We've been tracing trail 16 through the ridges and hollows outside of Oliver Springs, Tennessee for the past five hours, inching along through rocker-deep mud, crawling over differential-busting rocks and clamoring up and down slopes made slick with two days' worth of torrential rain. Our wanderings have led us here – facing down one of the steepest climbs of the day. Through the mud-speckled windshield, I can see the path make a quick right turn before bolting up the side of the ridge. Walls of red clay littered with jagged roots and jutting rocks tower to either side of the deeply-rutted path, waiting to open our sheetmetal like maniacal can openers. You'd be hard-pressed to walk the route we're about to take, let alone drive it.
The two-way radio in the center console crackles to life.
"Trail's clear up top. You've got it."
I drop the five-speed automatic into Drive, kick the transfer case into Four High and turn the traction control off before taking a deep breath. Fortune may favor the brave, but so do body shops. My spotter in the passenger seat repeats the word of the day, "momentum," and takes hold of the grab bar on the dash as I plant my foot on the accelerator.
We're boldly going where no bone-stock 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport has gone before.
The Jeep marketing machine seldom misses as opportunity to remind us of the brand's rugged roots. From the torrent of advertising gushing from Chrysler HQ, you'd be forgiven for thinking that every Jeep owner spends his days forging trails and fording streams, but the fair majority of Jeep products and their owners are happier commuting than communing with nature. Even the Wrangler, stalwart flag bearer for the Jeep brand, has grown in every direction over the decades. With a new engine, a more refined interior and an optional well-sorted hard top, has the Wrangler strayed too far from its billy goat roots?
The answer, of course, is no. The Wrangler remains one of the most capable off-road machines money can buy straight from the factory, and years of abuse, research and development from Jeep loyalists and engineers have turned it into a turn-key trail boss.
The Wrangler remains one of the most capable off-road machines money can buy straight from the factory.
When I say "Wrangler," odds are you're thinking of the meaty Wrangler Rubicon we tested back in August or the infinitely cool Wrangler Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 edition, both with their aggressive tires, taller stances and serious off road hardware. The bottom-rung Wrangler Sport is a somewhat more conservative machine. With its more street-oriented 255/75/R17 mall-terrain Goodyear Wrangler SR-A tires, goofy-looking plastic fenders and bloated plastic bumpers, the SUV strikes us as the Team Edward Edition of the proud off-road lineage. But Jeep doesn't want the Cosmos Blue paint on our tester to fool you. According to the company, this machine is more capable than ever.
Fortunately for us, Coal Creek Off-Highway Vehicle Park in Oliver Springs, Tennessee is but a short jaunt from Autoblog South HQ. With 72,000 acres just aching to be explored and a labyrinth of well-maintained, well-marked trails, the park is perfect for putting a vehicle like the Wrangler Sport through its paces. The meandering paths range in difficulty from broken pavement to vertical rock ledges, which meant we could comfortably step up the difficulty without too much drama. At least, that was the plan. Coal Creek is the largest privately owned OHV park in the States, and it draws visitors from all over the country. We picked up weekend land-use passes for everyone onboard, met up with a few well-equipped friends, and pointed the nose of the Wrangler Sport toward the wilderness.
As you may recall, the Wrangler line received a much-needed interior update in 2011, and rolling up I-75 toward the back entrance to the park, we were pleasantly surprised by the vehicle's on-road manners. Our tester came with the optional three-piece hardtop, which helped quiet things down inside by leaps and bounds, as did the civilian tires.
We were pleasantly surprised by the vehicle's on-road manners.
With an excellent leather-wrapped, multi-function steering wheel; satellite radio with a factory sound bar that works in conjunction with stand-alone tweeters; a handsome dash and comfortable cloth bucket seats, the Wrangler is surprisingly nice inside without losing its rugged charm. Details like Jeep-labeled air vent bezels and grab handles do a smart job of enforcing the brand, and tricks like the seven-slat profile and mini Wrangler silhouette painted onto the windshield border are tricks sure to garner a grin from even the most hardcore off-road guys.
Coal Creek has any number of paths and sites worth exploring over its nearly 300 miles of trail, but we cut through the low-lying clouds and mist as we headed toward Cross Mountain one early Saturday morning with a single purpose. Back in the late '40s, the U.S. Government realized the need for an early-warning radar station in this area to protect Oak Ridge from the threat of aerial attack. In 1942, the Feds bought out the locals and established the so-called Secret City. In war time, the population swelled to an astonishing 70,000 workers, all sworn to secrecy. Home of some of the key research of the famous Manhattan Project, scientists like Albert Einstein worked to put nuclear weapons in the hands of the U.S. during World War II, and research continued even after conflict ended. Officially, Oak Ridge didn't return to civilian control until two years after the war ended.
