It can take you a long time to start truly missing someone. Three years ago, I was dating a lovely federal attorney who had ordered herself a six-speed Wrangler Unlimited Sahara as a sort of step-stool to get her to the more adventurous life she thought we’d end up living together. In March of 2013, after taking delivery of her Jeep, she left it in my custody, got on a plane, and joined one of her oldest friends on a sight-seeing trip to Utah. She’d asked me to go but I’d refused; I had a date with someone else planned for the same week and at the time I took a sort of cruel joy in crushing every dream she had about our future. “I’m busy. Go to Moab,” I told her, “and see the Delicate Arch.”
“Too far north,” she replied. “Anyway, I want to save it for a trip with you.” We never took that trip. The last time I saw her was when she came to visit me in the hospital eight months later, the day after my January 2014 crash. I was incandescent with pain and incoherent from painkillers. She did something to upset me. I told her to leave the room and never come back. In the years between now and then, I didn’t think about her much. Too many other people and things on my mind.
This past Monday I attended a preview for the new Yokohama Geolandar G015 all-terrain tire in Moab. To demonstrate the (considerable) capabilities of the new design, Yokohama rustled up some brand-new Jeeps, put Geolandars on them, and invited us to try them on the “Fins And Things” trail. Given my choice of automatic-transmission Wrangler Sport S models in both two-door and Unlimited (four-door) models, I chose a two-door because I figured it wouldn’t scrape as much on the ridges.
The moment I closed the thin door and settled both of my hands on the thick, leather-and-chrome wheel, I felt my stomach drop as a wave of unrequited longing and sadness washed across me. I thought about the day my son and I took my old girlfriend to see the Jeeps at our local dealer, and I thought about the day she called me giddy with excitement because her custom-ordered Wrangler had finally arrived, and I thought about that long trip we took to Chicago. Then I thought of all the times I’d put her off or let her down or deceived her so I could do the things I wanted to do without her. When the wave passed, my eyes were dry and my heart felt paper-thin, rattling in my oft-broken ribcage. I whispered her name and then I spoke a few private words to her, though I knew she could not hear me. Then I recited my personal mantra, stolen from Townes: It don’t pay to think too much / On the things you leave behind. I took a deep breath, then I fired up the Wrangler and headed for the slickrock.
The base Wrangler Sport two-door stickers at a touch under $24,000. Add the “S” trim, which includes air conditioning and alloy wheels but does not include power windows, then toss a hardtop on the thing, and you’ve crossed the thirty-grand barrier yust like that. That kind of money would get you a very nice Camry V6 with all sorts of luxurious features, you know. Like power windows, and power seats, and a decent stereo.
The Wrangler gives you none of that. In Sport trim, it’s all hard plastics and cheap seats. Nor do you get the hard-core off-road stuff like locking differentials or electric-disconnect swaybars; that’s reserved for the Rubicon. What do you get? Well, you get the Pentastar, which feels oddly out of place in a Jeep with its quick-revving nature, but it certainly hustles the truck along better than the old 4.0-liter six ever managed. You get manual four-wheel-drive that requires a full stop and a bit of crunchy noise to engage. You get a five-speed automatic if you want it.
My hotel for the event, the Sorrel River Ranch resort, is separated from Moab by about 15 miles of truly brilliant serpentine two-lane that follows a river through a deep red rock canyon. I’d run the road the night before in a Fiesta ST with polyurethane bushings and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The Wrangler was a different story. It’s competent enough, and it’s not like the Geolandars ever did any squealing when I loaded ’em up on the marked 20 mile-per-hour twisties, but there’s no joy in steering the thing. The steering wheel has far too much free play and, of course, it leans like the HMS Bounty in heavy wind. I hate to say it, but if you buy a Wrangler just to drive on the road, you’re going to be very disappointed unless your last car was a Model A Ford.
Once you get to Moab proper, however, you start to understand the Wrangler’s true purpose in life. While it’s theoretically possible to go off-roading in anything from an old 4Runner to a Europa-imported two-door Mercedes 280GE, the Jeep Wrangler and its immediate ancestors make up the overwhelming majority of the trucks crawling around Fins And Things. Some people, like me, bring brand-new Wranglers; my truck had about 190 miles on the odometer when I stepped in. Others create fantastically single-minded high-riders from old “TJ” and “YJ” models. I saw a couple of ’70s CJ-era Jeeps, but by and large the Moab community rolls in a Wrangler.
