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2012 Jeep Wrangler: Toy classic gets comfortable

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  December 16, 2011 12:52 PM

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(All photos: Chrysler). Click photo for larger version.

Whenever an icon gets updated, I pray it won’t be ruined. In the Jeep Wrangler’s case, I’m worried about the mirrors.

My girlfriend, Eliana, wants to smack me every time I complain about driving her 2002 Wrangler, and I want to show her that power heated mirrors do not make my test 2012 Wrangler a wuss.

When I start the two-door Sahara with its remote key fob, she’s very surprised, but turns sour when I can’t stack the rear bench against the front seats. It’s dark, cold, and we need to make room for the dog. I’m looking for the strap we pull in her car, and instead find a latch that just folds the back down. The bench won’t budge. The headrests won’t come off. Frustrated, we squeeze the dog through the passenger side.

“It’s starting to get too much like a real car,” she says, noticing the navigation display. “Heated seats? Wow.”

We pull into the video store, and I flip out the owner’s manual. I slide the front passenger seat up an inch, and the bulky headrests clear the space. Eliana’s backseat doesn’t even have headrests.

“See?” I say. “Just like your car.”

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Click photo for larger version.

The 2012 Wrangler hasn’t changed its basic and most-loved features, like the hatch-mounted spare tire, round headlamps, and that magic back seat. Even with power windows, mirrors, and locks, the doors still come off. So does the windshield. And the roof. Even more torque screws are exposed. But 10 years have made a huge difference.

I only like driving my girlfriend’s Jeep to the store and back. I liked our test Jeep so much I didn’t want Chrysler to get it back. I would buy this car. And I’m hardly a lover of tall squares painted in Traffic Cone Orange or Gumby Blue.

This new Wrangler is remarkably tolerable. It packs sound-deadening material throughout the cabin, so you no longer feel like you’re skydiving on the highway. The new 3.6-liter V-6 is smooth, pulls hard, and is nearly Lexus-quiet at low speeds. There’s no whine from the new 5-speed automatic. The steering feels safe and stable around corners, and the ride is very compliant. I actually have room to stretch my arms and legs. Plus, we’ve got Bluetooth, USB audio, auto headlamps, and a dashboard that radiates craftsmanship. What is this, a Honda?

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Click photo for larger version.

Until right now, the Wrangler was scary on the highway. The Rubicon Unlimited we tested in 2010 suffered from severe asthma. Once past 20 mph, the 202-horsepower V-6 ran out of breath, and its doggish six-speed manual wanted to turn in circles and lie down. That Jeep was slower than Eliana’s — which has only three(!) gears — and wandered in the lane even more. True, the hardcore Rubicon trim was built to conquer the Rubicon Trail. But it couldn’t handle I-93.

For 2011, Jeep made the cabin quieter and delivered the fantastic dash and retuned steering system. It was still extremely slow, and despite Jeep’s passionate owners (who’d rather die with their doors off than drive a RAV4), the Wrangler needed a new powertrain.

But this new Jeep, even with the grunt of 285 horsepower, is like stepping into a 70-year-old’s body, albeit one who climbs stairs very well. Because it’s built to be an absolute beast off-road, a Wrangler requires more careful, premeditated movements than usual. Throttle response is soft and the transmission is a bit sleepy. At city speeds, the slow steering needs to be manhandled and recentered; at highway speeds, it needs some correction, especially from crosswinds that single out the tall, short-wheelbase body.

The Wrangler will not tolerate fast corners. Obviously. A huge sun visor warning label and a rollover bar are good reminders. You could say it made me a nicer driver.

The Wrangler also made me a believer in buying new, whenever I get around to buying my first car. While I write about new metal, I’m actually testing used cars I’ll afford in three to five years time. But the Wrangler is a strangely smart investment, having topped Kelley Blue Book’s list of best resale values, better than any car in the country. Don’t believe it? Go find a Wrangler with cash incentives (you won’t find one), or look at the prices Wranglers command on the used market. Even at $33,095 as-tested, these Jeeps sell.

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Click photo for larger version.

What's the difference between 1944 and 2002? In basic design, not much.

Acceding to Eliana’s wishes, the Wrangler hasn’t become a real car. You can still order one with manual mirrors and crank windows. You can delete the air conditioning and spec a zippered soft top. It will neither be safe (the doors and roof are designed to avoid weather, not crashes) nor fuel efficient (17 mpg city, 21 highway). That’s the fun of it. The Wrangler is one of the best car designs of all time, a distinctive vehicle with the same utilitarian stampings of its wartime ancestor 71 years ago.

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Jeep ad, circa 1946

In some areas, the new model plays its heritage to the point of silliness. There are “Jeep” badges on the air vents, shifter, and passenger-side pull handle, which also says “Since 1941.” A little Jeep grill icon is etched on the windshield above the rearview mirror. Really, I can see the toy windshield wipers and the latches holding down the hood. I know we won the war with its famous grandfather, the Willys-Overland. Maybe it’s all a lesson for the kids.

The aptly-named “Freedom Top” is the real deal. In a few minutes, you can unlatch one or both of the front panels and store them in the back. For more air infusion, you’ll need some tools, a second person, and a garage to store the rear quarters. It feels like taking apart a Lego car.

I didn’t have a chance to drop the Jeep into “4-Low,” but I know it’s unstoppable. Eliana crawled her way out of last winter’s brutal storms without a sweat.

Well, almost. She still had to move her own mirrors.

Clifford Atiyeh can be reached at catiyeh@globe.com.


2012 Jeep Wrangler Sahara

THE BASICS
Price, base/as tested (with destination): $22,845 / $33,095
Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 17 city / 21 highway.
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 16 mpg over 120 miles.
Drivetrain: 3.6-liter V-6, 5-speed automatic, front-engine, four-wheel-drive.
Body: Two-door, four-passenger SUV.

THE SPECIFICS
Horsepower: 285 @ 6,400 rpm.
Torque: 260 lb.-ft. @ 4,800 rpm.
Overall length: 152.8 in.
Wheelbase: 95.4 in.
Height: 70.9 in.
Width: 73.7 in.
Curb weight: 3,976 lbs.

THE GOOD: True to its military core, good on-road performance, seriously comfortable, impressive resale

THE BAD: Needs to be driven with care, still thirsty

THE BOTTOM LINE: It’s an American icon and always will be

ALSO CONSIDER:
Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Xterra, Land Rover Defender (if you live outside the US)

A version of this story appeared on page J1 of The Boston Sunday Globe on Dec. 18, 2011.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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