Tinkering With An Icon: The '07 Jeep Wrangler

It has a fresher design, contemporary engineering, and is being built with a new supplier partnership. Yet for all that, the fundamentals of what makes the Wrangler a Wrangler remain.

In 2001, Chrysler tasked two of its designers to come up with concepts for what was codenamed "JK," the next Wrangler. The competition between Dan Zimmerman—who penned the 2005 Jeep Hurricane concept—and Mark Moushegian—who designed the 2005 Jeep Gladiator pickup—was heated, but in the end management chose to take Moushegian's more traditional Willy's-inspired design theme—harkening back to the original vehicle from 1941—over Zimmerman's more radical concept. "It was quite a challenge because the purists didn't want us to do anything to the design," Moushegian says, noting that the brief called for an update, but the retention of such things as the seven-slot grille and round headlamps. But that didn't faze Moushegian, as he added unique touches to the front fascia, most notably moving the side markers from the fenders back onto the fascia, where they were on the original Willy's. This provided an added benefit because side fenders are among the first items damaged during off-road adventures, which require an expensive fix. Now the fenders, which are comprised of an ABS material, can be easily removed; aftermarket companies can make affordable replacements. Another major change to the exterior are the door handles, which feature a more functional grab handle design, as opposed to the paddle configuration used on previous models. The traditional exposed door hinges remain, albeit with a modern upgrade: "These are now forged hinges that we have on the door and the hood. Traditionally they are a stamped material, but I think this gives the vehicle a sense of quality and handcrafting," Moushegian says. The tail lamps are tweaked a bit with better integration into the body, providing improved protection from possible damage. The windshield now has a generous crown for a modern touch.

With exterior changes kept to a minimum, Moushegian took a more daring approach to the interior, although the original concept wasn't completely adopted. "The original theme had a spine running through the vehicle and it allowed different components to be plugged into it. If someone wanted a large cooler or an armrest they could plug it in there," he recalls. The system was scrapped because it would have pushed the Wrangler program over budget. The modular system would have played neatly into the overall design theme, which takes cues from power tools through the use of geometric shapes and an overall robust and chunky appearance. The passenger-side grab handle looks like something you'd find on a tool bench and use circular vents and climate control knobs help to accentuate the rounded honeycomb plastic covers over the speakers. Another nice touch is the move to bring the painted sheet metal into the cabin through the doors to give an industrial feel. While the interior may have been a rewarding task for Moushegian, he still wishes he could have done something more radical on the exterior, as he did on the Hurricane concept: "If I were able to just have gone wild on this vehicle, it probably would have been more like the Hurricane, a little more brutal looking," he says. 

 

DON'T CHANGE TOO MUCH

Each year Jeep diehards gather for what is known as "Camp Jeep," complete with off-road driving, entertainment and outdoor activities. One of the more interesting events at Camp are the engineering roundtables, where Jeepers get to interact directly with product designers and engineers planning the next generation vehicles. During one of the roundtable discussions at the Camp a few years ago, engineers asked Wrangler owners if they really needed to have a fold down windshield on their vehicles. The small group immediately gasped when a fixed windshield was discussed—"Don't even think about it," one owner exclaimed. Interestingly, not one person in the group had ever folded their windshield during their ownership. But they want to know they can. That's what the Wrangler is all about. As Mike Donoughe, vice president of Chrysler's body-on-frame product team explains, these requirements make the Wrangler one of the most challenging products to reengineer: "The solid axles are another thing that we will never depart from on the Wrangler. We have our base and our heritage and it is our responsibility to protect that." One interesting feature added to the new Wrangler is optional power windows and door locks, which are connected through a coupling that is easy to reach so the doors can be removed. While the power windows and doors were an easy add-on, Donoughe says the team stopped at adding power mirrors because they would have made the connector too complex.

 

A NUMBER OF FIRSTS

While keeping history in perspective is important, the Wrangler development team remained conscious of the fact that the market continues to change, with new technologies being developed to make off-roading more enjoyable. To address the market demands, the team had to make some changes to the overall dimensions of the JK, including a 3.5-in. wider track, 2-in. longer wheelbase on the 2-door model and 16-in. longer wheelbase on the 4-door, when compared to the outgoing stretched 2-door Unlimited model. Yes, the Wrangler now has a 4-door sibling—another first—designed to attract more family-minded buyers into the Jeep community. The quad door will also be available in a 4 x 2-wheel-drive configuration—yet another first for Wrangler—and it will be the only 4-door convertible available on the market. While some would question the benefits of adding a 4-door and two-wheel-drive model to such an adventurous icon, the fact that more than 75% of new Wrangler buyers are new to the Jeep brand and nearly 25% are sold in southern states where there's little need for 4-wheel functionality, the additions make more sense. "In all honesty, the 2-wheel-drive, 4-door is a niche product, if you will, but it is pretty consistent with what we have done with the rest of our model lineup," says Dan Tardella, senior manager for Jeep brand marketing.

To boost Wrangler's off-road credentials, engineers added a number of firsts to the JK's ultimate off-road Rubicon package, including electronic locking front and rear differentials and electronic disconnecting front sway bar. The differential locks, supplied by GKN Driveline, respond faster and are more accurate than the traditional air-locking units, with the added benefit of fewer parts due to the lack of air pumps, mounting brackets and tubing used in traditional systems. The locks have also been programmed to automatically disengage at higher speeds and to be seamlessly rocked into and out of drive and reverse gears when off-roading, both of which improve reliability and reduce stress on the vehicle's axles. The four-pinion gear design also helps to reduce overall weight, while boosting torque capacity by more than 50%. The sway bar system, supplied by American Axle, improves the Wrangler Rubicon's overall articulation during off-road climbing from the existing 652 level to 832 on a standard 20º ramp travel index—which measures the flexibility of a vehicle's suspension from the point at which one tire leaves the ground. The Wrangler X and Sahara models receive upgraded Dana 30 front and Dana 35 rear axles, while the Rubicon is equipped with Dana 44s on the front and rear. Another cool piece of technology is the optional MyGiG hard drive-based navigation system that will debut later in the model year. The system includes a trail tracker feature that leaves electronic markers to enable users to backtrack in case they get lost on an unmarked trail.

 

A NEW MANUFACTURING MODEL

Production of the 2007 Wrangler has taken on a new concept in Toledo, OH, with suppliers taking on responsibility for body manufacturing, rolling chassis and painting operations at the facility. While Chrysler employees are responsible for the final assembly operations, the rest is left to suppliers. There have been a few unexpected problems that developed along the way, including the decision to re-source paint shop operations to Haden International Group from Durr Industries. That plan also fell apart when Haden closed its doors in February 2006 and Magna Steyr came to the rescue. "The new supplier park concept was an added challenge," Donoughe admits, adding the problems with Durr and Haden caused some minor complications along the way. The new manufacturing cooperation required the engineering group to work more closely with the supply base to assure product quality. "Their responsibility was to process engineer it, while we did the product engineering work, but we had to work hand-in-glove with them through the process. We set up a meeting program organization to make sure the cadence was intact and that we met all the milestones through the Chrysler Development Process," Donoughe said, adding it's too early to determine whether the supplier arrangement at Toledo is a success.