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Electric winch is a common addition to Jeep Wranglers used for offroading. The winch lets you pull your vehicle out if you get stuck. (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Electric winch is a common addition to Jeep Wranglers used for offroading. The winch lets you pull your vehicle out if you get stuck. (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Speed Date

Driver's Logbook: Jeep Wrangler not for trips to the mall Add to ...

Context is everything, as they say. This is why Sarah Palin avoids the West coast and major Northeast cities on her speaking tours - why subject yourself to the Manhattan liberal elite when you can go to St. Paul, where no one cares about your challenged diction and loose grasp of foreign policy? (North Korea is not a U.S. ally, Sarah.)

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Which brings me to the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle with charms that become apparent in the proper setting. Unfortunately, the Wrangler rarely finds itself in the right place. Based on a Second World War reconnaissance vehicle, the Wrangler is perfect for a deer hunting expedition or Sahara crossing. Unfortunately, many Wranglers seem to find themselves employed as party transports for halter-topped young women who spend their days on the Daytona strip, or as keg-haulers for frat boys who like to cruise downtown with the roof and doors off.

My first Wrangler drive was in downtown Vancouver, where I worked as a Porsche-VW mechanic back in the seventies. To me, the Wrangler had all the sophistication of a hatchet constructed from a wooden stick and a pointy rock. The bare metal doors rattled in their frames, and the Wrangler's short wheelbase and rudimentary suspension made it pitch and roll like a 16th-century galleon caught in heavy seas.

I wondered why anyone would buy one. Then came my next Wrangler ride. A friend and I planned to fly our hang gliders off a mountain near Whistler, B.C., but the only way up was a logging road that ended far from the top. Not a problem - my friend's Wrangler clawed its way up steep dirt trails that veined the side of the peak. We came up against fallen trees, dirt embankments, and a waterfall that coursed its way over a jagged granite staircase the height of a two-story house. Again and again, I swore we'd never make it. Again and again, I was wrong.

As an off-road vehicle, the Wrangler has few peers. The solid axles and short wheelbase that make it feel like a buckboard on the highway allow it to go places where only a mountain goat would normally venture, and the basic steel body and stone-age mechanics make it easy to repair. My mountain excursion impressed me. But I still had no urge to buy a Wrangler.

Then came my favourite Jeep drive of them all. Our extended family had gathered in Cozumel for a week of diving and socializing. We decided to drive around the island, only to learn that the only vehicles available at our hotel were Jeep Wranglers. We decided to take them.

It was one of the best drives of my life. My brother-in-law had a red Wrangler. I had a white one. Both were packed with kids, and the tops were off, exposing us to the blazing Mexican sun. We roared south on a two-lane highway and turned off toward the ocean. Hot wind blasted through the Wrangler's open frame, and a blue ocean paradise unspooled next to us.

We explored dirt side roads to see what was there. (Weird birds, strange tropical plants, and swamps that looked like perfect homes for big amphibians with teeth.) The roads were filled with deep ruts and sand washes, but the Wranglers rolled through without a hitch.

We headed back to the ocean, found a deserted beach, and spent the next three hours body surfing. The kids climbed back into the Jeeps covered with sand. Who cared? We could hose off the seats and floors.

By the time we got back, I was in love with the Wrangler. The torque six-cylinder, manual transmission and removable top were perfect for the mission we'd just undertaken. So were the flip-down windshield and off-road suspension. The Wrangler could go anywhere. (If we we'd been in Toyota Camry's we'd probably be stuck on one of those back roads, at the mercy of whatever emerged from the swamps when the sun went down.) On a B.C. mountain trail and the coast of Cozumel, the Jeep Wrangler was perfect. On downtown streets, it seemed like Sarah Palin at a foreign policy seminar. Remember - it's all about context.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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