Throwback Review: The Thanksgiving Vehicle That Started It All

A Victory & Reseda Throwback Review of the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

Since moving to Minneapolis in 2004, I've driven more SUVs and crossovers than any time in my life. I decided after all these years that I was not be intimated by them anymore. It also helped that these once despised machines – the darlings of the George W. Bush years – became kinder and gentler than their predecessors.

These SUVs and crossovers ran the gamut from very good (for example: the 2008-2011 Ford Escape) to the horrid (a 2006/2007 Jeep Liberty – I forget the actual model year). And, they keep on showing up on this site for some reason or another.

Maybe, I'm just fascinated by them now.

Perhaps there is a reason behind getting behind the wheel of these SUVs and crossovers. There is an opportunity as an automotive writer to provide some consumer advice regarding these vehicles. A vehicle shopper certainly has a wide variety of these wagon-esque conveyances to choose from – with many niche products available in the marketplace!

How does one navigate through these niches to find the right SUV/crossover? Think of it as choosing something from a menu at a popular restaurant. Do I just want a burger, indulge in a steak meal or try something more exotic and interesting? If I wanted a burger, there are plenty of places where I can get the same sandwich combination with varying degrees of quality. In other words, not all half-pound burgers with American-type cheese are the same.

The same goes for SUVs and crossovers. To paraphrase my earlier point, there are vehicles for every kind of driver and family. Yet, I've been wondering how many more softroaders I have to drive before I actually experience a real SUV with true off-road capability. Not to diminish a chunk of the vehicles I’ve written about over the past few years, but it would be nice to experience something that a traditional SUV used to do. Or, perhaps still do.

This year, I finally was able to do just that. Though it was a brief encounter, I had a chance to experience the Jeep Wrangler on a controlled course when the brand’s Rocks and Road Tour made their stop across the street from the Mall of America. I also rode along in both the short-wheelbase Wrangler and the four-door Unlimited on a muddy course with various off-road conditions. However, I have yet to take one on the road to truly gauge how a Wrangler is out in the wild.

To accomplish this, I got a 2011 Wrangler Unlimited Sport. Not as technically well equipped as the Rubicons I experienced on Jeep's controlled environment, but the Sport represents one of the purest experiences of any of the product on the Jeep roster.

One thing I must state before I go on – if you think that Toyota Prius owners are the most fanatical on the planet, try Jeep Wrangler owners. Their mantra is worth repeating: "It's a Jeep thing, you don't understand." As much as I try to be objective about a vehicle on this blog, I always have to gird for the vitriol if there are points of disagreement. So…to my friends and readers of this blog, please accept my apologies in advance for what I am about to say…

2011 Jeep Wrangler 2

Now, don’t get me wrong! I have a lot of respect for the Wrangler. I've always wanted to drive one, but my mindset wasn’t ready for one. From the start, Jeeps were hardcore vehicles that weren’t primarily designed for the daily grind of life. Yet, the evolution of the species allowed for some serious softroaders with most, if not all, of the abilities of the original Military Jeep. Still, the Civilian Jeep remains iconic – the shape itself retains a lineage to the ones that trudged through victory in World War II.

Yet, modern times lent to modern enhancements to the CJ. The JK-generation Wrangler may seem like a far cry from the Military Jeeps that faced the Axis combatants on European soil and throughout the Pacific, but, as one of my Thanksgiving hosts said to me, he wanted to give it a salute.

Real off-road enthusiasts would rather have me drive the standard short-wheelbase Wrangler to fully comprehend the breed. It is the Wrangler Unlimited that drew me right behind the wheel. After making four-door softroaders, Jeep decided that it was time to combine the versatility of a regular SUV with the Wrangler itself. The original Unlimited was a long-wheelbase version of the last generation model – with only two doors. With four doors, the Unlimited retains the capabilities of the Wrangler with access for adults to enter and exit the rear seats.

In this article, I added another element to help frame this piece. I gave rides to my Thanksgiving hosts as a way to ward off the turkey coma…and they had some very interesting things to say about this Jeep.

