We’re sitting in Jeep’s newest Wrangler pointed up a steep hill. Freak December rain has turned the ground into goopy glop. The transmission is in 4-Low, both axles are locked and the front sway-bar has been disconnected. A light tap of the gas slowly but oh-so-steadily begins to motivate our Trail Rated off-roader up the treacherous path. And then… we’re at the top. Huh? Too easy. We circle back down, turn off the lockers, reattach the sway-bar and put the Jeep into two-wheel drive. A moment later we are once again atop the hill. I’m saying it right here: the Wrangler Rubicon is the most capable vehicle ever badged a Jeep.
Like the venerable Porsche 911, each new gen Wrangler is an evolution of an ideal automotive form. Even the lay-person understands that the “new” Wrangler is a direct descendant of the military transport Americans have loved since Patton was slapping soldiers. Also like Germany’s ass-engined coupe, each successive Wrangler is getting better and better looking, without compromising tradition.
The Wrangler’s doors and tailgate are still simple slabs of metal held in place by exposed hinges. The rest of the body panels are still excuses upon which to hang over-sized fenders. Only the seven slot grill has changed in any appreciable way; it’s raked slightly backwards to lower the drag coefficient from school house to church. The new Wrangler’s design continues to be a triumph of function dictating form. It’s a much-needed, much-appreciated distillation of Jeep brand DNA.
The Jeep’s interior is surprisingly comfortable, cozy even. While hardcore mud pluggers will condemn this 4X4’s newfound civility as a brand-betrayal, who wants to sit on cheap patio furniture while resting their elbow on cold tin? Anyway, the radio head unit is straight out of the horrifying Sebring, though it actually works in this lower-rent application. The door pulls, window/door switches and column stalks are all appropriately bulky and solid.
For the first time, the Wrangler’s windows and locks are electric. And yet you can still pull the doors off. The windshield still folds down, too. Even cooler, you can unfasten the T-top panels from the driver’s seat and simply chuck them in the back. However… while we didn’t wrestle with the Wrangler’s soft-top, a brief flip through the owner’s manual revealed a picture of a rubber mallet. Uh-oh.
Jeeps of old were road-going torture chambers; inflicting psychological damage on their drivers with ungodly amounts of noise, vibration and harshness. The 2007 update is quiet (enough), sort of soft riding and about as harsh as a Fisher Price product. Granted, getting the Rubicon to go much faster than 70mph is a waste of time and gas (count on 16.5mpg). But like Jeeps of old, driving this relic delivers an elemental exhilaration which no other vehicles can provide. I’m frankly shocked at how much fun the Wrangler is to wrangle around town. Despite the high chair seating arrangement, you are essentially hooning about in one of the shortest wheel-based rear-drivers on the market, complete with tail-out powerslides.
Of course, this little Jeep is defined by what it can do when the blacktop ends and the rock hopping begins. A friend and I took the Wrangler to the Azusa Canyon OHV park and beat it mercilessly over 150 acres of dirt, mud, fallen trees, sand, rocks and streams. Due to it’s proximity to Hollywood (and the camera equipment found therein), many of the SUV commercials you TIVO past are filmed at this park. No poseurs need apply; you’re forced to ford a foot-deep stream right at the entrance. Nothing we found– save for one 45-degree soggy sand dune– slowed the Jeep down.
Every other vehicle in the park was customized to some degree. Over-sized tires, lifts, trick suspension and so on. Our Wrangler was bone stock. Yet we were able to traverse obstacles that the other vehicles couldn’t surmount. The Wrangler’s modern, technology laden suspension (i.e. greater wheel-articulation) was like a laptop amongst abacuses. The most shocking discrepancy: a jacked-up, diamond plated CJ could simply not get traction on a hill that we had easily ascended. The elder Jeep only spun its tire. The owner climbed down, lit a cigarette and told me he had a four-door Wrangler on order. As he should. This new Wrangler is simply peerless (for the price) in the rough.
Like a leaky British roadster, a BMW 3-series, a 911 and (hopefully) a bright red Ferrari, the Jeep Wrangler is more than an automotive icon. It’s a stepping stone along the path to pistonhead nirvana. A rite of passage, if you will. The new Wrangler in Rubicon trim is more civilized on-road and better than ever off. Sure there are faster, more economical and more practical SUVs for sale today, but they all share a common flaw – I don’t want one.
[Jeep provided the vehicle, insurance and a tank of gas.]