2004 Jeep Wrangler Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Martin Padgett Martin Padgett Editorial Director
April 18, 2004

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Review continues below



AUSTIN, Texas —  Somewhere in the far reaches of Texas Hill Country, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited’s purpose in life becomes evident. First, it’s got to extract us from a herd of 50-odd real Texas longhorns before one of them cowpunches us and turns us into a charming throw rug like the bovine one we saw in the gift shop earlier. The other mission would be to get me to the Florida beach scenic enough to erase the memory of a twelve-hour drive on Interstate 10.

Now, unless your memories of them date back sixty years, Jeeps are known mostly for top-down fun. Unfortunately, the fun of the bouncy ride and cramped rear seat wears off pretty quickly, which explains why most Wranglers end up in the hands of hardcore off-roaders and first-time drivers. What about the rest of you who like the idea of a Jeep but need more room, better ride and handling and maybe every so often, the off-road cojones to climb a dirt trail?

The Unlimited does all that simply by stretching the envelope. In one 15-inch stretch, the Wrangler gets more usable people and cargo room, hangs onto its trail-riding prowess, adds towing capacity, and tops it off with a sun-intensive removable top.

Longer shot

2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

The foot-plus addition to the Wrangler that turns it into the Unlimited effectively transforms it into a usable compact SUV that’s far less objectionable as an everyday driver than the jittery Wrangler. The length is distributed mostly to the cargo area — 13 inches are added in the back, with two inches of additional room made available for the legs of rear-seat passengers.

The cargo room’s a welcome improvement, but it’s the back seat that benefits even more. Against a stock Wrangler, it’s immediately evident that the young at heart jammed into the Jeep’s rear seat will be a lot happier when they arrive than in older, short-wheelbase Wranglers. Too, the front seats now both offer tip-and-slide access to the rear, which makes clambering in and out of the two-door’s rear bench a little more graceful. For more extreme uses, the rear bench and even the carpeting come out — say, if you want to haul 500 pounds of sand to create your own mini-beach. Jeep figures the Unlimited is capable of carrying four plus camping gear — a scenario far more likely with this vehicle than any of the other $20k-something soft-utes on the market.

Ten inches of the increase are found in the wheelbase of the Unlimited, and the length dramatically transforms the Wrangler’s handling and ride. It’s something of a breakthrough that this Wrangler steers at least as well as any compact truck, while retaining the slow, steady feel necessary to navigate tough terrain off-road. The composed ride actually feels comfortable over rougher, under-construction stretches of pavement. And despite the length and the addition of about 200 extra pounds, the Unlimited’s approach and departure angles still put it ahead of most of the SUVs in its class — all while towing 3500 lb, a boost of 1500 lb over the stock Wrangler.

The advanced off-road capability does cost the Unlimited in one major way: the Dana axles specified on the new model do not have an associated anti-lock braking system developed to work with them, so for the current model year (the Unlimited is by law a 2004 model though Jeep refers to it as a 2004.5 model) the Unlimited will not be offered with ABS.

Open up

The Wrangler’s open-air heritage carries over intact in the Unlimited through the Sunrider top, a canvas roof that adds one more top-down mode to the Unlimited’s breezy potential. You can draw the Sunrider top all the way down as on other soft-top Jeeps — but you can also unlatch it from the windshield frame and flip the front portion back, exposing the front-seat passengers to the sun through a 45-by-23-inch opening. It’s a good compromise for motoring with the top down when weather threatens, because reassembling the top altogether — with its myriad Velcro strips, zippers, and plastic rails — can take a solo pilot a good ten minutes. The Sunrider top also gets deeper-tinted plastic windows to keep the back-seaters a little cooler in strong sunshine. A hardtop can be ordered for $795; it sports a rear defroster and a rear wiper/washer.

All Unlimiteds are powered by Jeep’s time-tested 4.0-liter in-line six. Here it churns out 190 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque, and disappointing fuel economy that at most hits 18 mpg on the freeway. At least the motor’s noise has been subdued to acceptable levels with dash and hood pads; with the top up and windows up, it’s actually possible to enjoy the Jeep’s sound system. A four-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox for this model year; Jeep promises a new manual gearbox for 2005.

The Unlimited sports plenty of standard equipment in its $24,995 base form: steel doors with roll-up windows, the Sunrider soft top, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, the flip-folding rear seat, power steering, and dual airbags are all standard, while you can add on cruise control, the hard top, and other uppity options.

The Unlimited addresses the Wrangler’s big shortcomings, and makes the Jeep heritage a lot more accessible to those of us who don’t climb Moab’s Lion’s Back every summer. It won’t be mistaken for an Escape or a RAV4 or, for that matter a Liberty — and mostly, that’s a good thing.

2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
Base Price: $24,995
Engine: 4.0-liter in-line six, 190 hp/235 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 167.2 x 66.7 x 70.9 in
Wheelbase: 103.4 in
Curb weight: 3721 lb
Fuel economy (EPA City/Hwy): 14/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags
Major standard equipment: A/C, steel doors, Sunrider top, AM/FM/CD player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic, seven years/70,000 miles powertrain

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