The 2012 Jeep Wrangler has to perform a high wire act. I’m not talking about its performance on or off the road. I’m talking about the high wire act of balancing the needs of the core Jeep faithful against the needs of the casual Jeep driver. With more power under the hood for 2012, the Jeep Wrangler arrives with base prices unchanged from 2011 ($22,045 for Sport 2-door models; $25,545 for Sport Unlimited 4-doors). Each Wrangler gets Jeep’s 3-year/36,000-mile warranty and EPA estimates of 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway. Let’s drive.
Wrangler sales hit an all-time high in July 2011, which can probably be attributed to a few significant changes that Jeep has implemented over the past few years. The “JK” Wrangler has been around since 2007, supplanting the TJ (1997 – 2006) and YJ (1987 – 2005). Before that, there was the CJ series, which went all the way back to 1945. Over the generations, the Wrangler has maintained and even improved its off-road ability, and its rugged exterior. The latest facelift for Wrangler in 2011 was designed toward the owner who uses their JK primarily on the street as a daily driver. Jeep added the option of a body-colored hardtop and fenders, with a redesign that markedly improved outward visibility. The newly monochrome Wrangler bears a resemblance to the late lamented HUMMER H3 and the Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen, two vehicles that flout their military heritage.
A cool thing about a Wrangler is that you can remove the hardtop, hang it up in the garage rafters, and roll with the soft top instead. Or, you can remove just the “freedom tops” that cover the front part of the cabin, and leave the back part of the hardtop in place. You can easily remove the side doors, take out a few bolts and fold down the windshield, and convert your Wrangler into an off-road warrior in a matter of minutes. In a nice touch this year, Jeep engineers have provided clearly marked storage holes in the vehicle’s shallow trunk for the hardware that you’ll accumulate while stripping your Wrangler, so that when it comes time to put it all back together again, you won’t come up short.
Hardcore off-roaders tend to see the fancy paint job as a waste – they’re just going to scrape the paint off those fenders anyway, and that glossy top will just get scratched up in the shed where it will sit all summer.
In the Driver’s Seat
2011 saw a new interior in the Wrangler, a freshening and sprucing up that was clearly designed to appeal to the daily driver crowd. Wrangler has acquired the corporate steering wheel, which can be outfitted with redundant audio, telephone and navigation controls. Navigation is available as an option on all three trim levels (Sport, Sahara and Rubicon), and UConnect Bluetooth is available on the upper trim levels. Wrangler’s dash has sacrificed some of the ruggedness of the past, which is probably a good thing. Controls are smartly arrayed, with big rotary dials at the bottom of the center stack controlling the HVAC system. Air conditioning is optional on the Sport, standard on Sahara and Rubicon, and there’s even an option for dual zone control and
The second row in the 2-door Wrangler is a useable space, but a little tight and tough to get into with the hardtop in place. On the 4-door, the second row benefits from the longer wheelbase (95.4” vs. 116.0”), making space for comfortable seating and relatively easy entry and exit. The 4-door Wrangler “Unlimited” has proven to be a great attraction for new Jeep buyers. Jeep estimates that 60% of new Wrangler sales will be the Unlimited models. Jeep traditionalists were up in arms about the longer wheelbase Wrangler, but the additional 20” have made a big difference in sales. They also make a big difference in how the vehicle performs, both on and off-road.
On the Road and On the Trail
Wrangler’s off-road abilities define the vehicle. Despite a definite effort to appeal to more buyers, Jeep claims that they “have not compromised capability one inch.”
In fact, an all-new (to Wrangler) powertrain has enhanced the vehicle’s capabilities. The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine has been shoehorned into Wrangler’s engine bay, tuned to produce 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque – a substantial increase over 2011’s 202 hp and 237 lb-ft of torque. A 5-speed automatic transmission is standard, an a 6-speed manual is available. I drove a 2011 and a 2012 Wrangler back-to-back, and the improvement is dramatic, especially when driving on pavement. Acceleration has improved by nearly 3 seconds in the 0-60 sprint, down to 8.4 seconds for 2012. While still modest, it adds confidence on freeway onramps and when passing.
I’m still not a fan of the Wrangler 2-door’s on-road driving feel. Though equipped with modern electronic stability control and anti-lock braking systems, the short wheelbase, narrow track and high stance make for a twitchy ride at highway speeds, and I’m always worried about stability in case I have to make a quick lane change. The 4-door’s longer wheelbase tames the twitch, and delivers a much more confident ride on the road. If you’re going to have a Wrangler as your only vehicle and you find yourself at highway speeds on a regular basis, the 4-door is for you.
Off-road, both 2-door and 4-door Wranglers shine. Jeep set up a short trail ride for my group of journalists during a test drive in western Oregon, and Wrangler swallowed it whole. Anyone who buys a Wrangler and doesn’t take it off-road is doing themselves and their Wrangler a horrible disservice.
I could go on and on about Wrangler’s off-road abilities and the technologies that aid the driver, but I don’t have the space here. Suffice it to say that Jeep's engineers have not given up any ground – this Wrangler is astoundingly capable.
Jeep understands that Wrangler is a brand within a brand. They have maintained a great deal of what makes a Wrangler a Wrangler, while adding additional amenities that make living with a Wrangler a unique challenge. There are still some characteristics that I find hard to tolerate. Remove the hard top, and you’re left with a soft top that is a bear to take down and secure, and even more difficult to put back up. Though cabin and road noise have been substantially reduced, Wrangler is still a loud vehicle on the road, which can be quite fatiguing on a long drive. There’s little secure storage inside the vehicle, just a glove box, the center console and a modest underfloor compartment behind the second row. The compromises have been reduced, but they remain significant for the comfort-oriented driver. And fuel economy is pitiful, even with the new powertrain.
But Wrangler remains a totally unique vehicle, and it delivers mightily on its promise. There are other capable vehicles off-road, but they all balance the equation differently. I’m a big fan of Land Rover’s LR4, for instance, and I’m confident that it can go almost anywhere that a Wrangler can. But an LR4 is loaded with luxury appointments and sophisticated electronic equipment, and costs at least twice as much as a base Wrangler. A Toyota FJ Cruiser is probably Wrangler’s closest competitor, but once again, it doesn’t have the purity of purpose that the Wrangler retains.
Wrangler owners are a devoted lot, and owning a Wrangler provides admission to the club. There’s a Jeep wave, just like there’s a Corvette wave and a Harley wave (and probably a Ferrari wave, though I’ve yet to experience it). Wrangler owners recognize the spirit of adventure inherent in owning a vehicle that can go anywhere – even if it only goes back and forth to the supermarket. If you buy a Wrangler, please promise me, for your sake and for the sake of your Jeep, that you’ll take it on the trails every once in a while. You’ll be glad you did.