2012 Jeep Wrangler Expert Review:Autoblog
New V6 Shows Us The Way Up The Mountain
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, and a full-face air-conditioning compressor has been introduced, significantly upgrading the Wrangler's ability to cool itself 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, 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.
New Car Test Drive
New V6 and 5-speed automatic improve streetability.
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler is a game-changer because of its new powertrain that moves Jeep out of the dark ages. It's the Pentastar V6, new last year to Chrysler, named one of Ward's 10 Best Engines for 2011. The new engine makes considerably more power with slightly better fuel mileage, an EPA-estimated 17 City/21 Highway mpg. It's smaller, lighter, and more advanced than the engine it replaces.
A smooth new 5-speed automatic transmission for 2012 replaces last year's inadequate 4-speed. The transmission is well behaved and doesn't hunt for gears. It was designed for use with Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi engine, so it maintains Jeep-like industrial strength. A Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is rated to tow 3500 pounds.
The 2012 Wrangler Unlimited four-door is totally civilized, thanks partly to the smoothness of the new engine. The Pentastar block was designed to have accessories bolted to it, to reduce vibration. This pays off with a smooth and silent interior, even at 80 mph in the hardtop Wrangler. The Wrangler Unlimited corners well. The Wrangler Unlimited is built on a wheelbase that's 21 inches longer than that of the regular Wrangler.
The soft top that comes standard slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, although there's already a rollbar. The available removable hardtop comes off in 3 pieces, like T-tops and a sunroof over the rear seat. With T-tops removed, at 65 mph it beats you up; but with the top on it feels smooth at 75 and beyond.
In the popular two-door Wrangler there's very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks is filled to overflowing. But if it's just you and some stuff, the rear seat can be removed, creating a spacious 61.2 cubic feet of cargo space. Same with the four-door Unlimited, making 87 cubic feet.
Wranglers are available with all the electronic trimmings, including a $1035 Media Center with navigation and touch screen, but the screen doesn't work well with the simple rough Jeep; for starters, with the top removed, the screen is erased by the sun. It's a challenge to tune the radio by touch-screen in a bouncing Jeep.
Even with 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the Wrangler has to work hard on two-lanes. But a lack of neck-snapping acceleration must be compared to what it had before. And if it weren't an aerodynamic brick, it wouldn't be a Jeep. There are seven boxed crossmembers in the chassis adding strength but weight. The Rubicon with 5-speed automatic weighs an anvil-like 4130 pounds.
Riding a Rubicon in Oregon's Tillamook Forest, we tackled a trail that looked impossible for a vehicle off the showroom floor. Later, another Wrangler Rubicon scarcely broke a sweat on rocky trails crossing peaks in Washington's Cascades. Our passenger, a former Wrangler owner, was astonished by the comfort level.
The Wrangler is no gas-mileage champ. Running it hard, it averaged 18 mpg for us. It's EPA estimated at 17/21 mpg Wrangler and 16/20 mpg Unlimited.
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler comes in two-door and Wrangler Unlimited four-door versions, each in three trim levels: Sport, Sahara and Rubicon. They all use the award-winning Chrysler 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, making 285 horsepower. All Wranglers come standard with 4x4 and 6-speed manual transmission, with 5-speed automatic available.
The Freedom Top, a three-piece modular hard top, is available for all models. The Wrangler Sport is available in right-hand drive for rural mail carriers. We don't find ourselves saying that in many reviews.
Wrangler Sport ($22,045) comes with cloth upholstery, six-speaker sound system, power steering, removable doors, roll-up windows, fold-down windshield, soft top, black fender flares, halogen headlamps, foglamps, swing-back mirrors, tow hooks, part-time 2-speed Command-Trac transfer case, Enhanced Dana 30 front axle, Heavy Duty Dana 44 rear axle, skid plates, and Goodyear Wrangler P225/75/R16 tires on steel wheels. No air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, 115-volt power outlet, or side steps.
Wrangler Sahara ($27,970) adds air conditioning, keyless entry, power windows and door locks, 115-volt power outlet, Infinity speakers with 368-watt amplifier, body-color hard top, body color fender flares, tubular side steps, heated power mirrors, Bridgestone Dueler P255/70/R18 tires on painted aluminum wheels.
Wrangler Rubicon ($29,995) is equipped for off-road. It has most of the standard Sahara comfort and convenience things (though power windows and keyless entry become optional), while adding rock rails, Tru-Lok front and rear electronic differential locking, electronic front axle locking, Heavy Duty Dana 44 front axle, 4.10 axle ratio, Rock-Trac 2-speed transfer case with 4:01 low range, and BF Goodrich Mud Terrain LT255/75/R17 tires on painted aluminum wheels.
