Silvio Calabi: Jeep Wranglers bristle with character
A group of auto writers was standing around in the garage recently, eyeing this four-door Wrangler. Awful, isn’t it?, someone said. General agreement. But I sure like it, he continued. General agreement again — enthusiasm, even! This is the Wrangler Conundrum: As an automobile, it’s dreadful; but as an authentic “character vehicle” it’s almost embarrassingly successful.
Jeep can’t build Wranglers fast enough and many dealers have waiting lists. Wranglers are cash cows, too — the sticker on ours read $43,220. Granted, it was the Unlimited Moab Edition with 12 grand worth of add-ons, but still — yikes. The basic development costs of this thing must have been amortized before I was born.
Today, a short-wheelbase, two-door Wrangler starts at $22,195 and the stretched four-door Unlimited version at $25,695. Jeep has done a good job of packaging these basic models, offering many variations on the two themes. The Moab Edition is a new one that slots between the top-line Rubicon off-roader and the “downtown” Sahara. (Moab, in Utah’s red-rock desert, is a magnet for mountain bikers and 4X4 zealots and the site of an annual Jeep get-together.) Some of the distinctions between various Wranglers are just decals, trim and wheel styles, but beneath the cosmetics all of them are essentially semi-domesticated military vehicles. The frame rails look like they came off the Brooklyn Bridge. Wrangler “stylists” like 90-degree angles and flat surfaces, and prefer skid plates to, say, cabin insulation. And traction? This is no wimpy part-time slip-and-grip system, but true 4-wheel-drive that’s either on or off, with a low speed range for rock-crawling and two differentials that can be locked to keep the wheels churning in all conditions. Just yank the lever in the floor and push a button.
This Moab had the optional five-speed automatic transmission with Hill Descent Control. Our greatest driving challenge last week wasn’t mud, rocks or ravines; it was snow. Thanks to ground clearance and long throttle travel that helped feed the torque to slippery surfaces, the Jeep easily churned through it. Wranglers are powered by Chrysler’s Pentastar V-6, tuned for 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Fuel-economy ratings run from 16 mpg in city driving to 20 or 21 on the highway (not that owners care).
Like every carmaker, Jeep is legally obliged to protect its customers from themselves and each other, so Wranglers have airbags, anti-lock disk brakes, electronic stability control and now tire-pressure monitors. Ours also boasted car-like conveniences (cruise control, power door locks and windows, A/C, a map lamp) and a long list of options. These included hardware such as rock rails, tail-lamp guards and heavy-duty bumpers, plus a slew of decadent upgrades: cushy leather seats (heated in front), a computer with a touchscreen, Bluetooth and Voice Command, satellite radio and navigation, and more.
But the cabin is cramped and shows a lot of painted metal. Driving faster than a crawl on a potholed road will scramble your brain. Cutting a corner with any sort of precision depends on luck. Tire roar and wind noise are deafening at speed. Speaking of speed, don’t even think about an emergency lane-change on the interstate. Today’s Wrangler is more sophisticated than ever, but only so much can be done to civilize this machine before it becomes something less. A Wrangler is as limited in its function as the Mustang, the Corvette and the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, but just as broad in its appeal.
Maybe these Jeeps awaken memories of a freer, less anxious age, when kids rode bicycles without helmets, grownups smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey, and “unmanned aerial vehicles” were model airplanes, not drones. Even Europeans love them. In 1943 the Wrangler’s great-granddaddy waded ashore in Sicily, to help settle the big war; in 2009 Jeep was one of the main reasons for Fiat’s purchase of the Chrysler Group.
The Toyota FJ and the late Hummer H3 are more road-worthy than any Wrangler, and Mercedes-Benz’s G-wagen is much more posh. Sure, and a Yamaha Star rides better than a Harley and Meryl Streep is a better actress than Scarlett Johansson and everyone knows that double cheeseburgers are bad for us. Tell it to the target demographic and see if anybody gives a hoot. Heck, even we like the Wrangler.
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.