– Heritage styling
– Practical cabin space
– Useful telecom option
– Fairly noisy cabin
– Needs a better engine
– Over-active stability control
The grand-daddy of all 4x4s is not the Land Cruiser. Nor is it the Defender. Let’s not even joke about the Patrol. The G-Wagen and the Humvee are just children. They all started life as derivative copies or inspirations of the original American Jeep that, some say, turned the tides during World War 2. Of course, two atom bombs helped the cause too.
While the latest version of the Jeep is not doing battle against Hitler’s Volkswagens any more, it is rather remarkable to see a vehicle of this kind surviving in the phussified world of Starbucks and iPhones. However, Chrysler does claim that their latest Jeep Wrangler is the most ‘refined’ yet.
Refinement isn’t too obvious from the outside. The Wrangler still looks a lot like it has for the past two decades, and still keeps alive functional styling cues from half-a-century ago. These include removable door-bolts, flared fenders and a fold-down windshield. Also carried forward are a removable roof, a standard roll-cage, and the upright seven-slot grille. The most evident new features on our Wrangler Unlimited tester are the panel-by-panel removable hardtop and, of course, four regular doors. Our tester was also outfitted by a long list of accessories from the Jeep catalogue, including body plates, tubular side-steps, heavy-metal bumpers, driving lamps, off-road tyres and a 2-inch lift kit that made it tower over most vehicles on the road. That lift made it a real stretch to climb onto the truck.
The cabin remains barebones, with a hard-plastic dash, hard-plastic door panels, hard-plastic armrests and not-hard-plastic seats. Indeed, the only soft bits were the stain-proof fabric seats and the removable padding on the rollcage. 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 boxy cargo area out back is immense, but access requires a three-step process to move away the spare tyre and open the two-piece tailgate. We didn’t bother handling the heavy roof setup during our two-day test.
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 CD/MP3 stereo with rollcage-mounted overhead speakers and dash tweeters. Also included are power windows and keyless entry, but the mirrors and seats are manually adjusted. The manual a/c was unstressed in January weather. Front airbags are standard, while seat-mounted side airbags are optional.
The latest Wrangler comes with a painfully low-spec 3.8-litre V6 engine, as if to preserve its heritage. With that sizeable engine producing only 205 hp at 5200 rpm and 325 Nm of torque at a high 4000 rpm, the only people who will call the Wrangler “fast” are fans who’ve never driven anything else. The brash engine, mated to a basic 4-speed automatic, took the 1969-kilo Jeep from zero to 100 kph in a glacier-burning 13.7 seconds in our test, although we suspect our modified tester had tons of heavy equipment fitted that contributed to the time. Average fuel economy of 17.1 litres/100 km during our drive matched that of our own V8-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is to say, not too impressive.
Out on the road, the ride quality is slightly jittery, more so because our tester is fitted with heavily-grooved 33-inch “Mickey Thompson” off-road tyres on 17-inch alloys. But the tyres soak up speed-bumps and potholes as if they were pebbles. There is enough road noise to drown out any wind noise that might be present, while the engine is very loud on even partial-throttle acceleration.
The Wrangler is possibly the last SUV to have live-axle front and rear suspension. Around turns, body roll is surprisingly limited to moderate levels, with no bounciness, which we could possibly attribute to the optional lift-kit shocks. However, the soft steering is lifeless and seems to respond half-a-second after turning it, while the ABS-assisted brakes are just about adequate. The stability control nannies are also scarily aggressive, kicking in long before the tyres even start squealing, and frightening us with sudden computer-induced understeer in the middle of high-speed corners.
But of course, this road test wouldn’t be complete without an offroad excursion. We took our resident desert-safari driver and prodded him to drive the Wrangler on sandy dunes outside the city. Our Wrangler was well-endowed with fat tyres and ground clearance, but it was under-engined on the tall slopes, not helped by the auto gearbox and the extra weight. It needs long distances to gather enough speed to climb dunes that don’t daunt most other proper 4x4s, though it manages eventually, and we assume it does better on rocks. We’d recommend getting the 6-speed manual if you intend to play properly and get the most out of the motor.
The Wrangler Unlimited is really a pure offroad tool that is also attempting to be a family hauler, but not the other way round, so optioning one up with an automatic slushbox and a baby seat isn’t the right way to do things. Some do drive a Wrangler to work every day, but just like women in ultra-high heels, they seem to be trying too hard to stand out. But if you can afford a more comfortable second car, then a barebones Wrangler makes a great weekend toy.