No vehicle represents America’s can-do spirit as authentically as the Jeep Wrangler. Born from the conflict that defined our Greatest Generation, the Jeep embodied our nation’s core values: simplicity, honesty and never-say-die durability. That was then. Now, not one but two badge engineered CUV’s are dragging the Jeep brand’s hard-core off-road rep through the [ankle deep] mire. Which puts a lot of weight on the ’07 Wrangler Unlimited’s elongated shoulders. Does the new Wrangler have enough talent and gumption to make up for the sins of the sons?
Since Chrysler acquired AMC from Renault in ‘87, the Jeep brand has been the domestic manufacturer’s canary in the coal mine. When Jeep’s done well, Chrysler’s done well. When Jeep’s languished, Chrysler’s tanked. Chrysler’s German masters are not blind to this correlation. Jeep's new corporate parent has shortened product development cycles from decades to six years. And now Doktor Z und ze Boyz are looking to grow DaimlerChrysler by expanding Jeep's model lineup. Does the Compass point the way to a bright future for "America's sports car"?
A certain Mr. E. Ferrari used to refer to Jeep as 'America's only real sports car.' I never fully understood the Italian automaker's claim until I handed the keys to my Cherokee to my SUV-hating girlfriend. As my liver busied itself processing bourbon, she kicked the Jeep's 4.0-liter straight-six into life. Carving through the Silver Lake hills, the Jeep's right-now acceleration, scrappy handling and elevated driving position pleased her almost as much as I did. Enzo was right: Jeeps are a buzz. When DCX lent me the new Jeep Liberty Renegade, I slipped on my steel-toed Wolverines and readied myself for a good 'ole thrash in America's redneck Ferrari.
The model replacing Jeep's venerable Cherokee exchanges the Cherokee's near-perfect two-box design for something that looks like a VW Bug after a visit to Barry Bonds' doctor. Macho dignity is upheld (literally) by the Renegade's seven slot grill and its over-sized, over-compensating wheel arches– attached by marble-sized bolts as garish as diamond teeth. Rock rails and fog lights (disguised to look like KC lamps) reinforce the strong man aesthetic. That said, as I admired the Renegade on my drive, a desperate homemaker walked up and commented, 'That's cute.' Yes, well, the Liberty's UniFrame construction makes it stiffer, lighter and more crashworthy than the body-on-frame construction used by truck-based competitors. So it's still as tough as nails (the metal kind).
You can't blame Jeep for launching a retro-styled seven-seater at a time when dealers' forecourts have become sport utility tar pits. The Dark Lords of DCX pulled the trigger on the Commander when the petrochemical sun was shining, hay was being made and the word "hybrid" applied to orchids, vegetables and farm animals. The logic was sound: build a more commodious SUV to keep fecund followers of Jeep's trail rated trucks within the fold. Something that would also lure lifestylers helming less venerable vehicles. But the execution is inexcusable. Even if Shell V-Power was free, you wouldn't want to waste it on the new Jeep Commander.
Jeep's latest ads ask SUV buyers to believe that the new Grand Cherokee is a pleasure to drive on-road. It's a stunning example of "the big lie" (people are more likely to believe a massive deception than a little one). If there's one thing that the heavily revised Grand Cherokee does badly– like any two-ton SUV– it's handle on-road. The SUV floats alarmingly over dips and crests, shudders disturbingly over bumps and holes, and leans precipitously through the twisties. I'd no sooner blast a Grand Cherokee around a sharp corner than I'd drive an Enzo on the Rubicon.
Ah, the Rubicon. Also known as the McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road, the unpaved trail runs 12 miles through California's rugged High Sierra Mountains. On the official off-roaders' difficulty scale of one to 10, the boulder-strewn, gully-infested Rubicon rates a 24. (As one veteran mud plugger puts it, the only part of a vehicle that's not likely to break on the Con is the radiator cap.) To qualify as "trail rated", a Jeep product must have enough traction, ground clearance, maneuverability, articulation and water fording to tackle the Rubicon.