2011 Jeep Wrangler

Last Updated: Jul 14, 2011

What’s in the driveway? Two tons of crevice-conquering, creek-sloshing fun. It’s pretty good on a run to Walmart, too. The 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is the ultimate expression of an icon that lives up to its billing. With its high-riding body, long-travel suspension, and mountain-goat four-wheel-drive system, any Jeep Wrangler will deliver you deep into the outback. The top-of-the-line Wrangler Rubicon will take you deeper still -- arguably to places no other pure-production vehicle can. More important, it’ll bring you back.

The Wrangler Rubicon in the driveway this week has the four-door Unlimited body style, which debuted as part of this rig’s model-year 2007 redesign and now outsells the two-door Wrangler 60-40. Buyers who find the regular Wrangler too confining obviously love the Unlimited’s extra roominess. It’s longer than the regular Wrangler by a notable 20.6 inches in wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles) and in overall length. Besides the convenience of those rear doors, an Unlimited’s rear seat has an inch-and-a-half more legroom and a full 12 inches more hip room. With 46.4 cubic feet, the Unlimited nearly triples the shorter Wrangler’s cargo volume behind the rear seat. At 86.7 cubic feet, it has 35 percent more carrying space with the rear seatbacks folded. That’s more than a 2011 Ford Explorer or Chevy Equinox.

Named for the torturous 22-mile off-road trail in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rubicon tops a three-model Wrangler lineup that includes the base Sport and snazzy Sahara models. Rubicons leave the factory with just about every traction-enhancing trick an off-road geek could dream up. The heavy-duty front and rear axles are nearly indestructible Dana 44 units. Thick steel plates protect the fuel tank, transfer case, and automatic-transmission oil pan. Torque is multiplied by a 4.10:1 rear-axle ratio versus 3.21 or 3.73 on other Wranglers. The tires have knobby off-road tread and, at a full 32 inches tall, contribute to a towering 10 inches of ground clearance. A button on the dashboard allows the driver to electronically disconnect the front sway bar, freeing the front axle to seesaw with articulation. Another button electronically locks the front and rear differentials, essentially binding the tires on each side in a rotational death grip that enables a Rubicon to claw up steep embankments or through doorsill-deep muck.

Like all Wranglers, the 2011 Rubicon Unlimited is treated to a midlife freshening that includes a reshaped dashboard and first-time availability of some decidedly uptown amenities, including heated front seats, power heated mirrors, and steering-wheel controls for the radio, cruise control and Bluetooth hands-free mobile-phone connection. There’s added sound-deadening, too. Look-at-me hues like Detonator Yellow, Deep Cherry Red, and Cosmos Blue have been added to the available color pallet. The 2011 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon in the driveway, however, looks positively stately in Bright Silver Metallic with a black hardtop roof. Saddle-brown leather upholstery is optionally available, but our test example sticks with somber black cloth.

How much does it cost? Base price for the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is $33,495, including Jeep’s mandatory $750 destination fee. Like all 2011 Wranglers, the Unlimited Rubicon uses a 3.8-liter V-6 rated at 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but our tester has a four-speed automatic, an $825 option. Covered in the Rubicon’s base price are all the aforementioned off-road enhancements. And like every 2011 Wrangler, it comes with four-wheel disc brakes, antilock and antiskid control, fog lamps, tow hooks, a fold-down windshield, and removable doors. 
Including the automatic transmission, our test example is kitted up with $4,965 in options. The most expensive is the $1,625 Dual Top Group, which fits a fiberglass hardtop enhanced with a pair of removable panels over the front seats. It also includes a rear-window defroster, wiper and washer. This option is “Dual” because it adds the hardtop, which can be removed, and retains Wrangler’s standard canvass-like folding soft-top, which can be attached in its place. Next-expensive is the $1,035 Media Center that includes a navigation system, a relatively simple Garmin unit that doesn’t include voice recognition, relying instead on a 6.5-inch dashboard touch screen. The option does include a 30-gigabyte hard-drive audio system, Sirius satellite radio, and a USB iPod interface.

Their elemental roof design prevents Wranglers from having head-protecting curtain side airbags, but they do offer supplemental front seat-mounted side airbags shaped to protect the torso and head; our tester has this $490 option. It also has the $385 Connectivity Group that includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel and Chrysler’s Uconnect Bluetooth phone connectivity. Heated front seats ($250) remote engine start ($200), and automatic climate control ($155) round out the options. Total manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon in the driveway is $38,460.

Is it worth it?  Only if you’re serious about challenging trails that eat U-joints for breakfast. Yes, a Rubicon can go places a regular Wrangler can’t. But a regular Wrangler goes anywhere a serious off-roader is likely to venture. An Unlimited Sport with automatic transmission, the modular hardtop, and most of our test Rubicon’s comfort and convenience features would save you more than $7,000. If all you’re after is that R-U-B-I-C-O-N hood decal, you’re a poser with too much money.

