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A lot has changed within the 2012 Jeep Wrangler, but you'll be hard-pressed to see any differences from the outside, and its off-road capability and toughness have been steadfastly preserved. Jeep has very carefully maintained the Wrangler's trail prowess while—thanks to an all-new powertrain this year—made it much more satisfying on the road.
While the 2012 Wrangler looks virtually the same as the 2011 Wrangler, Jeep has dropped its new Pentastar V-6 into the 2012, along with a new five-speed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is still offer, too. But together, the V-6 and automatic combination can now dash to 60 mph in a much faster 8.4 seconds for the Wrangler Unlimited (or 7.7 seconds for the two-door Wrangler; revs are kept low and relaxed on the highway, and the new V-6 gives the Wrangler surprisingly good passing pep.
Take to the trail—pretty much any trail—and you'll experience the Wrangler's reason for being. The tough body-on-frame chassis and solid front and rear axles that established the Wrangler as one of the most capable off-road SUVs on the market continues to wow, with lots of clearance, a rugged underbody with protective skid plates, and terrific boulder-scrambling prowess. The traditional four-wheel-drive system is also supplemented with some modern tech, including an electric sway-bar disconnect that permits impressive wheel articulation without the expense of floppy on-road cornering.
That said, on-road ride and handling remain sore spots. The Wrangler has a live front axle and dull recirculating-ball steering that has no road feel, although it's find on the highway. On twisty two-laners, it can get a little bouncy or jittery with choppy road surfaces, and mid-corner bumps can create a full-body shudder from the front end. The other sore spot is gas mileage; while Jeep has improved mileage significantly with the new engine, to 16/21 with the automatic, it's quite thirsty for such a compact vehicle.
Jeep has improved overall refinement in the Wrangler by leaps and bounds over the past several years, and the interior and noise-reduction improvements introduced last year, combined with the new engine and transmission this year, amount to a substantial refresh. Last year, the Wrangler tossed the parts-bin look and got an all-new instrument-panel design—more curvy and sophisticated, but still upright—along with new interior materials that have more soft-touch surfaces for elbows and such.
The Wrangler is offered in two different body styles (Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited) and three different trims (Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon). Wrangler Unlimited models add 20.6 inches of wheelbase (116 inches), giving them the most cargo space ever in a Wrangler, and a larger rear-seat design. While that extra backseat space in the Unlimited will be much appreciated, don't expect a lot of comfort anywhere in the Wrangler. Also, no matter which model, the front seats tend to be a bit flat and unsupportive.
When you don't mind a little turbulence and wind in your hair, with the top removed (and even in some low-speed cases, the windshield folded down) the Wrangler can hit the spot, bringing the sensations of a convertible in a very capable off-roader—it's the only four-door convertible SUV. The removable tops are one of Jeep's best features—though they allow lots of road noise in the cabin, they can completely open the cabin of both the two- and four-door models, turning a hardtop Jeep into a convertible SUV. Jeep has improved its soft top design, making it much easier to use, and the Sahara's body-color hardtop is now offered in the Rubicon.
And you'll probably smile when you realize how well-equipped the Wrangler comes; it completely defies utilitarian expectations in offering items like navigation, automatic climate control, and streetwise alloy wheels. Standard equipment includes fog lamps, tow hooks, a compass, a device that shows how economically you are driving, and even an outdoor temperature gauge. Its utter flexibility, along with those options and others like Bluetooth connectivity, MyGIG music storage, Sirius Satellite Radio, and a hard-core off-road package have us still quite amazed at all that's offered—more than any other off-roader. But with Rubicon trims topping $40k potentially, it's not a good choice for the budget-strapped; either way you look at it—whether you're a serious off-roader looking for a weekend toy, or you're a bored commuter who wants something to make it appear you'll get out to the trail—the Wrangler is a pretty expensive niche vehicle.