Despite the global economic crisis and the effect it's had on recreational vehicle sales, the Jeep Wrangler is doing better than ever in the icon's 70-year history, selling a record 14,355 units in July in the United States alone. That trend should lead to sales of more or less 150,000 units in 2011, with the added benefit of creating over 1,000 more jobs at the company's famous Toledo, Ohio plant as Fiat-Chrysler pushes to make the Wrangler an international hot seller.
Even though the introduction of the four-door Wrangler Unlimited deserves much of the credit for this growing success (it now accounts for 60 percent of sales), we wanted to grab a two-door model, as it's the purest model in the line. If you want to know just how addictive really good off-roading can be, grabbing the short-wheelbase model is a no-brainer. Two-door Wrangler fanatics like us have willingly lived with the paved-road compromises inherent in a short wheelbase, ladder-framed, mountain-climbing dirt dog. But plans are afoot within Fiat-Chrysler to address these on-road issues as the next-generation Wrangler is readied for 2014 or so.
We began our test drive on road in northern Oregon with a Wrangler Sahara painted Retina-Singe Blue with a matching removable hardtop. Once off in the woods, we switched to a red Wrangler Rubicon with an open soft-top – the best configuration we can think of as we prepare for the promised Apocalypse in 2012. (Hey, we saw the movie and Hollywood never lies.)
This latest Wrangler launched in 2007 with a traditionally skimpy interior treatment. Finally, for the 2011 model year, the cabin received a 21st-century upgrade to go with its best-in-class off-road reputation, a tacit (if belated) acknowledgement that around 80 percent of Wrangler owners don't do much more than drive their rigs on dirt roads.
"If 2011 was all about the interior," Wrangler and Liberty chief engineer Tony Petit tells us, "then 2012 is all about the powertrain." And, indeed the driveline updates are clearly the biggest developments, because the Wrangler now gets a V6 that is worthy of it. Pulled from the Grand Cherokee, the new 3.6-liter Pentastar provides 40 percent more power and 10 percent more torque than the outgoing iron-block 3.8-liter boat anchor could ever muster. Plus, fuel mileage improves greatly (admittedly when driven timidly and on the road in particular) and the aluminum-block Pentastar weighs some 33 pounds less than that old 3.8. Though we wouldn't pick a Wrangler for high-speed runs, it's telling that while the old 3.8 in the two-door offered runs to 60 mph in well over ten seconds, Jeep says the 2012 Wrangler Sahara with 3.73:1 rear axle ratio can do the deed in just 8.5 clicks. We did a dry run with the 3.21:1 standard axle and even that got us there in 9.7 seconds.
Jeep had a 2011 Wrangler Sahara two-door on-hand so that we could do back-to-back road runs against the 2012 model to feel the difference. After giving us this enlightened opportunity, we came away realizing that the 2011 with its heavy, 202-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 is a bit of a toad. Whereas this outgoing motor feels like it's pushing us as best it can with great effort, the 285-hp Pentastar V6's flatter 260 pound-feet of torque eagerly pulls us along and asks for more. Overtaking traffic is now a matter of simply depressing the pedal and gobbling, whereas the old motor requires a floor-punch and a crossing of the fingers since flooring it produces a lot of impressive noise but little added urgency. At 70 mph in top gear, the 3.8 is noticeably louder at 2,500 rpm, while the Pentastar sits calmly at 2,000 rpm. In towing, too, the two-door Pentastar's 2,000-pound maximum (3,500 lbs. in the four-door with 3:73 axle) doubles what the 3.8 can pull.
One Jeep representative told us that the configuration of the Pentastar 60-degree V6 with its lower backpressure exhaust is going to be an aftermarket sweetheart thanks largely to the easier mounting of any forced-induction performance bits. The alternator is now mounted up top and faces toward the back. This is a new Pentastar setup required by packaging dimensions as well as the need for at least 30 inches of water fording capability. A full-face air-conditioning compressor has been introduced, significantly upgrading the Wrangler's ability to cool the cabin area quickly under the boiling dusty sun.
Of course, another key component to making all of this civility possible is the new five-speed W5A580 automatic transmission with hill hold included for the gnarly downhills, also borrowed from the Grand Cherokee. The difference is both tremendous and immediate, with a much more useful spread of gears versus the less robust four-speed auto box in the 2011. Engineer Petit reminds us that the retired four-speed transmission was originally built for transverse-engine application and was reworked to fit the north-south orientation without being significantly strengthened. The new five-speed has been engineered from the get-go for north-south placement and is, in Petit's words, "strong as an ox." While the four-speed constantly kicks down to find more help under stress, the five-speed setup with its greater horses and torque just holds its gears more readily.
