For the 2011 model year, Jeep overhauled the interior of its iconic Wrangler with a view to making everything a little more comfortable and civilized – new fabric materials, new switchgear and larger windows. The idea was to keep everything Jeep-like, but tone it down a little, to appeal to a wider range of buyers.
It seems to have worked; Jeep is reporting record sales for the Wrangler this year, with the best July sales performance in the history of the company. The Wrangler is also the best-selling convertible in North America.
Apparently, it’s not enough. The company has gone back to the drawing board and recently completed another revision of the Wrangler for 2012. “This is the second half of a complete re-do,” Chris Ellis, Jeep’s head of product marketing, said at the launch in Portland, Ore.
The final phase includes a new powertrain and different paint choices for the exterior. They didn’t want to get too carried away in this last department, however; after all, Jeeps feature one of the most instantly recognizable profiles on the planet. Everyone knows what a Jeep is and its brand image is one of the most zealously nurtured in the world. No noteworthy changes here.
Still available as the familiar two-door and four-door Unlimited, the 2012 Wrangler is now home to Chrysler’s new Pentastar V-6 engine, which replaces the 3.8-litre pushrod V-6 powering the previous version. This is definitely a step in the right direction; the previous engine did the job but was kind of anemic and felt old-fashioned. It delivered just over 200 horsepower, which is 85 hp less than the new V-6.
But that’s not all; the new engine has better fuel economy and is now mated to an optional five-speed automatic, replacing the four-speed autobox. A six-speed manual is the other choice, and this gearbox is a carryover from 2011.
Thanks to its variable valve timing, compact size and up-to-date technology, the new Pentastar engine runs cooler than its predecessor and gives the Wrangler improved performance on- and off-road as well as a greater towing capacity and quicker 0-to-100 km/h times.
During the launch, Jeep had us make our way to the top of a mountain somewhere in the wilds of Oregon, and treated us to a gnarly, if short, technical section specifically designed to test the off-road ability of the new Wrangler. Whenever I do these kinds of events, the off-road sections always catch me by surprise; as you approach the course, you take in the hot tub-sized potholes, Smart-car sized boulders, loose rock and suspension-stretching sidehills – not to mention a 30-degree slope – and say to yourself: “There’s no way we can possibly get up that!”
And yet you do – easily. Jeeps have always been among the best off-road clamberers in the industry, and this version is no exception.
That said, only some 5 per cent or thereabouts of all Wrangler buyers will actually put them through their paces to this extent. Despite its formidable off-road capabilities, the Wrangler is all about image and, by its own admission, Jeep wants to reach more buyers with this edition of it. “We want to appeal to a larger population,” adds Ellis, “and make the Wrangler easier to use and more comfortable.”
Interestingly, buyers choosing the four-door model tend to be younger and wealthier, often with small children, and make up the larger portion of Wrangler customers – some 60 per cent over all.
However, for those bushwhacking zealots who want to go all-out, there is still the Rubicon version, which features heavy-duty front and rear axles, with a “RockTrac” two-speed transfer case, front and rear locking differentials, disconnecting front sway bar and larger tires. If this model can’t take you where you need to go, perhaps you should reconsider your destination in the first place.
As far as driving on pavement is concerned, the short wheelbase still retains its choppy ride and precarious handling abilities. This is not a vehicle you want to press through the corners, and the four-door Unlimited offers a much smoother and manageable driving experience, all things considered.
Before I forget, a couple of quibbles. First of all, the floor-mounted shift lever in the automatic can be nudged over to manual mode far too easily. During the test drive, my riding companion accidentally bumped up against it while reaching for something in the back seat. At 100-plus km/h, dropping down a couple of gears is not a good thing. Jeep engineers might want to rethink this setup and maybe design a new gate.
Secondly, off-road, it’s harder to get out of 4WD low range and into high range than it should be. This is an on-the-fly arrangement, where, theoretically, you can slip from Neutral into high range at the push of a lever. But, no; during the off-road section, this manoeuvre resulted in the transfer case slipping into 4WD high temporarily and then slamming back out again. Eventually, you give up and put it into 2WD. A small thing, perhaps, but kind of annoying.
Otherwise, the new Wrangler is right on target. It loses nothing of its traditional ambience and image but is definitely more sophisticated than before, with a more civilized driving experience.
2012 Jeep Wrangler
Type: Two-door and four-door mid-size SUV
Price Range: $22,595-34,495
Engine: 3.6-litre V-6
Horsepower/torque: 285 hp/260 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual and five-speed automatic
Drive: Rear-drive with on-demand 4WD
Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): 12.7 city/9.3 highway (two-door with manual transmission); regular gas
Alternatives: Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Pathfinder, Land Rover LR2 and 4, Volkswagen Touareg