I love progress, I love technology, and I don’t have an aversion to comfort. With that in mind, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and I seem like an unlikely pairing. Jeep promises however that they have made the most civilized Wrangler ever without sacrificing off-road performance. While Wrangler shoppers with kids and a commute may be inclined to opt for the four-door Jeeplet, the 2-door variety has a large California following from the hip urban set to “rural-suburbanites” like myself, especially since GM killed off Hummer.
While the Wrangler has its roots in the Willys CJ, the Wrangler as we know it started in 1987 when AMC decided the off-roader needed some on-road creature comforts to boost sales. Back in 2007 Jeep ruffled more feathers by stretching the Wrangler’s wheelbase and track several inches to improve road manners. Despite 25 years of continual improvements to make the Wrangler more suited to the commuter shopper, thankfully little has been done to alter the look of the go-anywhere brand. Much like Porsche’s dedication to the 911’s classic styling, Jeep has resisted styling the Wrangler into a mainstream SUV. From the flat black fenders, rubber hood straps, to the removable doors and roof, the Wrangler seems to have lost little of its off road charm over the years.
Because of the off-road ready height, jumping into the Jeep isn’t a euphemism. Once inside the tall cabin, it’s obvious the Wrangler’s new interior was designed with daily driving comforts in mind. While some portions of the interior may well be waterproof and you can still remove the carpet to access drain plugs, I’d keep the garden hose away from the dashboard and seats. The off-road faithful will be glad to hear that the dash plastics, while more visually appealing are still hard and easy to wipe down. The rest of us will just be glad to know that Chrysler finally decided to add some sound insulation to the cabin. Our Rubicon model came equipped with a few luxury features never before seen on a Wrangler, including heated front seats, heated side view mirrors and steering wheel audio controls.
While the serious off-roader will likely scoff at butt-warmers as further evidence that the Wrangler is getting soft in its old age, an end to “Wrangler minimalism” brings beneficial changes to the commuter and weekend off-roader with stability control, tire pressure monitoring (when I’m rock climbing I’d like to know if my tire is flat) electronically locking differentials and sway bars that can be disconnected at the touch of a button. While “electronic sway bar disconnect” may sound like a superfluous option, it helps the new Wrangler maintain serious suspension travel for rock crawling without the safety issues of permanently removing the sway bars as some Wrangler owners have in the past. Despite these improvements, the rear seat remains an afterthought with difficult access and little room.
Wrangler shoppers have never had so many options to choose from, including 6 different trim-lines, multiple axle choices, two transfer cases, two different door styles (glass or plastic window), a variety of radio and navigation options and of course a manual transmission is still available. Our tester was the Rubicon model which is perhaps paradoxically the most luxurious model and the most “hard core off-road” model sporting a 4:1 low range transfer case and large 32-inch BFGoodrich off-road tires.
Regardless of which Wrangler you choose, all Wrangler models share the same engine: the new 3.6L “Pentastar” V6 which replaces last year’s ancient push-rod 3.8L V6. The new mill uses an aluminum block and dual variable valve timing to crank out a best-ever 285HP and 260lb-ft of torque, an improvement of 83HP and 23lb-ft versus the outgoing engine, while improving highway mileage by 2MPG. Chrysler didn’t just pluck the engine out of the Caravan and drop it into the Wrangler, as they tweaked the exhaust, added a variable speed electric fan for better cooling, relocated the alternator high up on the block and pointed it rearward to keep it dry and installed an intake snorkel (you can see it on the left in the picture above) to improve the Wrangler’s water fording ability. While the new V6 is considerably quieter and more refined than the 3.8L, it lacks the iconic sound the old AMC inline-6 delivered. While I’m still wondering why Jeep didn’t pull a ZF 6-speed off the shelf, the Mercedes W5A580 5-speed automatic is much better suited to the Wrangler than the Grand Cherokee, delivering fairly quick shifts and a willingness to hold lower gears when called upon. Also available is a 6-speed manual for those that prefer to row your own. Forum fan-boys are complaining that the old skid plates are incompatible due to the new engine’s exhaust routing, so bear that in mind before trying to reuse your old accessories.
I’ll leave comparisons of the off-road abilities to the rock crawler rags, but I will say that a brief trip to Hollister Hills SVRA with the Wrangler and the Toyota FJ proved the benefit of a short wheelbase, wide track and steep approach and departure angles. If road manners matter in your next SUV, look somewhere else. On the highway, its obvious that Jeep’s passion remains off the beaten path; the Wrangler is still a pig with plenty of body roll, vague recirculating ball steering, mushy pedals, and a really twitchy rear end on the skidpad. The poor on-road performance has as much to do with the seriously heavy-duty Dana 44 solid front and rear axles as the 10.3 inches of ground clearance, mud tires and 3,800lb curb weight.
Instead of 2012 bringing the slick new large-screen uConnect systems from the Chrysler 300 or Jeep’s own Grand Cherokee, Wrangler buyers have to make do with Chrysler’s last generation radios and nav systems. The “Media center 130” is the standard unit with MP3 playback from a data CD or USB stick, an aux input jack and six speakers. Sahara and higher models get a 7-speaker setup with a subwoofer by Infinity and steering wheel audio controls, but strangely, Bluetooth phone integration and iPod connectivity are optional on all models. Sahara and Rubicon models can optionally choose between the $1,035 Garmin based navigation system, or the $1,845 Harmon based navigation system which includes some more sophisticated GPS equipment and allows voice command of the navigation system. Both navigation systems offer XM radio and XM traffic (1 year subscription included), Bluetooth phone interface and iPod integration. Before commuter-types scoff at the price of the nav systems, you should know that this generation uConnect doesn’t exactly love the iPhone 4 and browsing your iPod playlists on the base radio is a real drag. Step up to the basic nav or just go aftermarket.
Despite complaints of high sticker prices, a base $29,995 Wrangler Rubicon is firmly “average” in the new car market according to last year’s sales data. Take solace in the fact that the Wrangler only increased $225 for the Sahara and $175 for the Rubicon vs last year’s model. Our Wrangler was equipped with $2,930 in options including: the $735 hard top, $385 Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, $685 for power windows, locks and mirrors and $1,125 for the automatic transmission.
Toss in the steep $800 destination charge and our Wrangler topped out at $33,725 or about $1,500 less than a similarly configured Toyota FJ cruiser. While I was temped to draw FJ comparisons, the Wrangler is more powerful, smaller, considerably lighter, and is available with a locking front axle for the serious off-roader. In the end, the Wrangler continues to be a unique vehicle in a class all to its own. Despite some serious on-road shortcomings, with the 2012 improvements, the Wrangler has achieved a decent balance of being a passable commute car for the weekend trail warrior.
Jeep provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
statistics as tested
0-30 MPH: 2.63 Seconds
0-60 MPH: 7.27 Seconds
1/4 mile: 15.67 Seconds at 86.9 MPH
Observed Fuel Economy: 18.3 MPG over 629 miles