The look of the 2016 Jeep Wrangler isn't all that different than the Jeeps of decades ago; yet in performance and driving manners—and general drivability—this Jeep is worlds apart.
All Wranglers are now powered by a 3.6-liter V-6, which makes about 40 percent more power and 10 percent more torque than the engine it replaced several model years ago. It's now rated at 285 horsepower and 260-pould-feet of torque.
With its current 5-speed automatic—a (very good) hand-me-down from older Mercedes-Benz models—it shifts smoothly in light to moderate acceleration, but musters a firmer shift feel when you're driving it hard. A 6-speed manual is still available as well, and reminiscent of that in Jeeps of yore; its long throws, long pedal travel, and a little vibration offer greater control over what the Wrangler is doing, but with a little extra work along the way.
The gear ratios are very tall regardless of whether you choose the automatic or the manual; for instance, a base automatic Wrangler only has to shift once to 60 mph with the 3.21:1 ratio. The low 4.10:1 ratio is still available in the Rubicon off-road model.
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.
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.
The V-6 has all the requisite low-end torque needed for hardcore off-roading, and that's really something that's been missing since the days of the 4.0-liter straight-6. The Wrangler accelerates all the way to the redline without any vibrations or roughness—and it's surprisingly quick, at about 8.4 seconds to get to 60, while two-door Wranglers can get there in 7.7 seconds.
This is all relative, of course. In the Wrangler, as with other back-to-basics cars like the MX-5 Miata, you don't need to be going absurdly fast to have fun.
The Wrangler's dull recirculating-ball steering still leaves lots to be desired, despite the charms of the powertrain and the overall package. Turn-in is crisp enough, but the steering has a "dead zone" of sorts and universally lacks feedback or road feel. The Wrangler's tall tire sidewalls also tend to get in the way of responsiveness on curvy roads. The good news is that it's very easy to place on tight trails, with the steering compensating for the drag of big tires on sand, mud, or rock.
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). This basically uses the starter to get the car going, and is especially useful on an incline when you want to start in gear and manage the brakes to avoid rolling backwards.