Features > Vehicle Reviews
2004 Wrangler Unlimited
story & photos by S.C. Clinton
Ten more inches of wheelbase clears the whoops and smoothes out the ride
For nearly 20 years, since the introduction of the Wrangler in 1987, Jeep fans have been asking for the return of the Scrambler. Jeep has finally listened... at least partway. The Wrangler Unlimited enjoys the same wheelbase as the venerable Scrambler, but is more than a foot shorter overall. Jeep has added the same 10 inches to the wheelbase of the Wrangler (the Scrambler’s wheelbase was 10 inches longer than the CJ-7); however, the designers only added five inches behind the rear axle, whereas the Scrambler had a 20-inch rear overhang.
This shorter overhang only degrades the Wrangler Unlimited’s departure angle five degrees less than the Rubicon’s and an even smaller difference exists between the standard Wrangler’s departure angle and the Wrangler Unlimited’s (three degrees). At a 3,445-pound curb weight, it has 8.8 inches of ground clearance, a 41.8-degree approach angle, a 31.3-degree departure angle, and a breakover angle of 22.3 degrees. Interestingly, the longer wheelbase only adds 2 1/2 inches to the Wrangler Unlimited’s turning circle over the standard Wrangler and slightly more than an inch to the Rubicon’s circle. On the plus side, the standard Dana 44 rear differential (the same one that’s under the Rubicon), the longer wheelbase, and the standard four-wheel disc brakes have combined to up the Wrangler Unlimited’s towing capacity to 3,500 pounds (1,500 pounds over the standard Wrangler). Another interesting fact: the Wrangler Unlimited’s GVWR is equal to the Rubicon and 150 pounds more than the standard Wrangler, but its payload is 50 pounds less than either one — and its weight is listed as being less than any other six-cylinder-powered Wrangler with an automatic transmission.
But enough of the nuts and bolts stuff for now. Let’s get to how the Wrangler Unlimited handles, drives, and treks overland. The very first thing I noticed was how twitchy the throttle was. I snapped more than a few necks until I got the hang of it. It felt as if it wanted to give its full torque output as soon as the pedal was pressed (however slightly). There seemed to be no sliding up to speed; just an almost instant change from idle to 45 mph with no transition period. Finally, though, my passengers were able to remove their neck braces because I finally gained control of the throttle after two hours of Southern California traffic.
In an effort to test the Wrangler Unlimited in as many off-road situations as possible, and to fully examine its on-road capability, our four-person test team added hundreds of miles to the Jeep’s odometer in the short time we had our hands on it. Our first excursion was a 200-mile trip up the Pacific Coast to the well-known Pismo Beach sand dunes. (Actually, their true name is less well known: Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, which is located beside Arroyo Grande, California.)
In a roughly rectangular-shaped area of approximately 1 1/2 miles by almost four miles — about a third of what it was in the ’60s when I first began my annual treks to Pismo — you’ll find sand that couldn’t be more perfect for four wheelers. It is large grained, coarse, and “heavy” (due to its nightly soak-down from very heavy dew); perfect for the heavier (when compared to sand buggies) Jeeps and other SUVs.
The weather was overcast, cool, and foggy, so we kept the top zipped and the hard-door windows rolled up while we played in the dunes. All that was necessary to prep the Wrangler Unlimited for sand running was dropping the pressure in the Goodyear Wrangler GS-A 30x9.50R15LT tires down to 12 psi, shifting the transfer case into four-wheel drive, and punching the throttle. Now, the twitchy throttle didn’t matter because with the 3.73:1 gear ratio we needed all the torque we could get as fast as we could get it. On some of the taller dunes, low range was required, though, since the 3.73 gears are actually a bit high for easy off-roading. (The 3.73:1 gear ratio is the only ratio available in the Wrangler Unlimited.)
Within its obvious limitations of small tires and tall gearing, the Wrangler Unlimited performed flawlessly in the dunes, and the longer wheelbase presented no problems, even on some of the sharp peaks. On those, we simply kept the engine rpm up and the gear selection down until the peak was cleared. The automatic transmission even allowed one of the team — a definite novice when it comes to off-road driving — to have a ball on the lower, smaller dunes nearer the shore.
Since we were on a short time leash, and the Wrangler Unlimited didn’t need any more proof of its dune capability, we dropped down out of the dunes on to the hard-packed sand at the high-tide line, shifted out of 4WD, and headed for the nearest air pump. While we were refilling the tires, we decided to refill the gas tank and were pleasantly surprised to learn that we were averaging 18.8 mpg.
With a full tank of gas, cups of coffee in the center console’s tray, and a Ray Charles retrospective slipping smoothly out of the Wrangler Unlimited’s six speakers, we turned the Jeep south for a quick run back to Orange County (we even managed to use the cruise control — with steering wheel controls — for short periods of time in the Southern California traffic). Driving a Wrangler Unlimited on the road is nearly as much fun as driving it off the road. Regardless of whether you’re traveling at 65-70 mph on the freeway or diddling around at 25-30 mph in a seaside resort town’s tourist traffic, the Jeep is downright fun to drive.
Even though it was foggy and overcast near the ocean, about a mile or so inland ol’ Sol broke out and the temperature rose about 15 degrees, we decided to give the air conditioning a break and get some rays on the way home. The Jeep’s Sunrider soft top has a sunroof. A unique fold-back sunroof that lets you quickly fold the top back partway like an accordion for a breath of fresh air or all the way down for the ultimate wind in your face freedom — as with the other Wranglers, the windshield can be laid down and secured to the hood — we decided on just the sunroof and torqued up Ray Charles on the stereo so we could hear him over the wind noise.
