2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 75th Anniversary Edition Road
Yes, these three automakers submitted prototypes with Bantam’s “Pilot” winning the bid, but all would go on to produce a version that would soon be standardized to conform to the much-improved Willys MB (which had significant input from all three manufacturers), with a Willys-sourced powertrain and production housed at their Toledo, Ohio plant (yes, where Jeep continues to build the Wrangler). Interestingly, Jeep’s trademark pressed-metal grille was initially designed by Ford for their “Pygmy” prototype, but let’s not remind the current crop of blue-oval designers or they’ll lay claim on it before adapting it to their next generation of copycat Range Rovers.
These early reconnaissance cars joined the troops in 1941 just ahead of America’s actual war effort, although they weren’t employed en masse in battle until 1943 when U.S. forces entered the European arena, the nation’s focus up until then mostly in the Pacific against the Japanese due to that empire’s Pearl Harbor, Hawaii attack on December 7, 1941 (they could be found on bases throughout the Pacific, mind you, and the Navy used them on aircraft carriers to move planes and munitions around). Altogether 660,703 Jeeps were built between ’41-’45, their ubiquity on the European battlefield so great that German troops admitted they thought each American soldier was issued one. After the war the great General (and later president) Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, “The Jeep, the Dakota, and the Landing Craft were the three tools that won the war.” While an amazing commendation, I like Enzo Ferrari’s description even more, calling it “America’s only real sports car.”
That quote seems even more fitting when considering the original Jeep was also the first real sport utility vehicle, a term so commonplace these days that most of us don’t attribute it to a go-anywhere 4×4. After all, today’s SUV has more in common with a slightly lifted and body cladding adorned station wagon, except for the Wrangler that is. Oh yes, you probably wondered when I’d get back to the vehicle in question.
As you’ve likely already figured out, the 2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 75th Anniversary Edition celebrates 75 years of Jeep production. I poked fun at this modernized version of the original by saying it’s more akin to a mid-’40s luxury car than anything that wore the Willys badge (other than the special edition Willys Wheeler, also available this year), but in reality nothing new (this side of a Suzuki Jimny or Brazilian-built Troller T4, the latter owned by Ford and potentially the basis for an upcoming Bronco) comes closer, and as much as I’ve loved each second spent with old wartime Jeeps I certainly wouldn’t want to drive one every day.
You can do that with the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, or any Wrangler for that matter. It gets better as you move up from base Sport trim to a Sport S, Willys Wheeler, Black Bear, Freedom Edition, Sahara, Rubicon, 75th Anniversary Edition, Backcountry, and finally to the Rubicon Hard Rock, but they’re all fully livable day in and day out.
Like the original, the modern-day Wrangler is one of few SUVs that can take you just about anywhere. Countless off-road enthusiast clubs will attest to its mountain goat capabilities, as could I after learning first hand on the Rubicon Trail, at the Jeep Jamboree, and during many other Jeep events. Ironically the 75th Anniversary Edition doesn’t come fitted with Jeep’s most capable off-road hardware, the Rock-Trac heavy-duty part-time 4WD system, Tru-Lok front and rear axle, Dana 44 heavy-duty front axle, standard 4.10 rear axle ratio (3.73 with the automatic), electronically disconnecting front sway bar, performance suspension, and BF Goodrich LT255/75R17 BSW off-road rubber kept exclusively for both Rubicon models, but maybe basing the special olive green-painted version on the lighter-duty Sahara is a more accurate replication of the past, being that the original was about as lightweight as vehicles came.
Rather than ultimate 4×4 capability, the 75th Anniversary Edition delivers more than ample off-road management with loads of style and plenty of luxe features. As noted it starts off on the already pampering Sahara that includes niceties like body-color bumpers and fender flares, a completely enclosed albeit soft removable Freedom Top, full-metal doors, deep-tint sunscreen glass, keyless entry, auto on/off headlamps, fog lamps, powered side mirrors, powered windows, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel with tilt, cruise control, a chrome and leather-wrapped shift knob, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, air conditioning, heated front seats, a 6.5-inch touchscreen, a rearview camera, satellite radio, 115-volt household-style power outlet, a heavy-duty suspension with gas shocks, fuel tank and transfer case skid plates, all the usual active and passive safety features, and more.
