Jeep claims that the Wrangler is the most capable production off-road-capable vehicle in the world, and we have no plans to challenge that. Out on the trail the appropriate word was one that we caught ourselves uttering frequently: Wow. In this age of overly electronic-nannied systems, one can forget the inherent goodness here.
Functionally, Jeep picks and chooses from a mix of traditional mechanical hardware and newer electronic aids in the Wrangler, but all the fundamentals—body on-frame construction; front and rear live axles; a rugged five-link suspension setup, front and rear; and a part-time, dual-range mechanical four-wheel drive system—are all there. But electronic lockers, with a simple on-dash button, take away much of the fuss, and hill-descent and hill-hold features make steep slopes less pulse-raising.
Godly good off-road
Matched with approach, departure, and breakover angles that are better than just about any other off-roader available, the Wrangler, can perform off-road feats that will have you wide-eyed in disbelief.
A lot of the things you'd find frustrating in nearly any other car, you might find novel or charming in the Wrangler: For instance, the doors completely lack detents, with only a fabric retainer strap limiting their travel. On manual-transmission models, there's no dead pedal on the far left to rest your foot; instead, the three pedals are large and widely spaced; surely, you could drive the Wrangler with hiking boots. But positively, you still have a choice of many top arrangements and can still pivot the windshield forward when you so desire (in private, low-speed use).
Among useful quirks, like only a handful of off-road-focused vehicles today you can start the Wrangler in gear, with your left foot off the clutch (provided you have 4-Low engaged). We actually restarted the Wrangler on a steep incline in first gear, while in Low range. Thanks to the automatic's wider gear-ratio span and lower first gear, its crawl ratio has actually improved.
The model lineup for the Wrangler remains mostly unchanged. Including base Sport, the popular Sport S, showy Sahara, and super-off-road-focused Rubicon. For 2012, the Rubicon model now shares its body-color hardtop with the Sahara.
But mostly, a pretty expensive niche vehicle
Jeep has held the line on pricing for 2012, putting the base Wrangler at $22,845 and the base Unlimited at $26,345, including destination, with only slight increases on Sahara and Rubicon models. But unless you want it basic, the Wrangler sure ain't cheap. The bottom-line price can be surprisingly high; of the three well-equipped Wranglers we drove on the road, all of them topped $30k, and one Sahara Unlimited we drove totaled more than $37k, and loaded Rubicon models can top $40k. At that price, it's hard to see many owners not gulping heavily at the possibility of scratching paint or scraping a boulder.
After all the varied conditions we tackled on our drive, we can say that all 2012 and 2011 changes come together as a complete package, amounting to an extreme mid-cycle makeover for the Wrangler.
Overall, Jeep has done a great job in making the Wrangler tolerable on-road—maybe even enjoyable for commuting—without changing it too much. The 2012 Wrangler now has the on-road refinement and powertrain performance to match (or beat) a Nissan Xterra or Toyota FJ Cruiser while maintaining all the off-road cred, the iconic look and the no-sacrifices tough-as-nails layout.