Jeep Wrangler JK's exit interview: brilliant, flaws and all

We grab a Rubicon Hard Rock and head to the hills to mull over its enduring appeal.

2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock
2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock / Image Credit: Andrew Ganz | AOL
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The engineers at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Jeep's current steward (and there have been many), have to be sweating bullets as they ready the forthcoming, long-overdue replacement for the Wrangler. It's the brand's icon, its most recognizable vehicle, and the reason Jeep enjoys such success today.

Most brands use their flagships to lure shoppers who will then take home a more practical, pedestrian model. Think about the relationship between Corvettes and Malibus in the Chevy showroom. For Jeep, however, the Wrangler is a business unto itself: Nearly one in four Jeeps sold new last year was a Wrangler. That's a lot of pressure as Jeep gears up to replace the current model, codenamed JK, which has been on the road since 2007. I took a Wrangler into the woods to ponder it all.

The Wrangler lineup starts around $26,000 but climbs rapidly from there. At the upper end of the spectrum sits the Rubicon Hard Rock, which builds on the already capable Rubicon's locking differentials and electronic front sway bar disconnect with a host of styling goodies. At $43,325 as tested, the Hard Rock is no cheap trail toy.

Wranglers have gotten more comfortable and capable over the years, but driving one is still an exercise in compromises. Luxury here means durable leather upholstery and a lot of bass from the stereo. The driving experience is of the "well, it's better than it used to be" variety on pavement.

The rational buy in this segment is the Toyota 4Runner Trail, which goes off-road almost as well as the Jeep and does everything else way better. But nobody takes home a Wrangler because it makes sense. It's a middle finger extended in the direction of conformity while fording the river of beige Corollas between home and office. You don't need a Wrangler, but you probably want one. That's why Jeep sold more than twice as many Wranglers as Toyota did 4Runners last year – and the 4Runner sells well.

Wrangler sales aren't slipping, but increasingly stringent emissions and safety standards are signs of the inevitable forward march of progress – and so Wrangler must change with the times. Simple ways to improve the Wrangler are obvious: An updated interior with a modern infotainment system, user-selectable traction control modes tailored to specific terrain conditions, an eight-speed automatic, better aerodynamics, and a lot of weight-saving aluminum are inevitable. A turbocharged four-cylinder engine seems like a safe bet to replace the thirsty V6 in order to make the EPA happy, and we've heard about a hybrid. Still, they'll be incremental changes... with the accompanying incremental price hike.

But does that mean the current Wrangler is a lame duck as Jeep gears up for a new model? Not a chance. As a point-and-go off-roader to take directly from the showroom up the side of a mountain, the Wrangler is better than ever.

Setting out on a quiet weekday afternoon when other Wranglers in Denver lurked in the concrete jungle, I ventured into the heart of Colorado's mining country, where a gold rush kicked off in 1859 and was rekindled by desperate southerners after the Civil War. It was in Clear Creek County that George A. Jackson discovered enough gold to set off a stampede of able-bodied, work-starved men from points East and West. They arrived to carve trails into hillsides and find their fortunes, despite attacks by roving tribes of Native Americans granted the land by the federal government. The horse and wagon trails remain today, and many cannot be explored without a high-clearance 4x4.

En route, the Wrangler reminds me that it isn't an interstate cruiser. The V6 chugs along at higher rpm, demanding frequent downshifting from the now-outdated five-speed automatic to overcome elevation changes. It wants to be in the mountains, and with this in mind, I point it toward the line between Clear Creek and Gilpin Counties, anticipating rocks, mud, and rapidly changing weather along the way. A trustier companion is hard to imagine.

When you cling to the side of a mountain in a Wrangler, you forget about its cheap plastic door panels and wayward highway directional stability. Instead, you focus on its remarkable ease of use. Tug the transfer case lever into 4-high and all four wheels claw into the earth. When the going gets tougher, activating the differential lock allows each rear wheel to take advantage of its available grip, avoiding the spin you get on a traction-less wheel with an open diff. Another press does the same for the front wheels. That's all there is to it – for now, there is no whizz-bang, multi-mode traction control system with pictographs of mountains or cacti.

Virginia Canyon to the north of Idaho Springs is quintessential mining country. Remnants of extensive sluice mining pockmark the landscape and, 150 years after the rush, you still see amateur fortune panners. Mining isn't on my mind when I venture down an offshoot of the main trail that inexplicably ends in a boulder-strewn landscape.

I encounter a steep incline on the way back up to the road and promptly dig the Wrangler's BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains into the soft soil. Fearing a long walk back to town, I tap the rear differential lock button. The loose rear wheel spins before the locker engages, sending power to both sides to extricate the Jeep. I can appreciate manual control, but I can also speculate whether a "loose rock" setting might have pulled the Jeep through in the first place.

Despite increasing fog, I cover more ground than I expect and eventually find myself pushing the transfer case lever back into 2-high as I rejoin pavement near Central City. Once the richest square mile in the world, Central City and adjoining Black Hawk are now Colorado's Atlantic City. A billboard hawks a Wrangler giveaway at a tacky casino. May the odds be in your favor, gambler.

Descending into suburban Denver with a filthy Jeep, I smugly pass a shiny, clean Wrangler Unlimited. It prompted a distinct thought: "I explored today. You did not." That's the feeling Jeep must replicate when the current Wrangler bites the dust. No matter how much more comfortable, refined, capable, or fuel-efficient the Wrangler becomes, it must counterbalance those added niceties with the ability to go wherever independence-seekers want to tread.

Beloved but a compromise between capability and comfort, the JK is a sign of how steady evolution can keep demand for a niche product on the boil. The next Wrangler will use less gas, but what we don't know is just how much that will affect its on-road drivability or its off-road capability – or more important, its appeal. For now, the current Wrangler remains a hugely compelling buy – and Jeep, which has said it will build the JK alongside its replacement for six months, is happy to keep riding that wave.

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