Unique to the 75th Anniversary Edition, which starts at $34,675 for the regular wheelbase version or $38,475 for the Unlimited, is a body-color grille with bronze accents, 17-inch bronze aluminum wheels with orange accents on 245/75R17 OWL on/off-road rubber, more bronze accents all-round including the entire front and rear bumpers, tow hooks and rock rails, a bulging “power dome” hood, cool orange badging, Mopar slush mats, leather-faced seats with Ombre mesh inserts, heatable front cushions, a multi-information display within the upgraded Moroccan Sun instrument panel bezel, additional Moroccan Sun interior accents, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a remote USB port, a tire pressure monitoring display, an anti-spin differential rear axle, and more.
I really like the look, especially the bronze metal bumpers and wheels, and the olive green paint noted earlier, although it’s dubbed Sarge (cute) in Jeep-speak. You don’t have to go with the classic army color to get into the 75th, mind you, as Billet silver and Granite Crystal gray metallics, plus Bright White, Black, and Mojave Sand are also available.
My tester’s body-color hardtop (also removable) wasn’t standard either, but its $1,595 charge is pretty easy to live with considering that it transforms the SUV into a true year-round family hauler (alternatively you can get a black hardtop for $595). Other extras included a $395 for single-zone auto HVAC, $600 for navigation with excellent Garmin-sourced route guidance, $945 for an Alpine audio upgrade with nine all-weather speakers, $495 for front seat side airbags, another $495 for remote start, and $495 for a tow package featuring a four-pin wiring harness and Class II hitch receiver. You can update that tow package further with a 3.73 rear axle for another $350.
None of these features will transform the Wrangler into a premium level SUV, the purposefully retro 4×4 being devoid of the types of soft touch plastics and luxury features expected in a vehicle that ended up approaching $45k as tested, but its rough and ready attitude is the entire point. Instead of the perfectly manicured fingernails and soft skin of a clean-shaven banker, the Wrangler is a calloused oil rig roughneck wearing four days of stubble. Ok, I’m grasping at analogies, but you get my point. It’s not for soft elitists, it’s for serious adventurers, or at least for those who see themselves as serious adventurers.
That in mind there isn’t a Wrangler trim made that delivers as comfortable a ride as any car-based SUV, but then again even the current short-wheelbase near entry-level Sport S I tested earlier this year came standard with a much more compliant suspension than any previous version I’ve tested. The long-wheelbase Unlimited is that much better, so you won’t be able to complain about unending harshness like you could’ve with a YJ, and believe me its as smooth as a baby’s proverbial bum compared to the brutal abuse my old CJ5 Renegade dished out, but of course I was in my mid-20s back then and didn’t mind getting beat up by my ride on a daily basis as long as my aftermarket Alpine deck and big 6×9 speaker boxes hanging off the roll bar kept blaring everything from Zepp’s Dancing Days to The Commodores’ Brick House (what can I say, I had eclectic taste).
These days the deck (if you can call its mostly digital display a deck) is still Alpine, as noted, and the same manufacturer’s speakers are more neatly integrated into the “Sport Bar” overhead, wrapped up nicely within a thick removable padded canvas cover, as well as elsewhere in the SUV under branded plastic grille covers. All-round it’s a comparatively refined experience, with lots of chromed and metallic trim, highly legible primary instruments, excellent quality switchgear on the otherwise leather-wrapped steering wheel, yet more well made buttons, knobs and toggles elsewhere in the cabin, some of the best multi-adjustable HVAC vents in the business, and those partial leather seats are very comfortable up front or in back.
I’ve been a proponent of the four-door Unlimited since first testing it at its initial launch program in and around Lake Tahoe and then on a long Rubicon Trail trek. Off-road, the regular wheelbase Wrangler is better for navigating sharp hazardous corners, scaling steep embankments or overcoming protruding obstacles, but in daily life it can’t measure up to the overall functional advantage of the Unlimited, its fully accommodating three-abreast rear seats and additional cargo capacity making it a real family conveyance. Numbers are best to describe the difference, with the Unlimited’s 31.2 cubic-foot capacity adding 18.8 cubic feet to the equation, plus 17.4 cubic feet when the 60/40 split rear seatbacks are folded down, at which point there’s a total of 69.9 cubic feet of gear-toting space available.