2011 Jeep Wrangler 4

The first thing they said was it seemed rather big in size and stature. Not necessarily. Because no one expected the Wrangler Unlimited to grow two more doors, it does give a visual impression of largess. In truth, it is not any larger than a mid-size SUV. With the hardtop (the "Freedom Top," by the way) fully on, it does have a boxy shape that is not designed for wind management – but it helps keep its occupants warm with the powerful heater that was used on a very cold Thanksgiving Day. On this example, you can remove the piece over the front seats as a semi-convertible – known as the Freedom Panel. Eventually, you can remove the entire hardtop and the doors.

Another point to make about the Wrangler's exterior is with the body's construction. If you have never been around a Wrangler, you will be shocked at the lack of thickness in the body panels itself. Trust me, they work extremely well. The doors may not close with a thud, but they do work. Keep in mind they are removable. The hood is latched with two heavy rubberized anchors up front. Once you release them, match sure you release the latch between the hood and the grille to access the engine bay.

As with every other Military and Civilian Jeep before it, the body sits on top of the frame – exposed to the world. It's designed with the Jeep's agility off-road in mind, but for people who have never experienced a Wrangler – it's like climbing onto an old railroad car. If you're used to high ground clearances and SUVs in general, you appreciate the high climb up and its advantages over other SUVs and crossovers.

2011 Jeep Wrangler 8

The one concern over past Wranglers had been the cabin. Over the years, that spartan feeling of compromising comfort for utility skirted me away from actually wanting to drive one. Good thing Chrysler made an effort to further civilize the Wrangler towards everyday use. The Wrangler Unlimited’s cabin received a new dashboard for 2011 – perhaps one of the few things Fiat signed off on in improving the company’s most iconic product. The materials were upgraded and the same quality touch I felt in the 2011 Grand Cherokee had been translated onto the Wrangler.

One objection I had was with some satin-finished trim pieces around the dash’s vents and the front fascia handlebar, with the Jeep name embossed on them. To my taste, I found them tacky. I was overruled by almost everyone else who happened to like these trim pieces.

My Thanksgiving hosts gave me a lot of feedback on the cabin. The smaller folks loved the room and comfort of the rear seat, while taller folks felt a bit cramped in the same space. Headroom seemed fine all around, despite possible intrusions, such as the Wrangler’s roll cage covered with padded covers and molded overhead light/speaker assemblies. In fact, everyone appreciated the attention to safety inside the Wrangler Unlimited.

Where the Wrangler truly won over everyone was up front – not just the new, higher quality dashboard and switchgear, but in the seats. The seats were firm but fine for the grind on- and off-road. They lock you in while you drive down any surface. The Sport’s functional cloth upholstery also won over my Thanksgiving hosts.

The cargo space is quite sizeable and functional. However, if you never drove a Wrangler, you will have to learn how to manage the tailgate system. Remember, the lower part opens first and swings out to your right. You also must remember to open the glass portion if you have larger items. Closing is the opposite action: Glass portion down, then the tailgate. You'll get the hang of it after the first time you use it.

2011 Jeep Wrangler 6

Under the hood is the 3.8-liter V6 that will make its final call of duty this model year. For 2012, Chrysler is set to drop the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 under the hood. Since the new engine ranges between 280-305 horsepower, how this will manifest in the Wrangler will be seen in a year's time.

The current motor has a purpose for the Wrangler: 237 pounds of torque. Running only 202 horses under the hood, the V6 was designed with torque in mind – the main ingredient for off-road and foul condition driving. You can run it on the highway at speed, but getting there would mean catching its breath without stomping on the throttle. Partly it is because the automatic gearbox only has four ratios to work with. If Jeep is set to drop the Pentastar V6 under the Wrangler’s hood for the next model year, the automatic gearbox will need more ratios.

Connecting all four wheels is Jeep's Command-Trac system. Through a shift-on-the-fly transfer case, two Dana axles give all four corners of the Wrangler the ability to get through some terrible or challenging conditions. In theory, this system is excellent – but not without a few complaints. For one, engaging the transfer case on the fly wasn't as smooth as I'd like. If I did a full stop, I expect to switch for 2WD to 4WD-High with ease when I need it. That didn’t happen half the time, I'm afraid. If there's a trick to this, let me know.

