Cars have come a long way in the past 30 years. When I first started driving, you didn’t get much more than an AM/FM radio and maybe tape deck. Airbags hadn’t yet become common. Self-driving was called cruise control. Anything that drove “sporty” cam from Europe.
Now safety is extensive, infotainment and navigation are copious, autonomous features are becoming more common and self-driving could soon be a reality, and many vehicles, from 2-doors to pickups, can handle like sports cars.
The antidote to all this progress is the Jeep Wrangler. Jeep has been building this thing since the mid-1980s, and before that, the DNA of this pure offroader ranges all the way back the original Willys military vehicle of World War II. Prior the the Wrangler, Jeep sold the no-nonsense CJ.
Over the years, the Wrangler has collected a few more creature comforts, but this is still just about the most rudimentary vehicle you can currently buy, purpose-built to leave the pavement and head for the hills, the rocks, the rivers.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Jeep’s parent, recently let us borrow a 2017 Sahara Wrangler, with a base price of about $US30,000, but for our tester, optioned up to almost $US38,000.
The idea was that we might get to tackle some gnarly East Coast winter snow. The bad weather, sadly, never arrived. But we did our best to put the Wrangler through its paces, anyway:
The Wrangler is unmistakably a Jeep, from the stout tires and wheels to the boxy body panels and blocky shape, the flat windshield and hood latches, the aggressive bumpers and un-integrated fenders to ...
... that signature, slotted Jeep grille and the round headlamps. Note the hooks on the front bumper. What we have here is the automobile in basic, near-tactical form: body-on-frame design, a pair of solid axles, and a genuine four-wheel-drive system that's prepared to take on the backwoods.
The consumer version of this famous ride has been in more-or-less continuous production since 1944.
The allure is obvious. Unlike more versatile SUVs and crossover that claim to have offroad credibility, the Jeep Wrangler makes offroad credibility its defining characteristic. Essentially, you have a relatively powerful and torque-y motor (but not one that that's too large or too powerful) yokes to a 4WD setup that, when applied through four beefy tires, should be able to conquer terrain that would cripple other machines.
How much legit offroading do Wranglers get into? More than you might think (a shielding gas tank comes standard, after all). But there's a contingent of owners who buy the vehicle because it exudes outdoorsiness. What it can do is more important that what it typically does do.
Our tester came with a 'Silver Metallic' paint job, a basic-black interior, two doors, an nearly inaccessible back seat, and a $2,000-extra hardtop that can be disassembled. The doors can also be removed, by the way.
Somewhat hilariously, my first grader kept getting stuck with his backpack trying to squeeze in the back seat. It would have been easier if the weather had been warmer and I'd figured out how to remove to top and the doors.
Temporary spare tire? Jeep doesn't think so. That's a full-size spare, a fifth wheel that hangs from the back of the Wrangler.
We didn't get the change to take the Wrangler onto the trails, but in my experience with offroading, a proper spare tire is a good thing to have.
The Sahara trim adds an upgraded audio system with a 'weather proof' subwoofer, the aforementioned removeable top, and an infotainment system with a 6.5-inch touchscreen.
The straightforwardness of it all is actually refreshing. The overall amount of information being beamed at drivers these days is excessive. With the Wrangler, you just get what you need to know. Heck, the tachometer is probably superfluous.
As with other aspects of the Wrangler, the idea of deploying an infotainment system that could have come from the early 2010s seems calculated to reinforce the Jeep-ness of the vehicle. You do, however, have the usual Bluetooth integration, with USB/AUX ports and even a regular outlet-style plug.
This is the meat of the matter where the Wrangler is concerned. A truly old-school five-speed automatic (the manual is a sixer) mated to the 3.6-litre V6 that makes 285 horsepower with 260 pound-feet of torque. To the left is the lever that controls the 4WD system, which has both high and low options.
The two-door Sahara is pretty impractical as a family car, but it is fun to spend time with -- and if the weather had been worse, it would have inspired confidence. BUT most drivers don't need true 4WD, so for daily suburban use, the Wrangler is overqualified. (I did park it on my front lawn without hesitation, however.)
Comfort isn't prized, either. This thing is a teeth-rattler. On the highway, it's noisy, crude, and borderline unstable. You have to get used to it.
For the most part, it is well-put-together, with simple components that aren't going to give you much trouble, from the simple V6 to the unadorned transmission. You can get a four-door, so the loading-passengers issues I encountered can be overcome. The advantage of such a utilitarian design is that your Wrangler will look good and probably run good for decades.
Ranchers, farmers, and hardcore outdoors-folks will appreciate that.
In the end, you have to be a serious Jeep-o-phile with a sense of nostalgia or yearn to tow your kayaks into inaccessible territory to be a logical customer for a Wrangler. That said, enough people who are none of those things buy Wranglers to compel Jeep to keep the vehicle in the lineup with several different trims (the inexpensive Sport and the more offroad-serious Rubicon are the other two).
Over a week, I grew to enjoy the Wrangler for what it is: a loveable brute. A dog by my side would have been a natural addition. I could imagine never, ever worrying about washing the Jeep. It would only look better with dents, dings, perhaps even rust, scratched paint, encrusted with crud. Part of the investment you'd make if you bought a Wrangler would be in unselfconsciousness.
And that could be worth it.
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