And they fold completely flat too, even flipping their headrests out of the way in the process. There’s a pretty big gap between the load floor and folded seatbacks, but this can quickly be remedied by pulling the rubber cargo mat forward. My tester still had its soft top installed, which took away from my ability to use it for anything large, but of course this would be removed and stored if it was my own, and it’s an option you don’t need to purchase anyway.
My only real complaint with any Wrangler is access to the cargo area, which is awkward at best. I understand the reasoning for a side-swinging rear door with a pop-up glass hatch, the spare tire fitted to the former and the latter coming as part of the hardtop (believe me it’s a helluvalot easier to deal with than zippered soft top cargo access). You first need to open the upper hatch and then swing out the door, which is again no real problem, but Jeep has had eons to remedy the problem of passenger-side rear door hinges that make accessing the cargo area difficult from curbside, especially when dealing with heavy, unwieldy packages. This was a problem with the old Toyota RAV4 and Suzuki Grand Vitara models, with only Nissan’s second-gen Cube going to the trouble of redesigning its rear for different markets (not that it mattered in the end), but these were Japanese-designed vehicles that optimized access from the other side of the road where people in Japan drive, so in the future it would be great to see Jeep finally break with tradition and making curbside cargo access easier.
I’ve already spoken about ride quality, but it should also be noted the Wrangler is decent around corners. Don’t expect it to out handle a Grand Cherokee SRT, or anything else in Jeep’s arsenal, but it’ll more than keep up with traffic on a curving mountain road and its considerable mass makes it a fairly comfortable cruiser on the highway. Its ABS-enhanced four-wheel disc brakes are quite strong too. My favorite mechanical attribute is the Wrangler’s standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, mind you. It’s a smooth, potent, well-proven engine that even makes nice noises, with 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque on tap for reasonably brisk takeoff and good highway passing performance. The aforementioned Wrangler tested earlier this year came with the $1,400 five-speed auto, a perfectly suitable slushbox for this application, but this 75th Anniversary Edition was fitted with the base six-speed manual that was plenty refined as far as truck transmissions go, and felt robust enough for the job at hand.
Unlocking two classic latches and propping open the hood reveals an engine bay filled with aforementioned powertrain and electronics, the first item catching the eye being a nice looking black plastic engine cover with “Jeep” and “V6” emblazoned in aluminum-look paint. The cover is designed to reduce noise, although what’s hidden below will be of more interest to 4×4 aficionados. The Wrangler engine benefits from a high-mounted, rear-facing alternator for water fording, while additional upgrades include optimized upper intake airflow and equal-length downpipes, which both improve low- to mid-range torque response.
Despite much improvement since saying goodbye to the old 4.0-liter inline-six, the Wrangler continues to be fairly expensive to run due to higher than average fuel consumption. Again it’s important to understand that a body-on-frame SUV that’s purposely overdesigned to withstand off-road punishment is going to weigh more than a car-based unibody crossover SUV, and that weight is penalized at the pump. I reviewed a 2015 Unlimited Sahara in July of that year and noted a weeklong average estimate of 12 mpg as stated by its multi-information display, the same display showing a somewhat better result of 13 this time around, which might have to do with this model’s manual gearbox (I short-shift and coast a lot). I also noted last year’s real results were closer to the Wrangler’s EPA rating of 16 mpg in the city, 21 on the highway and 18 combined with the manual, or 16 city, 20 highway and 18 combined with the automatic (almost identical either way), which was similar this time around. The 2017 Wrangler won’t offer any alternative for those that find its fuel economy less than optimal, but FCA has confirmed the same EcoDiesel that’s helped grow Ram 1500 sales will be available to 2018 Wrangler buyers, that model expected to be a wholesale redesign of the current example.
Speaking of the future, Jeep will make this 75th Anniversary Edition available for at least another year, although I don’t see Sarge green in the online configurator. I suppose pushing this version into future years makes sense because it technically celebrates a vehicle that was produced over a multi-year period. No doubt Jeep will do something even more special in five years for the first Civilian Jeep, or CJ, which hit the road in 1945, but of course special editions are hardly new to Jeep fans.
For those yet to be initiated into Wrangler ownership, I recommend it, especially if you get involved with one of the many associated 4×4 clubs. Their weekend and summer outings can be loads of fun for singles and families alike, and there are many more Jeep clubs than any other brand. If you only plan to drive your Wrangler around town, you’re a tougher urbanite than me as there are plenty of other Jeeps that serve this purpose better.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press