2012 Jeep Wrangler
Jeep is seeking new horizons for its most famous vehicle.
Celebrating its 70th birthday this year, the Jeep Wrangler started its extraordinary run in 1941, as a military general-purpose (GP) vehicle in the early days of World War II.
It was built by different companies over the years, including Willys-Overland, Ford and American Motors. Now it forms the bedrock for troubled Chrysler, which is on the mend after being taken over by Italy’s Fiat.For 2012, the [Wrangler](http://www.carsoup.com/US-National/new-vehicles/make/Car-Truck/Nationwide/Jeep/Wrangler/?cont=1&mode=make&refineids=modelyear&refine=1&modelyear=2012 "2012 Jeep Wrangler new car inventory") completes what Jeep officials say is the second and final stage of its modern rejuvenation. The 2011 line received new interiors and other tweaks.
Now comes the frosting: a new engine linked to a new five-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox. The combination transforms the Wrangler in a way the styling enhancements never could.
Even an unscrupulous attorney would have to stipulate that the Wrangler is one of the most proficient off-road vehicles on the planet. There are few places it cannot go.
The big gripe has always been that, yes, it’s terrific on logging trails and cross country jaunts, but who would want to live with one commuting or taking vacation trips? The rap was that it was noisy, slow and handled poorly on the open road.
There’s still some of that in the 2012 models. But the slow part has been finessed by the installation of Chrysler’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine.
Boasting 285 horsepower compared to the 202 horsepower of the previous 3.8-liter V6, the new all-aluminum engine nevertheless delivers improved fuel economy and runs more quietly than its predecessor.
It also makes the Wrangler way quicker.
An impromptu drag race between the 202-horsepower Unlimited and the new 285 was no contest. But you do have to get your foot jammed onto the gas pedal because the linkage feels resistant–perhaps to discourage stoplight drag races in the interest of fuel economy. Jeep claims a zero-to-60 acceleration time of 8.4 seconds in the two-door Wrangler, which weighs 315 pounds less than the Unlimited.
For comparison purposes, a stick shift two-door Wrangler also was driven. It had a long-throw shifter like those on big pickup trucks and a clutch that engaged near the top of its travel, feeling as if it were worn. But the shifting was easy. However, with its short wheelbase and fabric top, it was bouncy and noisy on the road.
City/highway fuel consumption is rated at 17/21 for the two-door, with either the stick shift or the automatic, and 16/20 for the automatic four-door and 16/21 for the stick. The automatic has a handy manual-shift mode.
The Jeep engineers have calmed down the interior by installing new engine and transmission mounts, better insulation and an under hood engine cover.
The entire package becomes apparent as soon as you take the new Wrangler out on the highway, but only if you choose the hardtop versions. Convertible models with their flapping fabric covers and plastic windows still are plagued with substantial wind and road noise.
But the four-door hardtop Unlimited reviewed here was admirably quiet on the road, expanding the Wrangler horizons by morphing into a vehicle that can capably perform off-road and also function as a commuter and family vacation hauler.
On-road handling was competent, not unlike driving a modern full-size pickup truck. The Unlimited tracked cleanly down the road and had good steering feel, despite the fact that Wranglers have two solid axles and old-fashioned recirculating ball steering. The Unlimited even had a decent ride because of its extra 21 inches of wheelbase–the distance between the front and rear axles.
As any enthusiast can testify, the additional length is a disadvantage off-road, where the shorter wheelbase two-door is less likely to get hung up over obstacles.
The new interior, introduced in the 2011 model, provides pleasant surroundings, although you can’t escape the roll bars and other utilitarian fittings. Jeep people brag that you can still hose out the interior, which has drain plugs in the floor, though nobody in his right mind would turn the hose on the dash or the cloth seats, no matter how dirty.The front seats are reasonably comfortable, though short in the thighs. Jeep officials concede the point but say they had to be short to move far enough forward for rear-seat access in the two-door.
The four-door gets the same seats, along with a big back seat area and a huge cargo space out back that can nearly be doubled if you fold the rear seats.
There are four Wrangler trim levels: Sport, Sport S, Sahara and Rubicon. The last is the all-out off-road conqueror with such performance enhancements as locking front and rear axles.
All Wranglers have part-time four-wheel drive with a manual transfer case for high and low ranges as well as rear-drive for highway cruising. The transfer case shifter takes muscle and manipulation to operate, but that’s all part of the Jeep mystique.
The tested Unlimited Sport had a base price of $25,545. With options that included the three-piece hardtop, a limited-slip differential and satellite radio, it had a bottom-line sticker of $31,325.