Our only small critique is that the departing four-speed D-2-1 console gate kept the gearlever effectively locked in place to prevent it being unintentionally nudged into shifts by errant legs and whatnot, and we liked that feature. The new five-speed lever's gate allows left-right "manual" shifts, which are fun to do in general, but we had two occasions where unintentional downshifts were caused by right-seat passenger left knees – not exactly an ideal situation. However, the overall improvement by giving the Wrangler a grownup five-speed auto cannot be denied. Among other things, it makes 70-mph asphalt cruising at 2,000 rpm a reality.
We can say that pretty much everything else remains the same with this legend, and that's fine by us. We can even announce that the base price remains the same as on the 2011 for the high-volume Sport trim at $22,045 for the two-door with six-speed manual and $25,545 for the Unlimited four-door. Both Sahara and Rubicon trims add roughly $300 to the base sticker.
Oh, yeah, and the six-speed manual, lest we forget, has been given a longer 0.797:1 overdrive top gear to make highway driving more acceptable. This is, by the way, the first time a manual has been mated to the Pentastar. This is an exciting development, but you may choose to boo and hiss us, because by the end of our day driving the new five-speed auto and existing six-speed manual, we had to admit that we would choose the new automatic to mate with the Rubicon's 4.10:1 standard axle ratio – even if traversing the Wrangler's namesake Rubicon Trail. We know, we know, believe us. Shower us in your ridicule and call us duffers, but the auto box with its specifically enhanced oil cooling is exceptional. Will the six-speed manual go away for good someday? We asked, and the general consensus among Jeep bosses and Jamboree-hardened volunteers was that Wrangler will always have a manual available for the purists who just gotta have one, but it didn't sound like they personally married to the idea.
For the burly-as-all-get-out mountain top circuit we drove on, the Rubicon with that standard final ratio, newly beefed-up auto shifter, 4:1 Rock-Trac transfer case, electronically detachable sway bars, and fully locking front and rear live axles is just the best thing since hard-boiled eggs in brine, Cletus. The need to lock the front axle is only there really when those giddy left-right-left-right nose fwumps start happening for the off-roader magazine covers. The articulation from our two-door's short 95.4-inch wheelbase along this tortuous trail was vintage Jeep Wrangler, and the Rubicon-standard BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A tires (LT255/75 R17 111/108Q M+S) performed in the dry loose stuff as promised while mated to the gas-charged shocks.
Now, too, Rubicon owners cannot only get the body-color hardtop enjoyed by Sahara trim buyers, but they can also opt for the less steep 3.73:1 axle ratio only with the automatic. There must be demand out there, probably for those who do a bunch of road driving while desiring the cachet of that Rubicon badging. There's a flavor for every taste.
We then entertained some curious talk with engineer Petit and Ray Durham, Jeep's vehicle line executive for rear-wheel-drive SUVs, on how the legendary ladder steel frame, live-axle, short-wheelbase with high ground clearance tradition might evolve in the future. Because the interior is finally as it should be and the powertrain is well handled, that leaves the underpinnings to be brought into the 21st century without ruining the recipe. Can even the two-door Wrangler somehow find an adaptive multi-setting suspension that works with (or can completely detach from when required) the current basic setup that makes trail crawling so much fun? Will the recirculating-ball steering rack with 3.3 turns lock-to-lock that works so well get replaced by a rack-and-pinion system as most larger trucks have already done? All of this is apparently up for discussion within Jeep R&D, and a much-updated next-gen Wrangler would not at all surprise us now.
Over the road, the Wrangler should really offer a solution to make things less jittery and less slosh-y in the curves – at least as an option. The steering could also do with some further electro-hydraulic style sophistication, purists be damned (just a little) – its looseness at 60 mph and above is a bit too nostalgic for us to enjoy for longer drives.
The Wrangler team got all of this improved performance from the Pentastar plus per-gallon mileage that cracks the 20-mpg barrier on the base Sport and Sahara editions with the 3.21:1 axle ratio and six-speed manual. The EPA rating for the two-door now reads 17 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, or 16/21 for the four-door. Add a turbocharger or supercharger and we predict you could get even more from it. Add direct injection and per tank range would get much better, too, and CO2 numbers would decrease as well. Get all of this and a 2.8-liter CRD diesel and, wow, now we're talking.
Like we said, it's all on the table for the next generation Jeep Wrangler. For now, however, we'd be lying if we said we weren't thoroughly pleased after attacking the mountain with this icon's newly fortified Pentastar V6 and properly engineered five-speed automatic. Bring on the apocalypse.