wall of the trench. Because the tires are the widest part of the vehicle, they kept the sheet metal off the wall and safe from damage. Add some nerf bars on the side and your protection goes up by an even higher margin.
One more thing about water: like the TJ, the JK uses an air intake that doesn't draw air from near the grill, there by reducing the chances of hydro-locking the engine when fording deep water.
After looking at the JK's features and driving on and off the pavement, my conclusion is obvious: I love it. Jeep has made a vehicle that is, beyond a doubt, geared towards people who want to go four-wheeling. In its bone stock configuration, it would satisfy all the SUV-lovers who simply want an all-weather vehicle. For those of us who need something more, I can't imagine a better platform to build on. The JK's weakest points (break-over angle and front bumper valance) are easily addressed by the modifications that most four-wheelers would make such as a lift kit and winch bumper. Its solid front and rear axles make it very easy to lift and obtain impressive suspension travel. The gearing (with the 6-spd manual and 4:10 diffs) is just great and I think it would handle 33" tires easily, and quite probably 35" just fine. Also, to fit 35" tires, you don't need a long arm kit like the TJs required. The JKs use longer lower arms than the TJs which allows them to get away with more lift without displaying the weird handling quirks that necessitated the move to longer arms. So lifting a JK should be cheaper than lifting a TJ the same amount.
Of course, to make things easy, a four-wheeler could simply buy a Rubicon package. It'll have front and rear lockers, 4:1 transfer case gears, rocker armour, the Active Sway Bar system, and enough lift to fit factory 32" tires. A budget boost 2" lift will have you fitting 35" tires very easily and inexpensively.
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