Yeah, everybody has a Jeep story. And mine came roaring back in four-wheel-drive when I slipped inside a test vehicle called - take a deep breath - the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara.
The Unlimited is a stretched, four-door version of the classic Jeep Wrangler, which dates back to the battlefields of World War II. (I'd call the Wrangler iconic if that word hadn't been beaten to death by the same business folk and marketing people who have worn out DNA and robust.)
The beauty of that extra 20.6 inches in length - from 152.8 inches to 173.4 - is that it provides a relatively roomy alternative to the stubby, two-door, traditional Wrangler. The extra two doors provide easy access to comfortable rear seats, which can be folded down to expand an already generous cargo space. There is, of course, nothing generous about the space behind the front seats of the regular Wrangler.
The bottom line is that the Unlimited can be used as a family car. The regular Wrangler really can't.
"The four-door has opened up a whole new [customer] population for us," says Jeep spokesman Nick Cappa. "Now, a Wrangler doesn't have to be a second vehicle."
As it turns out, that population is significant. Jeep sold 41,946 Wranglers in the first five months of 2011, and 60 percent of them were Unlimiteds.
Like the regular Wrangler, the Unlimited is available with both a cloth roof and the removable hardtop I found on the tester. And like little brother, it has not forgotten its off-road roots and military origins. The latter are evident in both mechanical and cosmetic terms.
By virtue of its beefy frame, ground clearance, all-terrain tires, and manually operated four-wheel-drive system with low range, the Unlimited is an authentic off-roader. True, it is not available with the automatic locking front and rear differentials and front sway bar uncoupler found on the Wrangler Rubicon (the greatest factory-built off-roader of them all if you exclude the humvee), but it is still an awfully good one.
And like the regular Wrangler, the Unlimited retains the silhouette and the functional, no-nonsense design approach of its military ancestors.
Its roof can be removed. You can snap out two panels over the front seat to create a sunroof, or go on to take off the rest of the top by backing out eight bolts. You can also remove the doors and fold the windshield down onto the hood.
Big towhooks sprout from the bumpers, and design elements flaunt their Bauhaus adherence to form following function. The hood latches and door hinges are large and exposed. Huge Allen screws attach door trim. The grab bar above the glove box says "Jeep-1941." The owner's manual pouch is made of olive drab canvas.
The Unlimited, which starts at $25,545, is nicely equipped in base form and generously so in the more upmarket ($30,445) Sahara model I tested.
The tester offered reasonably comfy seating and rode a lot better than I thought it would. Steering, handling, and the power furnished by the 3.8-lilter, 202-horsepower V-6 were acceptable, wind noise and gas mileage were not. The Unlimited had the aerodynamics of a billboard and wind noise to match. EPA mileage was a dismal 15 city and 19 highway.
2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara
Base price: $30,445.
As tested: N/A
Standard equipment: 3.8-liter engine, six-speed manual gearbox, manual operated 4WD with low range, and an extensive amenity list including stability and traction control, roll mitigation, air- conditioning, and transfer case and fuel tank skid plates.
Options: Include four-speed automatic transmission, leather, heated front seats, three-piece hardtop, navigation system, hill descent control, remote start.
Fuel economy: 15 city and 19 highway.
Engine performance: OK.
Styling: Brawny Bauhaus.
Ride comfort: Better than expected.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.
The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One Ben, poor.
Contact columnist Al Haas