Jeep Wrangler SE

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Description: Jeep Wrangler SE 4WD (2000) Review

Ah, the elemental motoring experience! Wind in the hair, mud in the face, roads optional. hmmm. Either we're talking about driving conditions at the turn of the last century or we're talking about a Jeep.

Since this column covers new vehicles, we're talking about a Jeep. In particular, the elemental Jeep - the Wrangler. It's the direct descendent of the original Willys MB of the World War II era and the CJ-2A that followed. Thanks to a serious redesign in 1997, the current Wrangler looks little changed from that original Jeep of fifty years ago. Don't be fooled by the timeless styling, though. The newest Wrangler is a completely modern vehicle, and is one of the most off-road-capable vehicles made right off the showroom floor. A redesigned and much stiffer frame provides secure mounting for the ``QuadraCoil'' (tm) suspension. This is a similar design to that used in the Grand Cherokee, and if its solid axles seem less than cutting-edge technology, there is a reason. Solid axles are strong, and can stand up to punishment that can damage independent suspensions. The coil spring suspension provides much improved ride and handling, on or off pavement, and features increased articulation for serious off-road situations. And, being a Jeep, the Wrangler is meant to be as at home on the most punishing off-road trail as on city streets.

Wranglers come in SE, Sport, and Sahara trim levels. All are four-wheel drive, with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the SE and the latest version of Jeep's legendary 4.0-liter inline six in the Sport and Sahara. I spent a recent week in an SE, and was pleasantly surprised by its civility with character. As more sport- utilities become increasingly upscale and carlike, real outdoors- oriented vehicles become harder to find. The Wrangler satisfies crawling through the woods in 4-low and as a convertible runabout around town.

APPEARANCE: Thanks to its trademark vertical-slot grille and round headlights, the newest Wrangler doesn't look all that different from a 50-plus year-old Willys MB or CJ-2A. Styling, such as it is, is very much of the form-follows-function variety, with no frills. The main body components are steel, with brush and rock- resistant plastic fender extensions. External hood latches and door hinges and a flat, foldable windshield help the retro-look and outback simplicity. The standard convertible top is much like those of old British sports cars - best left up or taken down for the season. It's not one of those new-style power-operated tops, and real Jeep fans would have it no other way. Besides, the available hard top is just the solution for cold, wet climates.

COMFORT: The Wrangler is not a city-slicker luxury poseur SUV, it's the real deal for real dirt. Name another current vehicle than has manual roll-up windows as a luxury option. Depending on trim level and options, a Wrangler may be a Spartan off-road athlete or a well-appointed urban cowboy. My test Jeep was somewhere in between, with a bias toward civilization. The cloth-covered high- back bucket seats are reasonably comfortable, and two more people can fit in the rear bench. The instrument panel is a contemporary design, with instruments and controls placed for easy visibility and use. Optional civilizing equipment, including an air conditioner and AM/FM/CD audio system, is placed in a center stack. Both the glove box and optional (huge) center console box are lockable, as is an available trunk under the rear deck. Luggage space is at a minimum - think of the Wrangler as a four-wheel drive, go anywhere convertible sports coupe.

SAFETY: The Wrangler's windshield frame and sport bar form an integral part of the body structure that exceeds passenger car rollover standards. All four seating positions have three-point safety belts.

ROADABILITY: Like all of its ancestors, the current Wrangler is designed to have fairly serious off-road ability right off the showroom floor. So, it's optimized for low-speed maneuverability in rugged situations, not for sports-car cornering on the highway. With its short wheelbase and high center of gravity, care must be taken at speed lest one test the roll bar, not a fun thing to do. That caveat aside, the Wrangler works surprisingly well in the civilized world. The new chassis and body structure are commendably rigid, making the little Jeep feel very solid. There are no squeaks, groans, and rattles - telltale signs of chassis flex - on rough roads or over speed bumps. Although it has solid axles, it doesn't feel like it. There is no bump steer, and it tracks straight and true.

PERFORMANCE: The Wrangler SE's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine has 120 horsepower and 140 lb-ft of torque. There is useful power from just above idle to the 5600 rpm redline, with good low- end torque for dealing with city traffic or off-road trails. The standard five-speed manual transmission works well, and it's long- throw shift linkage helps give the Wrangler character. Even with over 3000 lbs of weight to move, the Wrangler has no problem keeping up with traffic. But it's better suited to life in the slow lane than the fast lane. Relax and enjoy the scenery. hey! you're in a Jeep. Go explore the scenery. (But tread lightly and stay on the trails.)

CONCLUSIONS: The newest version of the Jeep Wrangler adds just enough civilization to its back-to-basics nature to please people who like its style and those whose driveway was last used by Conestoga wagons.

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