You won't find many four-door convertible SUVs out there and that's one reason why the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is so unusual ($26,695 base).
Another is its bush-whacking capabilities. You could spend more than twice as much on, say, a Land Rover LR4 ($61,990 with the Green Levy) and not get any further or faster along the Rubicon Trail.
Agreed, the LR4 is a richer ride in every way - and the strong Land Rover brand is in the mix, too. Yet Jeeps have their own Second World War-ish, rough-and-ready cachet. The Wrangler - the standard two-door or the big, four-door Unlimited - has a style all its own and it's authentic to the core.
The good news is that for 2011, Jeep upgraded this bread-and-butter model with more sound-deadening and a redesigned interior boasting higher-quality materials. There are even exposed hex-head screws for a dose of tough-guy reality. And get this: the hardtop is actually the same colour as the rest of the body!
The bad news: under the hood is Chrysler's old minivan engine, a 3.8-litre V-6 rated at 202 horsepower and 237 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a four-speed automatic and it's nothing about which to boast. This powertrain is unappealing in its roughness and uncompetitive in terms of power. Jeep plans to replace it with a modern V-6 for 2012.
Which helps explain why even with upgrades - you can get heated leather seats! Hooray! - Jeep has slapped more than $3,000 in sales sweeteners on the Wrangler Unlimited. This thirsty Jeep (14.5 litres/100 km city/10.0 highway) will cost you nearly $3,400 annually in regular gas (at $1.40 a litre) if you're an average driver, but at least it's affordable in the extreme from a purchase price perspective.
The front crash test scores are good, too, though with those skinny doors, the side impact results from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are "marginal." On the other hand, those doors can be removed completely to heighten the "cool" factor.
As a total package, the Unlimited is a big box of emotional triggers for a whole bunch of people. The drop-down fenders, the bold grille - all of the various design elements come together in a way that says, "Wow, I'm driving something light years away from boring." This ineffable quality is hard to describe beyond macho clichés, but it's very real.
Real, too, are the rugged qualities Jeep engineers into the Wrangler. Those who do venture into the outback - and loyal Jeepsters actually do this sort of thing; they are not poseurs - find that the 3.8-litre engine's lack of oomph is not a problem. You'll only miss having get-up-and-go when you're merging into freeway traffic.
In the mud and the sand, when there is no pavement, only ruts and river beds and rocks, the Wrangler's legitimate off-road talents are absolutely amazing. This Jeep is real in a kind of mouth-dropping, awe-inspiring way.
That is, there are solid axles front and rear, the steering is the slow and ideal recirculating-ball type and there is 267 mm of maximum ground clearance. Wading depth: 762 mm. You can do a 66-degree climb, the approach angle is 44.6 degrees and the departure angle is 40.7 degrees.
All these hard-core numbers are delicious news for the back-country set. You simply cannot buy a mass-production vehicle at any price that can in any way dramatically exceed this Jeep. Truth be told, most so-called SUVs won't come close.
On the other hand, the high ground clearance and all the rest can be a liability on the highway as the speeds increase. Get going too fast and you'll find that the Wrangler wanders and lurches about. In a straight line, the ride quality is acceptable, though. And again, this Jeep "feels" utterly authentic.
I mean, aside from its go-anywhere cred, this Jeep has a windshield you can fold down flat. Add in the removable doors and the convertible top, and you are left with an utterly unique ride. Its status is in eschewing button-down luxury. If you are the sensitive, soft sort, you won't understand this honest Jeep. Not a bit of it.
Plenty do, though. Last year Jeep managed to move almost 100,000 of these Wranglers - most of them four-door Unlimited ones. I imagine Jeep has made the 2011 version nice enough to pull in the odd disaffected BMW driver looking for the ultimate off-road driving machine.
The latest Wrangler may have a crude engine, but the rest of the package is charming in the way a real cottage by the lake has appeal. And I'm not talking about one of those fancy, multi-million dollar Lake Rosseau jobs, either.
No, this Jeep is the running equivalent of a more basic place by the lake with unfinished open beams in the ceiling and knotty hard wood on the floor. We're talking the kind of cottage you drive to on a sunny Friday with the top open and the stereo belting out Jessica by the Allman Brothers.
2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon
Type: Mid-size SUV
Price: $33,495 ($1,400 freight)
Engine: 3.8-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 202 hp/237 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Drive: Part-time, four-wheel
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 14.5 city/10.0 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer