If you've never owned or driven a Wrangler, you might think it's twitchy, choppy and generally crude. But it's a relative thing. Your family sedan would feel no more at home on a muddy, rutted track deep in the woods. Relative to earlier versions, today's Wrangler feels quite civilized.
Compared to the last-generation Wrangler (pre-2007 models), the wheelbase is longer and the front and rear tracks are wider, the chassis has been stiffened and the suspension redesigned. All these things yield significant improvements in the ride and handling, but still, on city streets, the Wrangler can be bouncy, and out on the freeway it can feel squiggly over pavement changes. On rougher surfaces the driver needs to pay attention to keep the Wrangler going in a straight line, though on dirt it's directional stability is decent and you're more likely to steer only for major course changes.
That said, we drove the Wrangler at speeds up to 85 miles per hour on the open freeway and, when the pavement was smooth, it was stable and surprisingly quiet with the hardtop. Handling is predictable if not thrilling and it goes where it's pointed. If the road was even mildly rough, the ride will deteriorate. The brakes are adequate.
However, it's important to note that the various models, Sport, Sahara, Rubicon, have completely different tires and the Sahara and Rubicon have better shock absorbers. Sport and Sahara have what amount to all-season passenger car tires, while the Rubicon has light truck tires with an aggressive tread; tire pressure will make a major difference in how each rides and handles. On low-speed trails, we frequently make do with less than 10 psi. But you need to air up when you get back on the road.
Electronic stability control is standard on Wrangler, with hill-start assist and trailer sway control. The safety equipment, including the airbags, has been tuned and calibrated with Wrangler's mission in mind so that, for example, an off-angle hill doesn't deploy a side airbag.
The 3.8-liter engine is an overhead-valve V6 just like it was 45 years ago. Modern electronics help it make 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque, but the Wrangler is not light (50 percent heavier than the 45-year-old CJ) so acceleration is moderate and fuel economy in the teens. The optional 4-speed automatic transmission will change between third and fourth gear a lot on hilly highways unless you switch off overdrive because there isn't enough torque to run the top gear uphill.
The 6-speed manual transmission is the better choice. It's lighter than the automatic, offers two more gears for better performance, has reasonably good shift feel and clutch effort for a truck, and the Rubicon has a switch that allows you to use the starter in gear as you might on a trail.
The Rubicon also uses a different transfer-case with a deeper low-range ratio of 4:1 rather than the standard 2.72:1. This lets the Rubicon go slower with the engine running, and deliver more torque to keep the tires turning in deep mud or sand.
The easiest way to drive a Rubicon over rocky terrain is with the front antisway bar disconnected and without using the brake of clutch: Gearing and engine braking will limit downhill speed, and if gearing doesn't get you up an obstacle and it stalls, put one foot very lightly on the gas pedal and turn the key to let the starter do the work.
The Wrangler Unlimited is a different animal. The ride is significantly smoother thanks to a wheelbase that's 20.6 inches longer and it carries four more gallons of gas, extending trail range. The downside is an Unlimited weighs about 200 pounds more and needs an extra six feet of space to execute a U-turn on the street or get around a tight obstacle on the trail. Six feet may not sound like much on the street, but it's huge on a black-diamond trail.
All Wranglers are 4WD and all are EPA-rated 15/19 regardless of transmission or model. No sane person buys a Wrangler with fuel economy in mind but the Unlimited's extra weight and size may negatively affect it, and higher cruising speeds have a greater-than-normal effect since aerodynamics are not the priority here. For anyone planning to use a Wrangler as intended we would recommend the shortest (highest numerical) axle ratio available.