Photos by Zerin Dube, Video by Tim Goldmann, Stunt Driving by Mike Frismanis
It should come as no surprise to long time S:S:L readers that the Jeep Wrangler has quickly become one of our favorite vehicles of any type to drive around in. Whether we’re hitting the trails of Texas, or off-roading the middle of the Pacific, there is simple no other vehicle on the road that delivers the feeling of freedom the way the Jeep Wrangler does. With its iconic styling and rugged off-road capabilities, there just isn’t a better feeling cruising with the windows down and top off in a Wrangler.
For 2011, Jeep has taken the Wrangler upscale by making several small but significant changes to make the driving experience even better than before. Of course, here at S:S:L we are skeptical of any changes a manufacturer makes to “improve the driving experience” because many times this translates to the edge being taken off for the sake of comfort and luxury.
To make sure that Jeep didn’t lose their way by adding all these niceties to the Wrangler, we got our hands on a 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited and headed out to our favorite off-road proving grounds at Creekside Edge Off-Road Park.
The Wrangler Sahara Unlimited is the most upscale Wrangler offered, sitting above the more basic Sport and Sport S models, but just below the hard-core off-roader Rubicon trim in terms of price. At first glance, the most obvious changes to the 2011 Wrangler Sahara Unlimited are the body painted fenders and removable Freedom Top hardtop. From a purely visual standpoint, the 2011 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara looks far more upscale than its predecessor, and can even be mistaken for a Geländewagen to the untrained eye. From a practical standpoint though, more paint means more scratches when off-roading, and we prefer the textured black fenders for getting dirty.
All 2011 Jeep Wranglers receive a new interior package as well with a redesigned instrument panel, new storage areas, higher quality materials, a revised center stack and larger rear and side windows to aid in outward visibility. A new steering wheel integrates controls for the media systems as well as Bluetooth and cruise control. Hill Descent Control is also standard on all new 2011 Wranglers, as are additional 12-volt accessory outlets. A 110-volt AC outlet is optional.
The interior of our Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara also featured plenty of bright work by way of faux metal finishes on the door panels, grab bar and A/C ducts. Our tester was also fitted with the new optional heated seats. These improvements certainly make the interior of the Wrangler look and feel far more upscale than the outgoing model which was pretty much just a slab of molded and textured plastic.
We decided to conduct the test of the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sahara with the help of a couple of off-roading friends who were extremely familiar with the terrain of the park, and had the proper equipment to rescue us should things go wrong. We can’t emphasize enough the need for an experienced spotter and a second vehicle for recovery because things can go wrong quickly without proper direction out on the trail. Steve in the black JK Wrangler Sport and Dave with the heavily modified silver JK Wrangler Rubicon volunteered their eyes and vehicles to help us with the test. Truth be told, both these Jeep enthusiasts were looking for any reason to go out and get their Wranglers dirty.
We were certainly glad to have them along because the Creekside Edge trails are full of 5’ drop-offs into water, tight turns, trees, ruts, and mud pits that are deceivingly deep. Though the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara doesn’t have the locking Dana diffs or mud-terrain tires like the Rubicon model has, we were still able to keep up with the modified Jeeps in just about every situation we could get into.
There were two instances on the trails where the stock Wrangler Sahara’s shortcomings became fairly apparent. The first situation occurred in the mud pit that there simply was no other way around. The All-Terrain tires on the Sahara weren’t happy in the mud and loaded up quickly turning them into slicks with absolutely no bite. After trying to get the Sahara out on its own, we finally hooked up to Dave’s Jeep and got a slight tug to get the front wheels onto solid ground. With just two tires on dry dirt, the Sahara was able to easily pull itself out from the mud. In this instance a set of mud-terrain tires would have made this obstacle no problem to tackle even without locking differentials.
The only other instance the stock Wrangler Sahara couldn’t keep up with the modified Wranglers was a steep drop off of about 5’ straight down into a water pit. The stock Wrangler Sahara simply didn’t have the ground clearance necessary to even attempt that route on the trails. Dave on the other hand didn’t waste any time demonstrating how easy the obstacle was for a Wrangler with a lift and proper tires.
When finished covering the trails at Creekside Edge, it became very apparent that the 2011 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara had certainly not lost its core focus as a capable out of the box off-roader despite the additional focus on luxury. While almost perfect, there are a few gripes in the JK Wrangler that still remain, mostly related to powertrain. The 202-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 engine is still as wheezy as it ever was and the archaic four-speed transmission doesn’t do an already anemic engine any favors. We hear that this will be resolved next year when the Wrangler receives the Pentastar V6 and a new six-speed automatic.
The only other gripe is a relatively steep base price for the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, which starts at $30,695. Our tester had an additional $5800 worth of options such as the $825 automatic transmission, $1035 Media Center navigation unit, and the $1715 painted hardtop bringing the final price-as-tested of $36,490.
While $36k seems like a tough pill to swallow for the still relatively rudimentary Jeep Wrangler, there is simply no other vehicle on the road that provides the open-air go-anywhere enjoyment that the Wrangler offers. The Wrangler remains as capable off-road as ever and is even more fun to drive on-road with the upgraded interior and enhanced creature comforts. We can’t wait see what Jeep has in store for the Wrangler next year.