2012 Jeep Wrangler - First Drive
Only about a fifth of all Wrangler buyers prior to this year opted for the six-speed manual, and Jeep thinks that with the even better automatic transmission even fewer will do so. Overall, we liked the feel of it, though it's more of a throwback to the Wrangler of yore. While throws are long (as is pedal travel), and honestly it feels like it's borrowed from a muscle car (actually, from NSG/Mercedes) as you feel some vibration, the shift action is tight and precise. Again, ratios in regular 2WD-High are very tall. And we should note that with the manual, you also hear a fair amount of gearbox whine and whoosh—which definitely makes the automatic the more refined choice of the two.
On all the models we tested, final drive ratios are almost ridiculously tall—for example, in one automatic test vehicle, we didn't see much more than 3,500 rpm at 50 mph in SECOND gear. Base models now come with a 3.21:1 final drive, up from the former 3.73:1, while a low 4.10:1 ratio is still available in the Rubicon.
Steering's lost in translation
The Wrangler's dull recirculating-ball steering was about the only thing about this rig's driving experience that we didn't either find charming and novel (like all of its packaging quirks) or simply excellent (like its powertrain). On the moderately twisty roads heading out to the off-road trails and back, we found repeatedly that while the Wrangler turned in surprisingly crisply, the steering had a 'dead zone' of sorts—and universally lacked feedback or road feel. Both my co-driver and I kept getting our lines wrong in corners and had to adjust mid-corner, apologizing to the other. Eventually we figured out that sidewall flex was getting in the way—which invited a more effective strategy of pitching the Wrangler into corners a little harder initially, to get through the flex. Counter-intuitively, it felt smoother that way.
You'll also be frequently made aware that this is one of the few vehicles (other than heavy-duty pickups) that still offers a live front axle. Any mid-corner bumps reliably produce a full-frontal shudder from the front end (the back end can hop somewhat but seems to soak such things up a bit better). Ride quality is actually not too bad; but we did notice that our route included mostly smooth roads when we weren't on pavement, so we'll get a better idea in a follow-up drive.