I once had a professor in college (American History and Political Science) who always told his classes up front that he was a liberal and that was his approach to teaching American political history. He did this so there were no misconceptions about his point-of-view, so, following in his tire tracks, right about now I must admit that I’m a die-hard Jeep fan. Even though I’ve owned many different brands of four-wheelers over the decades — and enjoyed every one of them — and tested a whole lot more trucks than I’d like to admit, I bought my first Jeep — a 1946 totally stock CJ-2A — more than 40 years ago from my father-in-law, and my family has been enjoying four-wheeling ever since. However, I’m used to the bare-bones models where you have no qualms about cleaning it inside and out at the local coin-wash because you don’t have to worry about carpeting, stereo speakers, or the air conditioning grilles. In 1974, I ordered a new CJ-5. At the time the passenger seat and the backseat were options, and I had to order them separately — it’s not that way any longer.
After spending a few days in another new Jeep three decades later, I’m here to testify that I could get used to the opulence found in the Wrangler Unlimited very easily. Its smooth ride, its torquey 4.0L in-line six, and its automatic transmission all combine to present a fun machine. I’d have to be more careful with my morning coffee, and I’d probably have to dry the dogs off after their daily afternoon swim in the Colorado River before letting them in the Jeep, but I think I could get used to that in time.
However, let’s face it; I still had to check out the Wrangler Unlimited on some mountain trails, so we headed upward. In the Southern California mountains, the tree trunks soared skyward like columns in a temple; their intertwining branches blocked the sun’s rays and created an artificial twilight on the forest floor. The mountains gave us clear air in which to shoot pictures, but with the light so dappled and dim we couldn’t snap one picture with confidence, so we searched for and found some open areas.
To get there, we danced the Wrangler Unlimited up a number of unpaved county roads, trying its suspension and its tires’ grip on loose dirt with a bit of speed. Here’s where the air conditioning came back into play. Team member Patrick, who was driving the Jeep to compare its capabilities to his ’84 Scrambler, followed me up the extremely dusty trails with the Jeep’s windows up and the air-conditioning turned up full to “pressurize” its interior, said it was much easier and much more fun to drive than the 20-year-old CJ-8. He also swore by the Jeep’s weather-tightness and lack of dust on the inside. He told me that he didn’t have to clean his sunglasses once, although he was forced to use the windshield washer several times in order to see the trail.
On the dusty, rocky mountain trails, we found the Wrangler Unlimited to be as nimble as a standard TJ but with a smoother ride. The longer wheelbase allows it to slip through and over the whoop-de-dos made by shorter wheelbase Jeeps. Most of the whoops we found were made by 93.4-inch wheelbase Jeeps — CJ-7, YJ, TJ — so the 103.4-inch Wrangler Unlimited wouldn’t drop all four tires into existing holes simultaneously. Instead, its longer wheelbase allowed the front wheels to keep digging on the upslope of the whoops while the rear axle kept up vehicle momentum with its tires powering through the downslope. When the rear tires were deep in the holes and dragging the differential on the center hump (30-inch tires, remember), the front tires were out of the holes, back on the trail, and pulling the Wrangler Unlimited forward. The longer wheelbase works off-road beautifully.
While we couldn’t take it over the Rubicon or the Hammers for a number of reasons; i.e., time, distance, and the potential for body damage. With 30-inch tires and stock height, the Unlimited would scrape off too much paint and parts to run the Rubi or the Hammers; however, we did ride roughshod on it as much as possible. And if you do get into trouble on the trail and become bogged down, the two hooks in front and one drag loop in the rear provide excellent hard attachment points for recovery.
The Unlimited’s 12 extra inches can provide much more cargo space and more rear seat passenger room for greater on-road comfort and off-road capability. Pack the cargo for the trip and bring along a few friends to share the experience, and they may become four wheelers too. After all, what some people call extreme, you call vacation.
Other than the additional legroom and cargo space, the Wrangler Unlimited’s interior is the same as a standard Wrangler with the same options. The Jeep’s cruise control is on the steering wheel, the center console has two cup holders and brackets inside to keep five CD cases from clattering around while bouncing about off road. All the light controls are on the turn signal lever, and the windshield wiper controls are on a lever to the right of the steering column.
According to the Jeep’s window sticker, its base manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $24,385, with the test model topping out at $25,815 (not including tax and registration).
The consensus of opinion of the four-driver test team: “Cool!” And that seems to wrap it up for most of the passersby who asked us about the longer Jeep. This is an excellent Jeep for the beginner as is, and an excellent beginner Jeep for the experienced aftermarket enthusiast. For the beginner, the gear train compensates automatically (pun intended!) for a lot driving mistakes until the novice driver becomes more experienced. For the longtime trail hand, the many existing aftermarket kits out there can make this longer Jeep a force to be reckoned with. After all, the only difference between a TJ and a Wrangler Unlimited is a longer body panel and a longer rear driveshaft. I have no idea why Jeep engineers or marketing personnel didn’t add a Rubicon package to the available Wrangler Unlimited option list, because with that addition, the Wrangler Unlimited would truly be trail rated and unlimited in its scope.