July 28, 2014

Ten years ago, when the Wrangler got a six speed and a new hood

Found this in the files, written almost 10 years ago for NZ Petrolhead magazine, about the last significant changes to the Jeep TJ Wrangler. The changes were hot stuff at the time, but seem pretty ordinary now.

The test Wrangler today has about 70,000km on the odo.
Jeep’s Wrangler, direct descendent of the one that started it all, enjoys one of the longest model lives of all American vehicles, around 10 years; but don’t think that a decade goes by without Jeep making changes. Each year there’s a detail here, a widget there and for 2005 there’s an important all-new six-speed manual gearbox replacing the five-speed (the four-speed auto soldiers on), and a new colour for the soft-top is a visual signal that Jeep has done the job of turning the flappy old ragtop into a structure of considerable rigidity.

The old top flapped and drummed at highway speeds to the point that some owners bought the expensive hardtop or changed Jeeps. If ever there was a test of marque loyalty, the soft top was it. I was on a trip with a couple from the Manawatu who traded their softie for a hardtop and fell in love with their Wrangler all over again.

Because of its military heritage and what it represents, Jeep has been able to get away with a prehistoric soft top. One that you have to unzip, prise from anchoring rails and do it from the outside. Never having done this before, it seemed like a bit of a mission to me. I had visions of it being like the Land Rover Freelander soft top that takes two people, special tools that you drop in the mud or sand, and instructions the size of a small novel.

But it wasn't that bad; I got better each time and after thee goes had it licked. I reckon if challenged by stormclouds I could do it in two or three minutes. You get up close and personal with the top when putting it up or down and can’t help but appreciate its rugged, high quality construction. A lot of thought has gone into its improvement and the result at highway speeds is impressive. It’s still an unlined top so there’s still road noise and wind noise but all the flapping, whistle, drumming and other nasties have gone. It survived being parked overnight in, and driven during, some downpours without so much as a drop of water finding its way inside.

With the gearbox, Jeep steals points from most of the other manual 4WDs that must still make do with only five forward speeds. It’s a new-ish DaimlerChrysler unit first seen here on the Crossfire car, but destined to be widely used. Toughened for Wrangler, the box delivers a lower first and a top gear that’s within a cog’s tooth of the five-speed’s. So the result is a gearbox that’s more versatile than before, rather than something with a ridiculously high top to get a bit more fuel economy while cruisin’.

Off-road, the ratios work very well in conjunction with the straight six’s amazingly flat torque curve (“curve” really is a misnomer, it’s more like a straight line with a little droop at each end) that sees most of the 301 Newton-metres available from little more than idle, almost to the red line. Owners of older manual Wranglers are going to be really hosed-off when they try this box, and moreso when they sample the improved hood.

I had a good time in this test silver Wrangler Sport but can’t help feeling the superhero has been trading on its icon badge for a little too long. What we have is a dated vehicle that needs more than a new top and a six-speed added to its utility belt. It’s time to retire the TJ and bring on a production version of one of those great concept cars that Jeep is so good at making.

No comments:

Post a Comment