After 71 years the Jeep Wrangler has finally adjusted to civilian life.
In 2011, the all-conquering off-roader (see ya in the history books, HUMMER) got a major interior makeover that brought with it a level of refinement and quietude that would’ve been unthinkable even the year before.
Sure, it’s still utilitarian compared to a Grand Cherokee, but with higher grade plastics, a more stylish design, larger rear windows and available body color fenders and removable hardtop, the folks at the country club are less likely to be aghast when one pulls out up front.
This is even truer in 2012 as Jeep has replaced the Wrangler’s lumpy old engine with a 3.6-liter version of its increasingly ubiquitous Pentastar V6 connected to either a six-speed manual, or, for the first time ever, a five-speed automatic transmission. The modern mill brings with it more power (285 hp) and torque (260 lb-ft) plus a somewhat respectable fuel economy rating of 17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway, a significant 12.5 percent overall bump.
The Wrangler comes in several configurations that start at $22,845, if you can live without air conditioning and power locks and windows. Step up through the trim levels and you can add them along with a 368-watt Infinity audio system, a 115-volt outlet, an upgraded suspension, a skid plate for the gas tank and tubular side steps that Jeep notes are removable for extreme off-roading.
If that’s your game you’ll want to go for the full-boat $39,795 Rubicon model, which scores you heavy duty Dana axles and locking differentials front and rear, rock rails and a front sway bar that can be electronically disconnected when you need a little more articulation to get you over particularly difficult obstacles – like the burned-out carcasses of less worthy vehicles strewn along the trail. A fine selection of final drive ratios is also available, a la carte.
I spent a week with a mid-level Sahara which is the fancy pants of the bunch and probably the most road-worthy, riding on standard 18-inch wheels. In the past I never understood how people could use these as daily drivers, especially after a trip across Puerto Rico for which I was advised that “omigod, you HAVE to get a Jeep there. They have like no roads!” Turns out they do, and some very nice ones. Be sure to check out the twisty Ruta Panoramica when you go, just not in a 2009 Wrangler Unlimited.
This new one, however, might do the trick. On pavement, the changes make it feel much lighter on its feet and nearly serene on long highway slogs. I was no worse for wear after hours behind the wheel, helped along by heated seats and a ventilation system that blows harder than an Xcelerator hand dryer. Granted, the short wheelbase, big-tire combination of the two-door still makes it a little squirrely at high speeds compared to anything else with four wheels, but none of them can do what it does best.
Or so I imagine. Look, I live in New York City, which is about as far as you can get from the Rubicon Trail that the Wrangler is named after. The best I could drum up within a two-hour radius was a muddy off-road course and short technical track combo at the Monticello Motor Club spotted with frozen puddles of water left over from an early snow. The verdict? I didn’t bottom out, get stuck, roll over or slide off a rock strewn bank into a freezing cold pond while reversing (although I sure came close, didn’t I?) These are good things.
For those of you not convinced, the simple fact is that there is nothing about the 2012 Wrangler that is worse than any model before it. So if any of those were good enough for you, feel free to trade up.
The thing is, Jeep fanboys could really care less what I have to say about their favorite toy, in part because they really don’t have a choice. Sure, you could modify one of the few remaining truck based SUVs or grab a humungous Ram Power Wagon for twice the price, but even then you’d be hard pressed to shine at some of the places the tidy little Wrangler is capable of reaching.
Like the country club.
2012 Jeep Wrangler Sahara
Base Price: $22,875
As Tested: $33,480
Type: Five-seat, two-door convertible truck
Engine: 3.6-liter V6
Power: 285 hp, 260 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 17 city/21 hwy
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.