Rubicon rocks (minus the rattles)

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

With the 2007 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, Natty Bumppo has traded his buckskins for some designer jeans.

Yes, Natty Bumppo, hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking Tales,” the great woody prose of which has prompted many an undergraduate to throw themselves off a tall building. What would Cooper think if he met the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon? Would he marvel that it, like his famed protagonist, embodies the dual nature of wilderness and civilization, the very essence of American individualism? Would he recognize that, like his famed Deerslayer, the Wrangler combines “the soul of a poet and the nature of a redneck.” Or would Cooper just play with the windshield wipers like a doofus? We may never know.

Ever since the first Civilian Jeep models began rolling off the Willys-Overland assembly line in the closing days of World War II, these backwoods bruisers have been defined by stone-ax simplicity and cold-rolled steel toughness. Through many generations, several corporate owners (Willys, Kaiser-Jeep, AMC, DaimlerChrysler) and many names (CJ, YJ, TJ), Jeep’s ferocious little terrier has maintained a clear mission statement reflected in its spare interiors, removable half-frame doors, flappy canvas tops, fold-down windshields and Iron Age running gear.

If I had to pick one vehicle in which to ride out the End Times, it would have to be a Wrangler Rubicon. That’s the company’s most time-tested off-roader, with mighty Dana 44 axles front and rear, a heavy-duty transfer case with a creeping 4.0:1 low-range ratio, 10 inches of ground clearance on 32-inch mud-and-snow tires, locking front and rear differentials and detachable front anti-roll bar that allows for more wheel articulation over obstacles like the piled-high bodies of the undelivered.

But as a daily driver? Take me now, Lord. A recent-vintage Wrangler is cold (or hot, depending on the weather), noisy, juddering, tippy and downright tiresome to drive. To attempt to raise the canvas soft-top, with its yards of Velcro zippers, is to feel like Laocoon wrestling the snake. The Jeep Wrangler is, according to many gay-themed websites, a favorite of the gay and lesbian community. You go, girl. Me, I’ll wait for the bus.

So now, imagine you’re a Jeep product planner. You have this iconic vehicle -- really, the heart and soul of your brand. You know it’s as comfortable as a skinned knee, but you can’t sacrifice its off-road cred for poseur comfort. You also know that a) seven in 10 buyers never go farther off-road than a drive-in movie, and b) the Toyota FJ Cruiser, the Nissan Xterra and Hummer H3 are offering generally more livable vehicles with nearly comparable woodland chops as the Wrangler. What to do?

For the new-for-2007 JK series, Jeep undertook a number of civilizing measures, which are in the main modest and evolutionary. The vehicle chassis is quieter and more refined, with a deeper sense of tempered solidity (not too many shivers or rattles); the Wrangler feels better planted on asphalt (not least because it’s 5 inches wider than the previous generation); the powertrain, now based on a 202-hp, 3.8-liter overhead-valve V6 with electronic throttle control, is silkier and feels more socked into the engine bay (as compared with the old inline six that felt, at full flog, like it might jump through the hood).

Yet many venerated traditions remain: The new Wrangler is slow, for example. Our test vehicle, a 2007 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon with a four-speed automatic transmission and all the rock-crawling extras (4,442 pounds), accelerated to 60 mph in a purple-faced 12 seconds and proceeded to run into an aerodynamic brick wall at about 85 mph.

But the modest and evolutionary measures end there. The Wrangler has tons of new stuff -- more comfortable seats and upholstery; updated audio systems; and new conveniences, including optional power windows and doors, which is a pretty neat feat for a vehicle with removable doors. Those who want to can pony up for the MyGIG multimedia infotainment system, with integrated navigation, DVD player, satellite radio and a 20- gigabyte hard drive with USB port to download your iTunage. Not bad for a vehicle that you can rinse out with a hose.

These image-intensive Tonka Toys are, not surprisingly, really popular with kids, and the Wrangler’s standard roll cage is cold comfort to fretting parents. The new Wrangler is wired with electronic stability control, ABS and electronic roll mitigation.

And all of that pales in comparison with the biggest change: the option of two extra doors. The Unlimited model (in X, Sahara and Rubicon trim levels, starting at $21,190 for the two-wheel-drive X) is the first in 65 years to offer four doors, and it’s the only four-door convertible on the market. To accommodate said doors, Jeep added 20.6 inches to the wheelbase (116.0 inches) and overall length (184.4 inches). Suddenly, Natty Bumppo is a family man, or even a suburban-commuting schlub. I also expect to see a few of these being used as guest shuttles at eco-tourism hotels in the wilds of Cancun.

The rear doors open up on a thin, hard, upright bench seat -- some degree of personal suffering being the hallmark of the true Jeep enthusiast. But flip this seat down -- the headrests retract smartly as the seatback is laid flat -- and the cargo space gets huge, 82 cubic feet of enclosed gear-carrying. There’s also a concealed cargo bin under the load floor. The extra space answers one of the dilemmas of off-roading life in the CJ/Wrangler: where to put a week’s worth of food, fuel, water and tools? Enthusiasts have resorted to hanging Jerry cans off racks outside the vehicle, which means the gear is not secure and can also snag on brush and obstacles.

The Unlimited is also available with a three-piece hardtop, but you can’t stow the hardtop onboard.

The Unlimited’s big trade-off, which will bother a mere handful of hard-core enthusiasts and no one else, is that the longer wheelbase makes it slightly less agile in the bush. For example, a longer wheelbase means wider turning diameter. The two-door Wrangler Rubicon can turn around in a tidy 34.9 feet; the Unlimited requires a rather nautical 41.3 feet. Then there’s the matter of break-over angle, which describes, in a roundabout way, the height of an obstacle a vehicle can traverse without dragging its bottom. In the two-door Wrangler Rubicon, it’s 25.3 degrees; in the Unlimited Rubicon, it’s 20.8 degrees. The new generation Wrangler is also substantially wider, which means it can’t thread narrow trails as well.

That said, the Wrangler Rubicon -- two-door or four -- is unquestionably the stoutest piece of off-road hardware you can buy off a showroom floor. True, it doesn’t have quite the integrated design and packaging of the Nissan Xterra or Toyota FJ Cruiser; both of those vehicles were clean-sheet projects, while the Wrangler has a lot of legacy to cope with. Call it literary tradition, if you like. The Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is more civilized than ever, but it’s still a noble savage. Cooper would have been proud.

2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

Base price: $28,235

Price, as tested: $31,270

Powertrain: 3.8-liter, overhead-valve V6 with electronic throttle; four-speed automatic transmission; heavy-duty transfer-case (4.0:1 low-speed gear ratio); electronically locking front and rear differentials; part-time four-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 202 at 5,000 rpm

Torque: 237 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm

Curb weight: 4,442 pounds (with automatic)

0-60 mph: 12 seconds

Wheelbase: 116.0 inches

Overall length: 184.4 inches

EPA fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon city, 19 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Maybe not Unlimited, but less limited