Before that could happen, the U.S. Air Force constructed a barracks at the bottom of Cross Mountain, built a radar station at the top and strung a massive tramway between the two. The route was impassible by vehicle during much of the year, and a cable car was the only way to safely get to and from the summit. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for someone to realize the array was actually constructed too high. Enemy aircraft could simply hug the valley below and the Air Force would be none the wiser until Oak Ridge went off like a roman candle. As a result, the station was quickly abandoned.
With the allure of derelict government structures wafting through our frontal lobes, I arrived at the base of Trail 56 where it edged its way into the clouds. The ascent was steep, slick with rain and made even more cumbersome by peaked earthen barriers designed to keep erosion in check. We nervously eyed the Goodyear rubber on the Wrangler Sport, got in and prepared to follow the brave souls of Knox Off Road into the abyss. With a small running start, the Sport scrambled up the ascent with just enough wheel spin to make things interesting. The specter of optimism began floating through the cabin.
Jeep blessed the 2012 Wrangler with 40 percent more horsepower than the old 3.8-liter V6 engine. The new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 is good for 285 horsepower while returning better fuel economy, though peak performance hits at a lofty 6,400 rpm. The full 260 pound-feet of torque kicks in at a somewhat lower 4,800 rpm, but even so, it's clear this engine is made to turn. Fortunately, the V6 remains smooth even in the deep end of the rev band without any of the thrashing found in the old 3.8. I found myself grateful for the extra grunt on more than one occasion as the tires fought for grip over clay and wet rock. Get frisky with the throttle and the tires spin until they bite, pulling the Wrangler Sport over impressive obstacles.
Technically, the Wrangler Sport has just over 10 inches of ground clearance at the lowest point on the chassis. That's certainly not huge by off road standards, but with a wheelbase of just 95.4 inches, the vehicle boasts an impressive break-over angle of 24.9 degrees with the 255/75/R17 rubber on our tester. With approach and departure angles of 43.8 and 40.3 degrees, respectively, the Wrangler has a knack for being able to work its way over inhospitable terrain without so much as a whisper from the skid plates below.
We rode along the ridge side in dense fog, crawling down through bare rock and a few flooded spots in the trail before climbing to the top of Cross Mountain and finding the abandoned radar tower. With its toppled steam stack, gutted cinderblock structure and impressive tram car platform all in slow decay, the site looks like a set from the world's creepiest horror movie. While the concrete structures are still whole enough, there's little on hand to suggest this was once a fully operational radar station. We piled back into our respective rigs and headed out to play around on a few more light trails.
I introduced my right foot to the floor with extreme prejudice. That's approximately when all the power vanished from the engine.
After a remarkably drama-free day, we met our first real bog. The guys from Knox Off Road inched forward into the pool of calm water only to see their TJ become instantly mired. With no hope of being able to pull the rig free, I maneuvered the Wrangler Sport to the side, where a separate route wormed its way through the standing water. My spotter hopped out, tested the bottom with his galoshes and gave the go-ahead. Once again, I dropped the transfer case into Four High and began working my way through the obstacle. Water immediately splashed up onto the windshield and I felt the Wrangler sliding into the clammy claws of unforgiving mud. Knowing that if I stopped now, I'd be making one very embarrassing call to Chrysler, I introduced my right foot to the floor with extreme prejudice. That's approximately when all the power vanished from the engine.
I shot an eye to the tach in time to see the needle go flat line. Quick flashes of confusion splayed through my mind. The waterline was nowhere near the vehicle's intake, so the chances of having drowned the Pentastar were very slim. Another glance at the dash revealed the traction control light flashing in full disco freak-out mode. The ECU was desperately trying to figure out what in the hell was going on and traction control was yanking power in an attempt to provide more grip. I mashed the TCS OFF button conveniently located on the center stack, and the Wrangler Sport clawed its way out of the mire. Unfortunately, this situation would repeat itself at least two more times during the weekend. As it turns out, the traction control defaults back to on every time the ignition is turned off, even if the vehicle is in Four High. Drop the machine into Four Low, however, and traction control goes to sleep.