The four-door Wrangler Unlimited Sport ($25,545) is equipped like the two-door Sport, only better. Removable doors, roll-up windows, black fender flares, halogen headlamps, foglamps, soft top, air conditioning, 60/40 split rear bench, 600 amp battery.
Wrangler Unlimited Sahara ($30,745) adds body color fender flares, power heated mirrors, tubular side steps, remote keyless entry, power windows and door locks, Sirius radio, upgraded sound system, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 115-volt outlet, and 18-inch painted aluminum wheels.
Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon ($33,570) comes with the same extra offroad equipment as the two-door Rubicon, plus all the power equipment of the Sahara.
Safety equipment on all models includes electronic stability control with roll mitigation, hill start assist, trailer sway control, all-speed traction control, ABS with Brake assist, frontal and side airbags.
The 2012 Wrangler looks like a Jeep, and when that can't be said, it's time to worry. It may be the most recognizable vehicle in the world. Even the Unlimited four-door, whether hard top or soft top looks like a Jeep. Round headlamps, 7-slot grille, wheel flares, removable doors, bolt-on fenders, fold-down windshield. Meanwhile, the Wrangler Unlimited is the only four-door 4x4 convertible on the market.
The soft top slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, although there's already a rollbar. The hardtop is $735 option; it comes off in 3 pieces, like T-tops and a sunroof over the rear seat. We spent a summer day on Jeep trails in the Northwest in a Wrangler Rubicon with all three parts removed, and it was fabulous. The body-colored hardtop is new to the Rubicon in 2012. The soft top remains the sportiest in appearance. We think the hard top is better for hunters, fishermen or other outdoorsmen, however, because it provides better security for your outdoor gear in shopping center parking lots against thieves and better security for your food in camp against bears. Can't decide or want both? The Dual Top option allows buyers to get both.
Pretty new colors for 2012 are Dozer Yellow (nice blend of Corvette Yellow and Porsche Mustard, and a favorite for pilots in search planes), Deep Molten Red, and Crush Orange (another search party favorite). Our Rubicon was Cosmos Blue, like French Racing Blue, a color that almost brings grace to the ol' Jeep. Standard colors are available for those who want to blend into the environment, whether suburban or bucolic.
The Jeep Wrangler interior was revised and dressed up for 2011. There are no significant changes inside for 2012.
We lived in a hardtop Wrangler for a week and it was all good, comfort-wise. With the top off there was a lot of wind buffeting in the back seat, but aside from that the Wrangler 'is more comfortable than my Jetta,' said our passenger, riding shotgun on rocky trails for a day.
We also got seat time in a Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, roomy and comfortable, with leather, still every bit a Jeep. Good rear legroom, easy to climb in and out. The rear 60/40 seat folds or can be removed to create 87 cubic feet of cargo space, comparable to a Toyota 4Runner.
The Pentastar engine block was designed to have accessories bolted to it, to reduce vibration. This clearly pays off with a smooth and silent interior, even at 80 mph in the hardtop Wrangler.
The center console was raised to make a better armrest, although now you have to raise your elbow when using the shift lever. Gears in the 5-speed automatic can be changed manually, with side-to-side movement of the lever.
There's very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks is filled to overflowing. But if it's just you and some stuff, the rear seat can be removed, creating a spacious 61.2 cubic feet of cargo space.
Our Wrangler was equipped with $1035 Media Center option, and if you go offroad or take the top down much, you won't like it. The touch screen is invisible in the sun, and in a bouncing Jeep it's not easy to land your finger where you want it, even trying to tune the radio. A Jeep needs knobs you can grab. And for all the 6.5-inch size of the screen, with some functions only about 40 percent of the screen is used, tiny little radio words, the other 60 percent says JEEP.
The navigation system in the Media Center is fairly simple in its display. It didn't make any errors on the routes we programmed, although finding the button to enter destination was maddening. We suggest you skip the Media Center, be satisfied with six speakers in the standard sound system, and get your own GPS for navigation. It's a Jeep-like choice.
We went trail climbing in Oregon's Tillamook Forest with a Wrangler Rubicon. Look ma, no doors.
We got opportunities to gather driving impressions in a number of Wranglers, from the Unlimited in SUV-like surroundings, to the Rubicon on rock-climbing trails and the Sport on fast backroad two-lanes at night.
The Unlimited Sahara, resplendent in rich brown with dark leather, is almost astonishingly smooth and quiet, totally civilized, thanks hugely to the new engine. The 5-speed automatic is well-behaved, and doesn't hunt for gears; it uses the gear it's in. It was designed for use with Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi engine, now refined for the Pentastar, but still Jeep-like industrial strength. A Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon can tow 3500 pounds.