When you are in 4WD-High (at least), try doing a u-turn. The front axle resisted such a maneuver that the vehicle began bucking when it was turning. It felt like the traction control went into overtime ensuring the turn was done. Otherwise, turning a corner or going onto a cloverleaf seemed fine in 4WD. Switch it back to 2WD and any steering wheel action worked superbly – if not with a lot of vagueness in the steering action overall.

2011 Jeep Wrangler 3

In all, the Command-Trac system, combined with Electronic Stability Control and anti-lock brakes, was the best solution to deal with the caked over roads and parking lots in the instances I had to use it. Perhaps even better than most four-wheel drive systems I've ever driven.

Perhaps the biggest discussion around the Wrangler Unlimited was to the ride itself. The Wrangler Unlimited has one of the smoothest, tautest rides in the business. It’s simply solid – exactly the type of ride I expect from any vehicle. No one bounced or felt discomfort while inside the Wrangler Unlimited. This was truly a revelation that was first experienced during the Rocks and Road tour in the Rubicon model. Inside the Sport, I felt no difference between the two – and I put it to the test from caked-over roads to clear freeways. This was the one thing everyone who rode along loved about the Wrangler Unlimited.

As much as I enjoyed driving these SUVs and crossovers over the past several years, it is at the gas pump is where my pleasure turns towards pain. The Wrangler Unlimited turned a 14.0 MPG economy loop in my care. Painful? It depends on how you look at it. The fact that 4WD-High was engaged for parts of this journey had an effect on fuel economy. So were the colder temperatures. Still, I expected fuel economy to be adverse in this vehicle – there's no getting around it for now.

There are many opinions about the Wrangler Unlimited and Jeep in general. I will say to those Jeep detractors that the quality is indeed improving. I will also say that driving a Wrangler helped in understanding where my latest appreciation of SUVs and crossover originates from – and that the formula still works. I finally got to drive an honest off-road capable vehicle – one with a purpose and the ability to do practically everything you can think of.

2011 Jeep Wrangler 5

I've already established that I understood the "Jeep thing." Yet, I have to take a step back. Maybe I prefer a unibody vehicle with thicker, more integral platform construction. Maybe I like a better-trimmed and more tangible interior design with advanced technology integrated throughout. Maybe I want to achieve 20-plus MPG consistently when I drive an SUV or crossover.

Maybe I should prefer to drive a standard sedan next time.

But, for a vehicle that can balance the daily grind of life with the ability to get through terrible road conditions and take it off-road – you can’t go wrong with a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. At almost $31,000 for this one, it is a relative bargain considering other vehicles capable of doing the same thing – and there are just a few of them still around.

Driving the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited certainly gave me context for when I get behind the wheel of my next SUV or crossover. Clearly, it is the benchmark of what an SUV is supposed to be – and for good reason: Capability. In a Wrangler, I won’t be the one stuck on an ice slab or in a ditch along the Interstate. That’s not to say that it could happen, but knowing it has the capability to do more than the average vehicle on the road confirms the continued availability of the Civilian Jeep on our market.

That is why Fiat spared the Wrangler's life upon emerging out of Bankruptcy. That is why Sergio Marchionne's team believed in this champion of adventurers everywhere. That is why I now have a high appreciation for this vehicle.

…and there is one more piece to this story. A couple of months after I turned in this Jeep, I saw a Facebook post from Chrysler Communications wondering who was going to the 2011 Chicago Auto Show. I replied that I was. Then, I got a private message from their social media communications person asking about my work at that point. I pointed him to the original review of this Jeep. He asked if it was my Wrangler Unlimited, which I replied it was not. He invited me to the Social Media Breakfast at the Chicago Auto Show to meet Ralph Gilles (current global head of design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles).

The rest is history…

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle was rented by Randy Stern

All photos by Randy Stern

PRE-OWNED VEHICLE INFORMATION: Per a search on several car shopping sites, V&R found there were several 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimiteds available between $21,000 and $29,000. Mileage and condition varies, but most were found with over 60,000 miles on the odometer, the highest being over 122,000 miles. Always have any vehicle inspected before purchase.

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