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Jean Jennings has been writing about cars for more than 30 years, after stints as a taxicab driver and as a mechanic in the Chrysler Proving Grounds Impact Lab. She was a staff writer at Car and Driver magazine, the first executive editor and former president and editor-in-chief of Automobile Magazine, the founder of the blog Jean Knows Cars and former automotive correspondent for Good Morning America. She has lifetime awards from both the Motor Press Guild and the New England Motor Press Association. Look for more Vile Gossip columns in the future.

The new 2018 Jeep Wrangler's model designation is JL, my original initials, as in Jean Lienert. Don't Google that. You'll find I died in 2014 in Pittsburgh at age 85. I take this JL thing as a sign from God that I am supposed to finally buy a new Wrangler, the very first car of my dreams when my dreams included saving $25,000 and living off the grid in a one-room log cabin with all of my cast iron pots and pans.

I did live in a tiny log cabin once, but when I discovered there was no line for phone, fax and printer, I trudged down the dirt road a half mile, knocked on a stranger's door and borrowed their phone to call AT&T. So much for living off the grid. And so much for the Wrangler. I bought a truck, which was useful, but it was not a Jeep, a fact confirmed when I landed a job writing about cars. Among the Porsches and Fords and Ferraris and Dodge Power Wagons were Jeep Wranglers.

Wranglers meant adventure.

Here are two favorites:

1981 — Delivering the Pig of Bronze, Car and Driver's over-accessorized 1978 project Jeep CJ-7 (named for its chrome hood ornament), to the police chief of rural Waterloo, Neb. He got it because he wrote the editor a letter asking for it. It was my assignment to drive it there. I plotted as many miles of dirt roads as possible between Michigan and Nebraska, not wanting to waste my first big Jeep adventure on pavement and never questioning the ability of this denim-trimmed orange Jeep and its aftermarket aluminum wheels to get us there.

Jean Jennings Nebraska Jeep

So naive. Somewhere in deepest Iowa with the windshield flipped down to the hood for maximum coolness, the Pig's rear end began to shudder. As we rolled to a stop, the photographer looked back in time to see one of the five fancy extra-long chrome lug nuts plop into the dust. Two others had vanished. The last two had backed off to the ends of their studs. We had no choice but to trudge down that dirt road a mile, where we found the missing nuts shining in the dust. The second time the wheel wobbled, we limped to a gas station, where we were mocked for the fancy wheels and their worn stud holes, then charged a dollar to have them shimmed tight. The Pig made it through the handoff ceremony at the local fair but was totally disabled in the Holiday Inn parking lot with a locked-up emergency brake by the time we left. This did nothing to dampen the excitement of the police chief. He let me drive his patrol car at 100 miles per hour and blow the siren.

It was not the Jeep's fault.

1995 — Entering the Jeepers Jamboree and driving the Rubicon Trail in northern California from start to finish. The most terrifying — ergo exciting — technical driving I've ever experienced was the seven hours it took me to negotiate about nine miles of the Rubicon Trail. The main components included squeezing between rocks and trees (both immovable), crawling up and over the Granite Slab (rock as far as you can see, marked by a trail of differential fluid), straddling the Little Sluice Box (a slot in the rocks piled with more rocks) and doing it again at the Big Sluice Box (a downhill horror of a rock chasm leading to the safety of camp).

It helped to be a guest of Jeep, complete with a prepared 1995 YJ with a new 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine and attending mechanics. But I had to drive that brutal rock pile myself and finish my quest by negotiating the Big Sluice Box while it was lined on both sides by cheering (or jeering) Jeepers who'd finished and were well into the booze. I could barely breathe. This only intensified my need for a Wrangler.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve . . .
. . . or maybe it was summer, there was a knock on the door of our farmhouse. We didn't know the guy, but he pointed to a semi parked on the road in front of our house. "I have a delivery," he said. He rolled out of the semi in a well-used 1987 Wrangler YJ — an over-the-top thank-you gift from a friend to my husband for a favor.

Before you Jeep purists go all gooey on us for owning the first year of the first Wrangler, let me say that it comes with a curse. I'm not talking about the sad four-cylinder engine, the vacuum leaks, the propensity for floor rust or the blasphemous square headlamps. The curse was zippers. Our big mistake was freeing our YJ from the zippered cloth and vinyl panels that hid its beauty. Yes, we removed all of it. We wanted to see those cool steel half-doors without the foggy plastic windows, so we pulled them out of the doors and unzipped every bit of protective cloth hugging the roll cage.

Oops. We gave up trying to zip the whole thing back together and paid someone to do it for us. He gave up once he forced the cloth sleeves back onto the roll cage. I think the other parts are still up in the hayloft.

Luckily, we have a barn in northern Michigan, where our gift horse has a place of honor, ready for an evening forest ride on muddy trails along the river. During family reunions, the Wrangler ferries kids up the hill from tubing on the river. I used that old friend (against its will) to teach three teenagers how to drive a stick.

1987 Jeep YJ

The YJ has been great fun for almost two decades, but it wasn't going to take much for the new JL to impress me. Just look at it: The correct front end with seven grille slots tucked between two round headlamps. The massive presence from every angle, including watching someone else crawl it up some impossibly steep pile of shifting rocks above you. And if you're the one at the wheel, every foot of the way up — and down — will make you feel like you own the mountain. That would be me.

The body is Adonis-like, the interior is modern and packed with tons of storage and more connectivity; it was designed with a deft touch by someone who watched, listened and then nailed it. Even the door handles are better. There are the so-called Jeep purists who will question the credentials of — and hold a grudge against — the new JL for being too civilized, like that's a bad thing.

Read what the Autoblog team has written about testing the Wrangler. Oh, it's gloriously civilized all right, and with that heart of a mountain goat, this Jeep will take you as far from civilization as you may want to go. Even across the Rubicon. And there are no zippers.

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