The Unlimited corners well, and head sway on weaving roads is light. You can only do so much with a solid axle and tall body. The gas-filled monotube rear shocks have been retuned for 2012 for a better balance between handling and ruggedness, and we like it.
The Unlimited gets more out of its 116-inch wheelbase, 10 inches more than a Nissan Xterra. The twitchy handling that lingers in the Wrangler because of its short 95-inch wheelbase is not present in the Wrangler Unlimited. The first pleasant surprise of the Unlimited: it doesn't feel like a Jeep.
With 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, it seems like the Wrangler should feel more powerful, and accelerate faster. We ran a lot of high-speed two-lane miles, and our Wrangler had to work, using momentum to pass. We've driven a Chrysler 200 convertible with this same engine, and it seemed faster. Oh well, if it weren't an aerodynamic brick, it wouldn't be a Jeep. After all, there are seven boxed crossmembers in the chassis. The Rubicon with 5-speed automatic weighs an anvil-like 4130 pounds, about 500 pounds more than the Chrysler 200 convertible.
Riding a Rubicon in Oregon's Tillamook Forest, we tackled a trail that looked impossible for an unmodified vehicle off the showroom floor. Press a button to disconnect the splined front swaybar, to allow extreme angles of articulation at the wheels. Another button locks both front and rear differential. Slip it into Low Range. You've got a final drive rear-axle ratio of 4.10 in the offroad-oriented Rubicon (3.21 or 3.73 in the Sahara or Sport), and 32-inch tires. Three skid plates protect the fuel tank, transfer case and oil pans. Ground clearance is 10.1 inches at the rear axle and 10.5 inches at the front.
In some spots the best technique is to take your feet off the throttle, and just steer. At idle in Low Range, the Rubicon powers up and over obstacles that would totally stop most vehicles; even though torque peaks up at 4800 rpm, it plugs along like a tractor. A new lower first gear for 2012 in the 5-speed automatic transmission gives the Jeep more capability, with a lower overall crawl ratio.
Our Rubicon scarcely broke a sweat over rocky trails that would turn back all but the ruggedest and hardest-climbing of vehicles. We ran support for a 50k trail run in the Columbia River Gorge, over two 3500-foot peaks in Washington's Cascades, and it was a hard 12-hour day. 'In my old Jeep, I would have been in misery, dying to get out,' said our navigator. 'But I could ride all day in this Jeep.'
On the highway at 70 mph the Wrangler can be a bit twitchy. Hopping out of an Unlimited as we did where the twitchiness is absent, the twitch in the short-wheelbase Wrangler is heightened. But as soon the driver adjusts, the turns and corrections come more smoothly. When the Wrangler is pointed straight and steady, it stays that way.
There's a huge difference in how stable the Wrangler feels with the top on and off. With T-tops removed, at 65 mph it beats you up; but with the top on it feels smooth at 75 and beyond.
Keep in mind that the Sport, Sahara and Rubicon models have different tires and shock absorbers, and this changes their character significantly. Our Rubicon was great at high speed, either in spite of or because of its heavy-duty tires and shocks.
The Wrangler is no gas-mileage champ. Running it hard, it averaged 18 mpg. It's EPA-estimated at 17/21 mpg Wrangler and 16/20 mpg Unlimited, City/Highway.
The 6-speed manual transmission, German-made, isn't as friendly as the 5-speed automatic, American-made. To accommodate the new V6, there's a new clutch with long travel at the pedal, sometimes awkwardly long. The throw is way long at the lever, too. However, real men don't drive Jeeps with automatics.
With a terrific new powertrain, the Wrangler has fully arrived. It's win-win with improvements to comfort, handing, power, smoothness and fuel economy, while no loss to mind-blowing off-roadability with the Rubicon. Wrangler Unlimited, the world's only four-door 4x4 convertible, delivers a smooth ride and secure handling. Soft top or hard top, nice new colors. We recommend the Unlimited for families; off-road capability is nearly the same. Singles and couples might want to go for the traditional two-door, however.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drives of several Wrangler models in the Pacific Northwest.
Jeep Wrangler Sport ($22,045), Wrangler Sahara ($29,970), Wrangler Rubicon ($29,995), Wrangler Unlimited Sport ($25,545), Wrangler Sahara ($30,745), and Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon ($33,570).
Options As Tested
leather, heated front seats ($900), Connectivity Group with Bluetooth ($385), Power Group with power windows and keyless entry ($685), black 3-piece hardtop ($735), Media Center with navigation and touch screen ($1035).
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon ($29,995).