On The Road Review: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab

{youtube}lZQYRAsEHNU&feature{/youtube} Here is another model expansion of the venerable Jeep Wrangler lineup, one of Chrysler’s most profitable vehicles.

The 2013 Jeep Wrangler Moab is a festooned Sahara-trimmed vehicle with a bit more off-road moxie for tackling the rugged granite and sandstone trails outside Moab, Utah — a world renowned off-roader’s paradise. Expanding the Wrangler’s trim levels to six — Sport, Arctic, Sahara, Rubicon, Call of Duty-3, and now Moab — in standard two-door or this Unlimited four-door version, the Wrangler is just a cash-cow for the recovering Chrysler, a source of much needed income to create better vehicles across the board.

{gallery}moab{/gallery} Wrangler sales increased 13.5 percent last year to 141,669 total units sold — or for context — 389 Wranglers were purchased, on average, every day in 2012. That makes the Wrangler Chrysler’s third most popular selling vehicle, trailing only the Ram pickup and its Jeep Grand Cherokee sibling. For further perspective, the Wrangler lineup outsells the whole Audi line, all of Infiniti, as well as the complete lineup of Lincoln and Scion. Jeep also sells twice as many Wranglers as Volvos sold in America.

The Wrangler is a unique vehicle that virtually owns a very special demographic. Customers who want Wranglers are not necessarily that much different from buyers of other vehicles — and Wrangler owners typically own lots of other brands too — yet the Wrangler’s performance paradigm and its individual driving characteristics apparently have enough appeal to keep on growing the brand. Chrysler has been especially prolific about milking the viability, and the popularity, of the Wrangler, which is the only way you can explain a $36,495 Wrangler — with a soft top roof.

That’s a stiffer starting price than the previously top Rubicon and Call-of-Duty models. (Two-door Moabs start at $32,995.) What do you get for your off-road warrior? Some specific exterior trim pieces that let you tell other Wrangler owners that your Jeep is very ‘different,’ plus some running gear changes that should improve four-wheeling performance.

Hardware changes include a Trac-Loc limited slip rear differential, a Dana 44-rear locker, steel bumpers front and rear with integrated fog lamps up front as well as winch attachment points, plus satin black rock rails on each side to protect the lower doors. Special Goodyear Wrangler Kevlar Silent Armor tires are fitted to blacked-out 17-inch Rubicon wheels.

In standard trim, the removable soft-top has a new coating to better protect the interior from the elements and to last longer, plus the new materials and architecture let one person remove the top instead of a team of committed individuals. The optional hardtop — in color match Dozer as shown here — has three separate removable panels; two small panels up front for individual convertible experiences, or, remove the whole top to enjoy full top-down motoring. The doors are still removable as well, and the windshield can be folded forward with some tool work.

Visually, the Moab model gains some pieces that remain options on other models. The power-dome hood increases the promise that some other powerplant might be lurking for future Wrangler applications (see below) while a blacked out fuel door, taillamp guards, and Moab decals help differentiate this Jeep from others. Inside, there is a special leather upholstery, iron-gray interior trim accents, and some more Moab monikers to remind you what you paid extra for.

On a very cool winter morning, I pointed the Moab north for a trip to Presque Isle and back. The dash’s outside temperature gauge reflected wild variations from Ellsworth to Bangor, going up and down with the hills and valleys as pockets of warm and cold air circulated. Once on the highway at Old Town, I clicked the cruise control on at 80-mph to gauge the Wrangler powertrain’s competence at holding that speed, what its comfort level would be for the next 90 minutes, and to provide more context on why the Wrangler is so popular despite its off-roading roots. Cloudy, but with little wind, the temp gauge now indicated five degrees.

By the Houlton exit, I had passed exactly 12 vehicles in 110 miles, or, roughly one vehicle every nine miles. The Wrangler’s new 3.6-liter V-6, with 285 hp, had no trouble maintaining my selected speed; if the five-speed transmission needed to downshift for long grades, this action was imperceptible to the driver. While the cabin was a tad noisier than at lower speeds, the Sirius satellite radio-equipped Jeep did not drown out the ESPN signal. The longer wheelbase of the Unlimited Wrangler offers more stability and highway tracking composure than does the two-door Wrangler, but you sacrifice some low-speed turning diameter and some of the overall nimble-ness inherent to a smaller vehicle.

At this pace, the Jeep’s tachometer reported 2,800 rpms — right in the heart of the engine’s powerband, but above the established limits for Eco-mode efficiency. At the pump, the Wrangler’s highway pace in cool, winter weather returned only 15 mpg. This number increased slightly as the pace slowed on the way up Route 1 to Presque Isle, but the Moab never got close to its 20-mpg EPA rating.

This brings up the novelty of the power-dome hood. For years, Jeep owners have pursued optional powerplants for their Wranglers — including the Hemi V-8. Yet, with increasing fuel economy standards, Chrysler may need to add other engine options to the Wrangler lineup. Since Chrysler is now linked at the hip with Fiat, should there be a turbocharged four-cylinder engine for the Wrangler? Would the Wrangler work well both on road and off road with a turbo-diesel engine — either a four-cylinder or V-6 layout? Certainly both engines are currently in production in Italy, so surely Jeep’s engineers have tested these powertrain options as the current 16-20-mpg EPA ratings for the Wrangler are not going to cut it in the future.

Jeep also has toyed with an Unlimited Pickup option for the Wrangler. Currently, buyers can get a dealer-constructed pickup bed kit for the Unlimited model — Mopar package JK-8 — for $5,499. Based on the Gladiator Pickup concept that has circulated the prototype circuit for several years, the JK-8 package offers another trim level, another Wrangler model that will increase the Jeep’s appeal to a wide cross-section of buyers who can only get something similar at the Toyota store right now.

While Chrysler officials cannot comment about the viability of the Unlimited Pickup, it seems very reasonable to expect such a Wrangler model in the near future. It also seems viable for one or both of the afore-mentioned turbocharged engines as Jeep will need to lower the Wrangler’s weight, increase its fuel economy, and otherwise update this aging platform if the Jeep hopes to continue those yearly sales gains.

Jeep hits: fun to drive quotient high, strong curb appeal for individualists, attention-grabbing colors, updated interior delivers much improved levels of comfort and noise suppression, sure-footed in the snow.

Jeep misses: ‘busy’ rural road ride, odd ergonomics for entry and exit, poor fuel economy, rising prices.

For more Living stories, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.