Great advice, but all too often ignored. The automotive landscape is littered with once proud vehicles that lost their inspirational way for a variety of reasons only to eventually retire much too quickly into oblivion.
If there ever was a long-standing vehicle vowing to stay close to its roots it's Jeeps venerable, compact, off-road capable Wrangler.
Despite Chrysler Corporation's very rocky history (yet it's still standing) including two bankruptcies, numerous ownership changes and Mean Mary Jean Superstar of our team, the Jeep brand survives and thrives nicely. To be fair though, Jeep did not join the Pentastar portfolio until 1987 when American Motors was absorbed by the then Lee Iacocca led Chrysler Corp. Jeep, created to meet World War II war efforts, debuted in 1941. Through it all, the capable Wrangler remains center piece of the Jeep lineup.
While most compact sport utilities have morphed into front-wheel drive, car-based transports, Wrangler has stayed true to its off-road heritage with truck-like, body-on-frame construction. Wrangler evolved to the point where not many direct competitors are left standing. It's box-like, un-aerodynamic , sharp cornered profile runs counterintuitive to the competition's curvy architecture. It's also a top-down, convertible-like vehicle if and when demanded. This malcontent attitude also manifests itself with a longer step up entry than comparable compact crossovers with a noisy ride more rocky than refined; that's because of Wrangler's built as a work horse.
In the 2007 model year, the three-door Jeep Wrangler received a big brother, a five-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. Both body styles come in three identical trims: Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon. Think of Sport as relatively bare boned, Sahara the creature-comfort specialist and Rubicon the ultimate off-road warrior. In 2012, a special limited edition Altitude edition (based on the Sahara trim) with distinctive black-and-red interior enhancements arrived. Only 4,500 Altitude units were produced. Our tester this week is a 2012 Wrangler Limited Sahara which visually stays true to its first-generation effort started in 2007. That said, many welcome under hood nuances have come aboard in 2012 after an interior upgrade in 2011.
Standard in the Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited is a six-speed manual transmission. Optional in all trims is an all-new-for-2012 five-speed automatic transmission. Even better, both are mated to a more powerful, naturally-aspirated engine: Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine cranking out 285 horses, 83 more than the 2011 effort. It's the sole Wrangler engine in both three-door and Unlimited body styles and delivers better fuel economy (16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway with automatic transmission) than the outgoing 3.8-liter V-6. The new engine and automatic transmission are borrowed from the mid-size, Jeep Grand Cherokee. This potent powertrain also helps differentiate Wrangler from the compact crossover crowd where four-cylinder engines stake their claim as the standard powertrain. The under-vehicle tank holds a relatively plentiful 22.5 gallons of regular87-octane unleaded fuel.
Both Wrangler and larger Unlimited include a transfer case to switch from on-road two-wheel and four-wheel drive (high) modes to a four low setting for off-road adventures. Unlimited features a 116-inch wheel base, 20 inches longer than the two-door edition, allowing for easier second row entry and enhanced leg room.
Our Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4 x 4 included a new-for-2012, can't miss "Orange Crush" exterior hue and a $30,745 starting price. Options include leather trimmed bucket seats with white stitching ($900), five-speed automatic transmission with hill decent control ($1,125), media center with 6.5-inch touch-screen display ($1,035), remote start ($200) and connectivity group with remote USB port and Bluetooth voice command capabilities. The bottom line tallied to $36,905 with $800 destination charge. The lowest price five-door Wrangler Unlimited starts at $24,806.
Jeep remains one of the few rides with the spare tire mounted to the back of the cargo hatch which is hinged on the right side; not necessarily for good looks, but to add to the vehicle's impressive ground clearance. Locating a spare tire under the cargo floor would hamper off-road efforts through shallow streams or rocky terrain. When the bottom hatch swings out from left to right, the top glass flips up for easy cargo access.
The straight-across, workman-like black dashboard is reminiscent of work trucks two decades ago, yet it's functional and intuitive with three easy-to-grab dials monitoring single-zone fan speed, direction and temperature. The flat instrument panel includes two medium-sized circular analog gauges flanked by two smaller varieties. The three-spoke steering wheel tilts but does not tilt. Once great nuance is secondary audio functions built into the back of the steering wheel allowing finger tips extra responsibilities to change audio function while palms remain at work in front. Cruise control functions are found on the front side of the wheel. Above the glove box is a large horizontal grab handle for shot gun riders, taking the place of a ceiling or A-frame vertical handle. Power window controls are found on the center dash above ventilation controls. With 60/40 rear seats folded flat, a usable 86.75 cubic feet of storage capacity is available.
Wrangler offers a choice of hard, soft, or dual tops. Not many rivals can stake this claim. Our Sahara featured a body-colored hard top first introduced in 2011. This three-piece removable top allows an open-air experience if circumstances demands. Above front seat riders are two easy-to-remove 'freedom' panel tops. By simply maneuvering four easy-to-twist, manual latches, one person can easily remove both panels (about 12-pounds each) up and away from the vehicle. A larger back portion may also be removed, but more than one person is recommended for the job requiring a few simple screw-monitoring tools. This Unlimited remains the only four-door, five-passenger convertible available in the market today.
Round headlights and seven vertical -slot front grille continue as Jeep trademarks. Tail lights flanking the hatch and spare are small and square. Side windows also share square dimensions. A long, thin mast radio antenna protrudes up from the right side front fender, while square, protruding wheel wheels shadow all four wheels with a hood extending up several inches from the flared wells. These bolt-on wheel wells are removable, too. The exposed circular gas cap and exposed hinges create a retro look as does the narrow, wide, very rectangular front windshield (which folds down if need be). Sahara trims feature long side step rails on each side. A single exhaust pipe extends out from the rear. Can't think of any crossover competitor sporting a many tow hooks as the Wrangler Unlimited.
When braking on road, the pedal push is relatively long as is braking distance, so plan accordingly. The ride is workman-like rather than cozy. Maximum towing capacity is 3,500 pounds on most models, excellent for the compact segment. 2012 Jeep Wrangler
Price as tested: $36,905
Wheelbase: 116 inches
Length: 173.4 inches
Width: 73.9 inches
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Curb weight: 4,294 pounds
Powertrain warranty: Five-year/100,000-mile
City/Highway economy: 16/20 mpg
Assembly: Toledo, Ohio