Corvette. Mustang. Wrangler. If one of these storied names seems out of place to you, it shouldn’t. The Jeep Wrangler, which traces its ancestry back to the Willy’s Jeeps of World War II fame, and the later, civilian CJ’s built by AMC, is an enduring symbol of American ingenuity done right. The Wrangler is something we can be proud of.
The Wrangler, while not the best-selling, is considered the centerpiece of the Jeep brand. The image, ruggedness and off-road ability is what Jeep hangs its hat on. The Wrangler gives Jeep credibility. At a time when brand loyalists question soft-roaders like the Jeep Compass, they can at least take solace that the Wrangler is everything they want, and expect a Jeep to be.
The first Wrangler came out in 1987, and we’re now on the third generation, the JK series. The current Wrangler debuted in 2007, and the changes were as radical as when AMC transitioned from the CJ to the Wrangler. Featuring a longer wheelbase (by 2″), a much wider track (3.4″), the new Wrangler was actually a bit shorter overall than the last model, allowing for better off-road ability. This would also mark the introduction of the first four-door Wrangler, or Wrangler Unlimited. There was a Wrangler Unlimited in the last generation, which was basically a stretched wheelbase two-door. More room and practicality? Yes, to be sure, but it ruined the Wrangler’s classic proportions.
True, the Unlimited is big and imposing, but is every inch a Wrangler. All the classic design cues are present and accounted for. There is just no mistaking this for any other vehicle. As it should be. I still think the narrower track, and chrome-ringed headlamps of the last Wrangler helped it maintain a more vintage look, but in the end Jeep did a good job of keeping a lot of Wrangler without making it look like an antique. Form follows function here, and when one takes the time to examine the details on the Wrangler, it is easy to appreciate the car as a whole.
The theme continues before you even step inside. A giant, round pushbutton on the door handle has a satisfying ‘click’. You swing open the door, which is still attached to the body by Ã‚Â simple hinges and a canvas strap (the doors are removable). Ã‚Â The seats are flat as a pancake, there is painted, exposed metal on the doors, exposed screws throughout the interior, and the plastics are rock hard. The driver faces a very simple gauge cluster, and looking around, the lack of buttons is almost alarming. The giant steering wheel is bereft of them, and if you can’t find the controls for the mirrors-stop, because you won’t find them. Roll down the window and use your hand.
This generation Wrangler is the first to offer power windows and door locks, one nod to 1950′s amenities. In any other vehicle, I would really take this interior to task, but not here. A posh, refined Wrangler would just ruin the experience. Our tester did feature one other nod to very modern times-the entertainment. We had the optional Media Center, with a 30GB Hard Drive, 6.5″ color touch screen, UConnect phone, GPS Navigation, Sirius satellite radio and Sirius Traffic. The sound quality was good, and the satellite radio reception is among the best in the business. The nav worked well. This was my first experience with Sirius Traffic, and it was a little hyper. I soon started ignoring demands to re-route me, as perceived problems were usually false alarms.
Motivation for the Wrangler comes from a 3.8L V-6, pumping out 202hp. That’s not a lot for a heavy vehicle with the aerodynamics of a brick. Coupled to a six-speed manual, acceleration is leisurely. Under acceleration, the engine is a bit coarse, and once you hit 3,000 rpm you may as well grab the next gear, as the extra racket just isn’t worth it. Ã‚Â The manual tranny is refreshingly easy to modulate, and I didn’t mind the long throws. In fact, rowing the gearbox was extremely satisfying. Again, it just fits the personality of the Wrangler.
You would think the Wrangler would be torture on the interstate, but it’s really quite livable. Wind noise was not bad at all. Cruising at 75mph, the Wrangler was composed. Tire noise was prevalent, but that’s to be expected with the Rubicon’s knobby off-road rubber. Cross-country? Not for me, thanks, but after a couple hours in the Wrangler I was no worse for wear.
Apart from two and four door, the Wrangler comes in three flavors-base Sport, user-friendly Sahara, and off-road master Rubicon. Goodies unique to the Rubicon include Rock-Trac part-time 4WD, Tru-Lok electronic differentials, front and rear Next Generation Dana heavy duty axles, rock rails, detachable sway bars and the aforementioned off-road tires. Our Surf Blue tester, with the Media Center and optional three-piece Freedom Top stickered at $35,975USD-a lot of coin. The money in the Rubi is in the hardware, and software. If leaving the pavement behind is a big part of your intentions in a Wrangler, go for it. Unless it’s important for everyone to know you bought the most hard-core Wrangler available, the Sport or Sahara cost less and deliver all the same goodness.
Sure, the Wrangler is a rolling automotive anachronism. It is slow, rough, thirsty, and unrefined. But if Jeep made it posh, it would just be another Grand Cherokee. In any other vehicle, these qualities would never work. There is a channel on Sirius satellite radio called ‘Margaritaville’. It is a station I never listen to, but during my week in the Wrangler, I always had it on. Jimmy Buffett’s music prevailed, and it suited the mood to the car, with the emphasis on fun, and the need to keep it simple. In 2010, it’s very hard to find a car that keeps it simple, yet offers such a rich, enjoyable, albeit laid-back experience as the Jeep Wrangler. Truly one of a kind, and above all, an American icon.