While Day One saw the Wrangler meet only one hill it couldn't overcome without the help of a Rubicon and its winch, Day Two would see the vehicle endure a serious test. We bid farewell to our friends from Knox Off Road and paired up with a few members of the Toyota Territory Off Roaders Association's Southeast chapter. The guys were running an impressive pair of well-modified bruisers, and they were eager to see the Wrangler stretch its legs. After a brief introduction, we headed straight for Trail 16. Rating? Difficult.
We headed straight for Trail 16. Rating? Difficult.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that no stock vehicle has any business playing around on a difficult trail. It's akin to picking a kid out of JV high school football and dropping him in the NFL. There will be blood. With painfully steep ascents and descents made tractionless with rain, a few rock scrambles thrown in for good measure and incredibly tight trails, we were bound to find the limits of the Trail Rated badge on the side of the Wrangler Sport.
I found myself genuinely lusting for better tires for the first time as we began to work our way down the side of a ridge toward a low stream crossing. I let the two Tacoma bruisers get some space ahead of us in the event I had to go all runaway Wrangler on them, opted for Four Low and began to let the vehicle creep its way down the path. The old timers from these parts have a phrase for trails like this, and as the front wheels rolled past the point of no return, I was reminded of the colorful descriptor "slicker than frog snot."
It wasn't long before the Wrangler began doing its best impression of a stubborn mule as it slid down the ridge side. With its forelegs spread out in front pushing up mounds of soupy mud, it took every fiber of my being not to grace the brake pedal with the business end of both boots. Instead, I began focusing on trying to keep the Wrangler as straight as possible. The effort was wasted.
The Jeep began to kick sideways in painful slow motion as gravity twirled its mustache and adjusted its monocle in our general direction.
The Jeep began to kick sideways in painful slow motion as gravity twirled its mustache and adjusted its monocle in our general direction. We were about to be completely broad side on a trail barely wide enough for our chariot of choice with nothing but sweet oblivion and a few trees between us and the creek bed below. I cranked the steering wheel hard into the slide and romped on the throttle in a desperate attempt to regain traction. For two very long seconds, the Jeep held its sideways trajectory as the V6 built revs. Just as I was beginning to formulate my apology to my fleet manager, the rear bumper caught the bank and kicked the Wrangler back in line. I giggled like a school girl. This was edge-of-your-seat action at three miles per hour.
The rest of the day was filled with triumphs both large and small for the Wrangler Sport as the vehicle continued to astound everyone in attendance. Here was a bone-stock vehicle fresh from the showroom floor kicking and gouging with the best of them on an unforgiving trail tangled through the East Tennessee mountains. We needed rescuing just three times during the day. Once when we slid into a bog and twice when we couldn't get enough grip to work our way up a steep, muddy climb. With the right tires, there wouldn't have been an issue.
At last, we found ourselves squaring off against the climb that opens this tale. My spotter had wasted no time in telling me this incline had stopped plenty of capable rigs dead in their tracks in the past as we squared up and prepared for our first run. I had no intention of sliding backwards down this ridge, so I attacked the base with gusto. The bottom of the trail featured another dreaded berm designed to quell runoff, and we hit with enough force to meet the vehicle's bump stops for the first time. I had no intention of letting off, and the Wrangler Sport fought mercilessly for traction as we began to lose speed near the top. With the tires clawing in desperation at the slate and mud, the vehicle dragged itself to the top inch by inch.
Trail Rated indeed. Watch the hill climb for yourself in the Short Cut video below.
Make no mistake, this is quite possibly the best vehicle produced by an American manufacturer today. It excels at its given purpose in a way that's simply unparalleled by other products, and it does so while returning 10 percent better fuel economy than before – up to 21 mpg highway. We routinely saw 20 mpg during combined driving, though our thrashing through the woods meant that number dropped to just north of 8 mpg over eight hours.
In a way, Chrysler has managed to execute a very Porsche-like development philosophy with the Wrangler. The iteration we see today is the culmination of decades of evolution instead of pathetic niche filling. This is the 911 of the off-road world, and its showroom capability is a testament to what Chrysler has accomplished.
This is the 911 of the off-road world, and its showroom capability is a testament to what Chrysler has accomplished.
Our tester was as loaded as a base Wrangler Sport can come, which meant that it carried a price tag of $28,215. That's certainly not cheap, but we would be just as happy with the $22,045 base version and a more capable set of mud terrain tires. Even with 3.21 gears and open differentials on both ends, the Wrangler Sport is an unstoppable force of nature and a suitable heir to the throne.
Special thanks to Coal Creek OHV for giving us a place to play and the members of Knox Off Road and Toyota Territory Off-Roader's Association for their boundless patience.