BOSTON — The oldest soldier of the American automotive kingdom keeps battling on. Jeep's Wrangler first made an impression on American consciousness as the Army's M20. It has gone through several permutations, changing model names and even brand names numerous times, but remains the same American icon.
The latest metamorphosis came with the 1997 model, introduced in April. While it still looks pretty much like the same old Jeep, it has been completely redesigned and has an entirely new body.
Unlike previous corporate owners that treated Jeep as an unexpectedly profitable sideline, Chrysler has invested heavily in bringing it up to date. Well, almost.
The most noticeable changes in the '97 Wrangler are: (1) a redesigned dashboard to incorporate dual air bags and a more efficient ventilation system; (2) a softer suspension that uses coil instead of leaf springs at all four corners; and (3) a higher, slightly more aerodynamic, tapered nose that returns to traditional round headlights and moves the turn signals out to the fenders, where they are more visible. This also makes room for the new ventilation-system ducting.
Otherwise, longtime fans will delight that the Jeep has not significantly changed.
It's still about the most capable off-roader to be found on the infamous Rubicon trail in California's Sierra Nevada. And come March, it's still the harbinger of spring with the top in various stages of disassembly.
Along with the sheet-metal, the canvas top has been completely revamped for the '97 model. It's now possible for one person to erect it in just a few minutes (it slips easily over the roll bar, and attaches to the windshield with two clips). New plastic door seals make the assembly more weathertight. The windshield has been raked back a few degrees for better aerodynamics and to accommodate the new top.
As leak-resistant as it is, with the new top up the Jeep still feels more like a tent-on-wheels than a modern conveyance.
For practical-minded buyers, the optional $785 hardtop is the ticket. For that price buyers get full doors with roll-up windows (instead of zippered plastic side curtains) and a rear-window wiper, plus a lighter-weight hardtop that is easier to install and remove than in older versions. The top has improved rain gutters and new big vents in the back to increase airflow through the cabin. But who ever buys a Jeep for the hardtop, anyway?
Better handling of bumps
Jeep critics also have reason to be pleased. While not quite civilized, the new Jeep handles with more surety and is less jarring on long trips. For peace of mind, cornering is still best handled with finesse. But minor course corrections at unexpected speeds no longer upset the Wrangler's footing. The ride at the front is positively cushy, though the rear still bucks over bumps. Only the worst sections of freeway expansion joints are uncomfortable.
The Sport model tested by this reviewer came with AMC's venerable 4-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, now fuel-injected, and a five-speed manual transmission. This power train proved wonderfully smooth to drive, with little unnecessary shifting and plenty of smooth power available at any speed.
Although the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder seems perfectly capable in such a light vehicle, the 4-liter doesn't have to work as hard and actually achieves better gas mileage: 17 miles per gallon in the city and 21 highway, versus 17 and 19 for the 2.5 liter.
Although the $21,098 price tag on the tested Wrangler Sport seems high for an Army surplus relic, the four-cylinder Wrangler SE lists for $13,000 to $17,500. The SE has fewer modern amenities such as air-conditioning and fashionable cloth upholstery with a Southwestern motif.
The '97 Wrangler has more room for both front and rear passengers: The front seats accommodate taller passengers, while the rear seat has been widened and the rear floor lowered to give more foot room.
Spacing for the roll bar (the company calls it a "sport bar" to limit liability claims) has been widened to give more headroom and easier access to the back.
Still, the removable back seat is functional only for two, so it is better reserved for short trips. It also provides essentially the only luggage space, so carrying passengers back there is impractical on long trips.