Few vehicles on the road can top the Jeep Wrangler when it comes to keeping in touch with its roots.
Although it has gone through numerous refinements over the years, has been through several name changes and is now offered in two- and four-door configurations, the fourth-generation Wrangler still looks remarkably like the original Willys GP, which debuted during the Second World War. It still has the flat-topped front fenders, the upright windscreen, high ground clearance and rough-and-ready ambience.
The contrast between the Wrangler and most of the other SUVs out there is striking; these days, when you climb into a new SUV or CUV, you're usually greeted by a thoroughly up-to-date interior, with a car-like ambience, state-of-the-art switchgear and ergonomics, all kinds of comforting convenience features and a ride that rivals that of some luxury sedans.
Get behind the wheel of a Wrangler, however, and it's like reporting for duty at your local armoury. Entering and exiting is awkward, the doors are prevented from opening too far by a piece of canvas strap, elbow room is at a premium, the seating position is upright and almost military and the whole feeling inside the vehicle is that of utility and function. Not many frills here.
This thing is all business; designed and built to scramble over the roughest terrain you can throw at it, and it'll happily plow through deep mud and waist-high water.
Which, of course, it hardly ever encounters. Make no mistake, the Wrangler is a formidable off-road warrior and backwoods battler and, over the years, I've driven various Jeep models in some pretty hair-raising situations, over terrain that, at first glance, looks impassable. But most of its duty these days is in the city or suburbs, scrambling its way to the local mall or navigating its way through traffic jams and cruising the freeway.
My tester, the four-door Unlimited, is offered in three trim levels: Sport, Sahara and Rubicon. I drove the latter, which, like all three, is powered by Chrysler's ubiquitous 3.8-litre V-6 and can be had with either a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Mine had the former gearbox, which added to its vintage flavour, even though, with six-speeds, it's up to date and in line with most of the competition.
A word about the drivetrain. This engine is well suited to the Wrangler Unlimited. Not the liveliest V-6 out there, it nonetheless has decent torque - 237 lb-ft - and is surprisingly smooth and linear in operation, with arguably the slickest clutch action I've ever encountered in this kind of vehicle. Interestingly, it retains the now-rare overhead valve configuration, and in its own way, is as much a throwback as the vehicle is propels.
It's a nice fit, nonetheless, and the six-speed gearbox (introduced last year) makes the Unlimited more driveable than ever - at least around town. Sixth is actually more of an overdrive, but I found myself using it on a regular basis and not just on the highway. Fuel consumption for this rig is scary and keeping the revs down and using the torque of the engine wherever possible lessens the blow a little. By no stretch of the imagination is the Wrangler a hot rod, but, with this engine, it's a surprisingly tame urban vehicle, which may be why you see so many of them on city streets.
In the event that you do decide to take it out where it belongs, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon has a proper 4WD system Chrysler is calling Rock-Trac. This is a heavy-duty, part-time, on-demand arrangement, with high and low range, accessed via a floor-mounted shift lever. It's a step up from the Command-Trac that comes with the Unlimited Sport and Sahara models and has a Neutral setting so that the vehicle can be towed without disconnecting the drive system.
In Low Range, the Unlimited Rubicon can go almost anywhere. All Unlimited models also have a hill-start assist feature, skid plates, electronic vehicle stability control, locking differentials and a traction control system.
Despite its vintage flavour, Chrysler has made the '11 iteration of the Wrangler Unlimited more civilized. Designers have "softened" the interior somewhat with new fabric choices, a restyled steering wheel and redesigned centre console and door armrests. Does it make a difference? Not really. It's still rough around the edges, with lots of painted metal surfaces and one of the most difficult step-ups in the industry.
The Rubicon, as the top of the line version, comes standard with things like air conditioning, upgraded stereo, a performance-tuned suspension, power door locks, keyless entry and larger 17-inch wheels and tires. I'm also happy to see that the tilt and telescoping steering is standard on all models.
Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to take my tester off-road, but I have done so in the past, and where it will go is only limited by how much nerve you've got. There are few better when the road goes away and the wilderness starts.
2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon
Type: Mid-size SUV
Base Price: $31,245; as tested, $32,745
Engine: 3.8-litre, OHV, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 202 hp/237 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 14.0 city/10.0 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Land Rover LR4, Dodge Nitro 4X4, Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Nissan Pathfinder, Mercedes-Benz G550, Toyota FJ Cruiser, VW Touareg