If you're prepared to hear that the Wrangler drives like the vintage off-roader it's modeled after, you're in for a surprise. Last year Chrysler replaced the Wrangler's ancient V-6 with the company's new Pentastar V-6 plus a new A580 five-speed automatic transmission, and oh what a difference it made—especially on the highway.
The 3.6-liter V-6 produces 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet—or about 40 percent more horsepower and ten percent more torque than the previous engine—and with the automatic transmission (a piece of hand-me-down hardware that's been used in vehicles ranging from older Mercedes-Benz models to the new Jeep Grand Cherokee) it shifts with a smoothness and near-seamlessness in light to moderate acceleration.
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. And Wrangler models are surprisingly quick. 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.
Some are going to prefer the greater control of a manual transmission in the Wrangler, but it's more of a throwback to the Wrangler of yore; with its long throws, long pedal travel, and some vibration (but tight and precise linkage), it feels like it's borrowed from a muscle car. Whether you opt for the automatic or the manual though, ratios are extremely tall in the high range--an automatic model with the base 3.21:1 ratio, for example, only needed to shift once on the way up to 60 mph. A low 4.10:1 ratio is still available in the Rubicon.
Although the powertrain is charming, the Wrangler's dull recirculating-ball steering still leaves lots to be desired. Turn-in is crisp enough, but the steering has a 'dead zone' of sorts and universally lacked feedback or road feel. The Wrangler's tall tire sidewalls also tend to get in the way of responsiveness on curvy roads.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. There's some modern technology to supplement the traditional four-wheel-drive system, too--like an electric sway-bar disconnect that permits impressive wheel articulation without making the on-road experience too floppy.
Suspensions are built for off-road toughness, with a live axle front and rear layout, including 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.
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.
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).