As I piloted the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon through downtown Toronto, an odd thought popped into my head: What would it be like to be a killer whale stuck in the display tank at MarineLand? Or a Bengal tiger condemned to a zoo cage?
The comparison made a weird kind of sense: like the killer whale and the tiger, the Rubicon is a highly evolved creature, with a set of special adaptations that allow it to dominate its chosen environment. Unfortunately, that environment isn't downtown Toronto.
As I worked my way through stop-and-go traffic on Yonge Street, I was struck by the ridiculousness of my mission: The Rubicon was outfitted with long-travel suspension, locking differentials and a set of 4:1 reduction gears that allow it to ford streams and climb sheer walls like a mechanized mountain goat. I was driving it to lunch on a road where the biggest obstacle was a badly parked Hyundai Accent.
The rational side of us knows that the ideal vehicle for our daily lives is a pragmatic, fuel-efficient machine that carries out our mission at minimum cost. But then there's our other side – the questing, restless soul that rebels against the relentless, deadening tedium of life. Hence the Jeep's appeal: the idea that nothing can stop you. We may have mortgages and a job in a cubicle, but we'd like to believe that if we really wanted, we could light out for the wild territories.
The Jeep Wrangler is built for journeys that most of us will never take. It is one of the finest off-road vehicles built to date. Because of that, it has also become a potent fashion symbol, serving as a badge of ruggedness for countless drivers whose most challenging mission consists of a trip to the mall.
With the possible exceptions of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle and the cowboy hat, no fashion accessory has ever been more misused than the Jeep Wrangler. Last year, Jeep built 223,000 Wranglers (up 14 per cent from 2012). There are no definitive figures for how many of these are actually used off road but, according to a survey by J.D. Power and Associates, only 5 per cent of all sport-utility vehicles go off the paved road with any regularity.
This disconnect has always fascinated me, so when offered a new Rubicon for a test drive, I jumped at the chance. I've driven a number of Jeeps over the years, and have always found them to be interesting machines, with a distinctive character and classic, pragmatic style.
One of my friends has owned a series of Jeeps, and we've had a lot of fun driving them on trails down in the southern United States. At my friend's place in Georgia, a Jeep makes sense. He's surrounded by mountain trails and he operates a hang-gliding business – the Jeep is excellent for hauling gliders and reconnoitering new flying sites in the mountains.
In Toronto, I am not exactly in prime Jeep country. My everyday driving world consists of city streets, underground parking garages and 400-series highways that reward slick aerodynamics, high-speed stability and effective braking. And now I found myself in a battleship grey Rubicon with Dana 44 axles and gigantic lugged tires.
Although Jeep engineers have done a remarkable job of taming it, the Rubicon is not an ideal vehicle for smooth roads. The heavy axles that excel on a rutted trail rebound on their springs like a pair of massive barbells – going quickly through a bumpy corner was like riding a drunken rhinoceros with a bad-fitting saddle.
The Jeep's mass and blunt aerodynamics also made for less-than-ideal fuel economy. The best I managed on the highway was 15 litres/100 km, and it was worse in town. And yet I found the Jeep deeply endearing. Driven properly (at moderate speeds), it was a rewarding vehicle, with a distinctive character that few vehicles possess.
Looking out over the stubby hood made me feel like a battle commander, riding into action in the turret of an Abrams tank.
When I found places to take the Jeep off road, it was a revelation – I climbed a pile of construction rubble under the Gardiner Expressway, then headed to Durham region, where I drove along dirt trails under the power lines. No longer was I limited to the stripes of tarmac that society had deemed acceptable for cars – I was a four-wheeled Columbus, setting sail across an infinite ocean of dirt.
The Wrangler comes by its rough-hewn style honestly. It is the direct descendant of the Willys MA, a vehicle designed in 1940 for the U.S. army. Dubbed the "Jeep" by U.S. serviceman, it was renowned for its versatility and toughness. The Jeep could carry soldiers and supplies through deep mud and rutted battlefields, and became an icon of the Second World War – by the time the war ended, more 600,000 had been built.
Legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle immortalized the Jeep in one of his dispatches from the front: "It did everything," Pyle wrote. "It went everywhere. Was a faithful as a dog, as strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carried twice what it was designed for and still kept going."
The Jeep has been refined considerably since Pyle wrote his encomium, and yet it remains essentially the same vehicle: it may have air conditioning and a fuel-injected motor now, but its slab-sided shape and flat, flip-down windshield would make it instantly recognizable to a 1940s G.I.
As I drove the Wrangler, I thought about Pyle's words, and the Jeep's place in the North American consciousness. It was built for war, yet finds itself condemned to a peacetime mission as a fashion accessory. And yet, it is also a genuine icon, with a style that reaches back more than 70 years. And when you finally get the chance to roll off the pavement and into the dirt, you will understand the Jeep's primal allure: you are a tiger sprung from its cage; Shamu, finally released into the infinite green kingdom of the sea.
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