The new engine is matched to an excellent piece of hand-me-down hardware: the A580 five-speed automatic transmission, which is also used in the new Grand Cherokee, Dodge Durango, Chrysler 300, and Dodge Charger/Challenger models (plus, in a slew of older Mercedes-Benz models).
To sum, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler has 40 percent more horsepower and ten percent more torque, and it accelerates to 60 mph nearly three seconds faster than the 2011. Four-door Wrangler Unlimited models can get to 60 in about 8.4 seconds, while two-door Wranglers can make the dash in 7.7 seconds.
Altogether, the change is transformational. In the Wrangler, shifts felt surprisingly seamless during light to moderate acceleration—only slightly less damped than in the Grand Cherokee—yet snappy and decisive with more throttle. The Pentastar has lots of torque down low and will rev all the way smoothly to redline, with no flat spots, balks, or odd vibrations in between.
We like the feel of the available manual transmission, 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.
Final drive ratios can be 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.
If you're charmed by all the rest, it's a little hard to warm up to the Wrangler's dull recirculating-ball steering. 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.
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.
Take off 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.
Off-roading toughness of the Wrangler is assured by live axle front and rear suspensions, with 10.2 inches of ground clearance and the availability of a four-wheel-drive system with heavy-duty axles, locking differentials, Rock-Trac transfer case with the sway-bar disconnect, extra-low gearing, and knobby BF Goodrich tires on Rubicon versions. And for those who shop by the numbers, the critical ones for the Wrangler are 44.3 degrees approach, 25.4 degrees breakover, and 40.4 degrees departure—that's all for the top-of-the-line, off-road-pedigreed Rubicon.