– Classic good looks
– Decent engine
– Unbreakable offroad
– Maybe too classic
– Unrefined onroad drive
– Hard cabin plastics
Tracing its ancestry to quite possibly the world’s first civilian offroad vehicle that spawned copies from England to Japan, the Jeep Wrangler entered 2012 with a brand new engine, more powerful than ever before for this body-on-frame relic of a car. That could only be a good thing.
The Wrangler Unlimited still looks the same, receiving a redesign in 2007 and a new interior in 2011. There was no external hint that we were driving a Pentastar-engined model. Our “Sahara” model came with black roof panels, unpainted plastic bumpers and 17-inch alloys, although there are various trim levels and accessories available that can add a body-coloured roof, lift kit and metal bumpers, among other things.
The new interior is more pleasant than before, with more rounded edges, more metal-look plastics and even padded armrests for once. There are still the old Wrangler oddities, such as the cloth straps on the door hinges, the huge panel gaps in various places, the hard-plastic dash, the full rollcage with zip-on padding and the patchy build quality, but there again, this is probably the only car that has removable doors and a flip-down windshield, not to mention that removable multi-piece roof.
Space is fine on most counts, but while rear legroom is adequate for most, some taller folks may have their knees touch the padded front seat-backs. The manually-adjustable seats are largely flat, with minor bolstering up front, with a couple of cup-holders, cubbies and net pockets to hold stuff. Rear passengers get no armrests at all, but they do get some cup-holders mounted on the floor. The boxy cargo area out back is immense, and the rear bench folds down, but access requires moving away the spare tyre first to open the two-piece tailgate. We didn’t bother handling the heavy roof setup.
The Wrangler can be optioned up with surprisingly good tech, such as the UConnect-integrated stereo which comes with a voice-controlled Bluetooth phone that actually works as advertised, and a good CD/MP3 stereo with rollcage-mounted overhead speakers and dash tweeters. Also included are power windows, electric mirrors and keyless entry. The manual a/c was unstressed in hot May weather. Front airbags are standard, while seat-mounted side airbags are available as well. We also liked the boot floor mat, carpeted on one side, that can be flipped to use the rubberised side.
Now powered by a “Pentastar” 3.6-litre V6, good for a solid 280 hp at 6400 rpm as well as 353 Nm of torque at 4800 rpm, mated to a manually-shiftable 5-speed automatic. From idle, the Wrangler doesn’t really have that “kick” you’d expect from a torquey offroader, even though Chrysler claims it hits 90% of its peak torque by 1600 rpm. Power builds up later in the rev range though, very loudly, and the Wrangler suddenly feels lively. So 0-100 kph in our timed test was 8.9 seconds, not too bad for a 1951-kilo truck in hot weather. The fuel economy was average, at 14.9 litres/100 km.
The less that is said about comfort, the better. The ride is firm and noisy, while the steering and brakes are meant for lazy driving rather than precision piloting. Still, keep speeds below 100 kph and it is fairly liveable. But parking takes care, as it doesn’t have rear sensors.
Handling isn’t the Wrangler’s forte, with abrupt steering inputs unsettling the car noticeably, but body roll isn’t overly excessive at all. In fact, we felt the chassis could handle higher speeds than the stability control was allowing, so we actually turned the ESC “off” the whole time for regular driving, and even then the nannies were cutting the power too early for our liking, slowing us down on curves just as the 245/75 tyres let out a squeal.
The Wrangler comes with 2-high, 4-high and 4-low settings, controlled via a traditional stick next to the shifter. In the first two settings, apparently the ESC cannot be fully turned off, which means we couldn’t make the tail slide out on gravel trails as wide as wanted. Further into the desert wilderness, the Wrangler performed respectably in the situations we threw at it. Driving in 4-high with the automatic held in first gear, that’s how we rolled most of the time, aside from the limited use of 4-low to get unstuck and the occasional use of second gear on flatter surfaces. We climbed a lot of slippery dunes with ease, although there were quite a few other dunes that the Wrangler could not drive up, at which point we were left wishing for more low-end torque, although it could possibly be due to the ESC kicking in at inopportune times. Shifting to 4-low turns off all electronic nannies however, but it can be saved for steep dunes, as the Wrangler cruises easily on soft sand in 4-high mode.
Make no mistake, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler is a very capable vehicle now. While it can’t go everywhere that some monster 4x4s can, it can still manage to get around without breaking anything, and that makes it the ideal offroader for casual adventurers. If you’re deaf anyway, dare we say it, the Wrangler might actually be a better daily-driver too now.
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