What’s to like? This thing’s off-road credibility is unassailable; the tire/suspension sorcery and terra-gripping gizmos very nearly remove the sense of achievement from climbing a root-strewn hill or crawling over ogre-sized boulders. And thanks to its upright seating position and short sheetmetal overhangs, the Unlimited is a remarkable tool in congested city conditions, too. The biggest surprise might be that, despite body lines and tire treads that couldn’t be blockier, wind and road noise don’t prevent normal-volume conversation, even at highway speeds.

Cargo room is terrific, inviting family camping trips and all the gear that entails. While the regular-length Wrangler’s 95.4-inch wheelbase places it squarely in the compact-SUV category, the Unlimited’s 116-inch span is equal to that of a Chevy Tahoe! That helps offset the suspension’s thoroughly necessary firmness and keeps the Rubicon from riding rabbit-punch hard; it’s merely pogo-stick bouncy.    

The thick-rimmed steering wheel feels nice in your hands. It’s easy to remove the hardtop panels, and with the windshield at such at upright angle, doing so creates a huge open-air chasm above the front seats that’s a great imitation of the feel you get in a full convertible.

What does it need? More power. The 3.8-liter V-6 is a retired minivan engine. It’s just too weak to move the 4,340-pound Unlimited Rubicon with any authority if you want to scoot onto a busy freeway or pass on a two-lane. This overhead-valve V-6 feels wheezy even with the six-speed manual. The presence of an automatic that’s behind the times with just four gears only adds to the sense of lethargy. 

It’s pointless to complain that power windows and heated leather seats aren’t true to Wrangler’s paramilitary ethos. They help sell these Jeeps to folks unwilling to sacrifice convenience in the name of image. These days, any sale’s a good sale.  But a dashboard more in tune with the spirit of the enterprise would be welcome. Wrangler’s reshaped 2011 instrument panel is dishearteningly generic. It’s bulbous and fussy where it should be bold and industrial. It’d look at home in the Dodge Grand Caravan. And some of details are a little prissy, like the delicately sized and marked speedometer and tachometer, which are lit in delicate blue and accented in shiny trim. Similarly, the floor shifter and 4WD transfer-case levers are hollow plastic tubes topped with cheesy chromed plastic. They should be cut-down tire irons capped with duct tape. 

We appreciate Jeep’s desire to market broad-beam cabins. We understand the absolute necessity of offsetting Wrangler’s high center of gravity with a track wide enough to discourage rollovers. But the 2007 redesign gave us a Wrangler a full 5.5 inches fatter than the 1997-2006 generation. Jeep’s not going to narrow this Wrangler, of course. But where the preceding TJ series could squeeze through a tight spot on the trail, this JK might not. And where a TJ easily rounds a tight backwoods dogleg, a JK needs a three-point turn.

What’s JEEP say? “With solid axles, removable doors, exposed hinges, a fold-down windshield and innovative removable and convertible tops, Jeep Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited retain the brand’s coveted core values of freedom, adventure, mastery, and authenticity.”

What do you say? Amazing how immutable those core values are. They must to be to shine through automatic climate control, bum warmers, and other lily livered folderol.  

What’s next? A new engine, thank goodness. The 2012 Wrangler’s set to dump its 3.8-liter lump for a far more modern V-6 that should address the power shortage. Named the Pentastar, after Chrysler’s five-point logo, the new V-6 displaces 3.6 liters and has dual overhead cams and variable-valve timing. Used in the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee it’s rated at 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.

The Pentastar shows up in a range of other Chrysler products, including the 2011 Dodge and Chrysler minivans, the Dodge Challenger coupe, and the redesigned 2011 Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300 sedans. It’s proven itself a smooth runner if not quite the torque monster a weighty SUVs like a Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon requires.

Chrysler does tune this engine for duty in specific vehicles; it’s rated at 292 horsepower in the Charger, for example, though still with 260 pound-feet of torque. In the Grand Cherokee and Challenger it’s paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, in most other applications it mates to a six-speed automatic. We’ll have to trust that the Pentastar powertrain will be tailored smartly for Wrangler duty. And though it would be anti-PC – petrol consumption, that is – we understand the redoubtable Hemi V-8 fits nicely into the JK’s engine bay. Hmmm, 390-pound-feet of torque; that ought to do the trick.  

Vital statistics
2011 Jeep Wrangler Limited Rubicon

  • Base price, including manufacturer’s $750 destination fee: $33,495
  • Price of test car including options: $38,460.
  • Size: 173.4 inches long, 116.0-inch wheelbase, 4,340-pound base curb weight
  • Engine: 202-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6; 4-speed automatic transmission; four-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy: 15/19 mpg (EPA ratings)
  • Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 5/100,000 powertrain

Automotive journalist Chuck Giametta has covered the auto industry for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide books and magazines, and as Managing Editor of Iguida.com. This test vehicle was provided by the manufacturer.