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car review

2013 Jeep Wrangler

Jeeps are sexy. The Jeep story is really that simple.

And as we all know, sexy sells. How else can anyone explain Taylor Swift's outsized success? If she looked like me and still sang like her, would her concerts be packed?

There is a biceps-popping-in-a-T-shirt appeal to Jeep that is unmatched in the industry and this is how I explain the brand's success. Chrysler's sexy all-American brand sold more than 700,000 Jeeps worldwide last year and that is a record. The most American of car brands even sells in China, for goodness sake.

In fact, Jeep is considered a luxury brand in China, notes Bloomberg – shopped against the likes of Audi and BMW, said Jeep CEO Mike Manley. "SUVs are considered a status symbol of what you've achieved so far in your life," he said. As is the case everywhere else. China last year became Jeep's second-largest market, surpassing Canada and trailing only the United States.

The nuts and bolts of all this is that the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara I tested is in no way the most practical, sensible, affordable four-door SUV I could buy for the $44,890 as-tested price. Yet wherever I went, girls swooned and guys stared at me with envy.

"Love it, love it, love it," I heard over and over. None of the Jeep lovers were consciously thinking about why. Jeep types will tell you it's because Jeep represents "freedom, authenticity, adventure and passion." Yeah, yeah. I suppose so. But let's not get to carried away with a discussion about the appeal of a go-anywhere rig, one with a well-documented Second World War heritage that can, indeed, go almost anywhere. Too cerebral. Jeeps are all about the heart and the soul, not the brain.

Now the Wrangler Unlimited does its best to be a sensible rig. It has four doors and decent leg room, front and rear. Jeep says it's the only four-door four-by-four convertible SUV on the market and it has room for five adults. The adult in back, in the middle, won't be happy.

The seating position is as upright as anything you can buy. The climb in requires flexibility, though. If you are a woman wearing a short skirt, be careful.

Outward visibility to the front is fine, but to the side and rear, your eyeballs will bump into visual obstructions. Use those mirrors and crane you neck.

The engine? Chrysler's ubiquitous 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 does the work and it's a good choice – or, at the very least, a better choice than the old minivan engine Jeep used when the Unlimited arrived in 2007. The 283-hp V-6 is more powerful than the engines in the Unlimited rivals, the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Subaru Forester and Nissan Xterra. The Jeep also gets better fuel economy than the Toyota and the Nissan, both with 4.0-litre V-6s. The Subaru has a smaller four-banger.

I'd also point out that Jeep throws lots of standard features into even the most basic Unlimited Sahara ($32,545). Take the sound system. The Jeep has seven speakers and a premium amplifier; the others don't have an amplifier at all, and all have fewer speakers.

Jeep also offers 60 months of roadside assistance, versus 36 for these others. Heavy-duty suspension tuning? Standard on the Jeep, not the others. And while the Wrangler Unlimited is not overly roomy inside, the cabin is still bigger than the cabin space of the Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.

Of these four, the Forester gets a full reboot for 2014, while the others carry on largely unchanged. The Wrangler Unlimited got its last notable makeover for the 2011 model year and it was a good one, though now a couple of years old. The interior stands up reasonably well, too. The surfaces aren't rich, but they are handsome in a Vin Diesel kind of way.

The cabin has a lockable console, plenty of storage spaces, small as most of them are, and really clear instruments. It will take some a moment to find the buttons for the power windows, located on the centre console for a worldwide audience. My tester had heated seats and a tow package, voice-activated controls, an anti-spin differential, climate control – loaded.

The console is lockable, good for a convertible four-door. The steering-wheel controls are easy to figure out and put at your fingertips management of the radio, cruise control, hands-free phone and other things. A USB device interface connects to storage devices (thumb drives and most MP3 players). Twelve-volt accessory outlets are in the package, as is a 115-volt outlet.

The off-road dimension hardly deserves a mention, being a given with Jeeps. Yes, you get the high ground clearance, which makes entry and exit interesting for the vertically challenged. The suspension is a five-link coil setup with tuned shock absorbers and heavy-duty axles. The front stabilizer bar disconnects electronically. If you're climbing over sharp rocks, three skid plates shield the fuel tank, transfer case and automatic transmission oil pan.

The safety story is solid, too. You get the electronic anti-roll system, brake and hill assist, tire pressure monitoring, traction control, stability control, air bags and so on and so on. All very important, but not terribly sexy.

And it's the sexy part that sells Jeeps, as we all know.

Tech specs

2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara

Type: SUV

Price: $32,545, $1,595 freight and PDI; as tested: $44,890

Engine: 3.6-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 285 hp/260 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: Four-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.2 city/10.0 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Nissan Xterra, Subaru Forester, Toyota FJ Cruiser