I owned a variety of Land Rovers from 1997 to 2006 and I took them off-road a fair amount, but it was always in the Midwest. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, mud is the order of the day and stream crossings are a fact of life. Moab ain’t like that. You follow the black tire tracks up the red and gray rocks until you’re six thousand feet above sea level, with vicious dropoffs to both sides. You can see snow-covered mountains in the distance and feel the high-powered winds attempting to toss your Wrangler into a canyon. I found it utterly terrifying, despite the fact that Fins And Things only rates a “5” on the Moab 1-to-10 scale.
Off-road, as you’d expect, the Wrangler’s vices become virtues. That loose steering? It will keep you from rolling the thing when your wheel catches a rut, the whole world tilts in front of you, and you clutch at the wheel for support. The long throttle travel means that you don’t spin the wheels when you literally slip down the backside of a rock for five feet and hit hard on the next ledge, causing your entire body to sag forward against the seatbelt. The ridiculous-looking padding on the interior rollcage will keep you from cracking your skull from “head-toss” motions brought on from uneven terrain.
The Wrangler is one of the last FCA vehicles to retain the Benz-style “Auto Stick” that lets drivers manually select a gear while in “D” by shoving the lever right and left. Here, at 5 mph, it works just fine. If you’re in 4WD-Low, pressing left once will automatically put you into first gear, no matter what you were in before. You climb in second or third and descend in first, as slowly as you can manage.
The combination of short-wheelbase Wrangler and Yokohama Geolandar tire was flattering to both; no amount of ham-fisted idiocy on my part or the part of my fellow journalists could really upset matters. I repeatedly saw people just stop halfway up climbs steep enough to make sure that nothing but blue sky showed in the windscreen. With my old Rovers, that would be a quick ticket to a slide backwards, but the Yoko-shod Wranglers could just start accelerating back up the hill. You never heard more than a single squeak from any wheel; in the absence of locking diffs, the Jeep uses traction-control trickery that is hugely effective. The sandy sections between rock “fins” were deep enough to strand the mountain-bike-riding trail monitors from the Bureau of Land Management, who were there to make sure we didn’t steal rocks or something like that, but the Wranglers were utterly unperturbed.
As trails go, Fins and Things isn’t that tough. I could have done it in my old Discoveries no sweat, although I’d have had to pull the lower bumpers or lose ’em, and a unibody Range Rover can handle it easily if you raise it all the way up on the air springs. You can even do the trail in a new-shape Cherokee, although that won’t always succeed. The Wrangler simply cruised it, however, allowing eight relatively inexperienced drivers to get through without so much as a dented door. The only damage I saw to any of the Wranglers was to the wheels, although mine made it through scratch-free.
It’s best to think of the Wrangler as a sort of off-road counterpart to the Dodge Viper. Which is to say that it’s only truly happy in its very specific environment. For the Viper, that’s the road course; for the Wrangler, it’s the dirt trail. The problem is that there aren’t enough True Believers to keep the production lines going in either case. The Wrangler sidesteps the problem by selling a lot of four-door Saharas to people like my attorney ex-girlfriend, who won’t ever really off-road the thing but likes the idea that she could. Their purchases effectively subsidize the hardcore two-door base models like the one I drove, which allows everybody to be happy. The real hardcore off-roaders do admire the Rubicon model, which is referred to as a “Ruby” by everybody with a Moab mailing address, but it’s generally understood that the locals buy the cheap ones and use the twenty-grand savings for aftermarket off-road equipment.
This happy state of affairs, where urban posers keep the production lines running so the Moab crowd continues to have new Wranglers available, can’t continue forever. Eventually, Jeep will have to make the Wrangler just another crossover-CUV-thingy, the same way the Land Rover Discovery eventually became the fat-cat LR4 and the lame-ass Discovery Sport CUV. If you’re like me, you probably won’t notice right away, or even care much. I’m not an off-road typa dude and I don’t have much emotional connection to Jeep. But trust me: in much the same way that I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night feeling lonely for my little attorney friend, you’ll miss the Wrangler when it’s gone.
Disclosure: Yokohama provided one night’s lodging, fuel for the Wrangler, and paid the trail access pass at Moab. Travel and meal expenses were covered by the author.
[Images: © 2016 Jack Baruth/The Truth About Cars; some images courtesy of Yokohama]