2012 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

August 20, 2011

Oregon's Coast Range doesn't get very high, but near the top its peaks and ridgelines are so steep and boulder-strewn that all the highways and paved roads follow lower passes. Yep, to get to the great viewpoints, you either have to huff it, or you need a serious off-roader—like a Jeep.

This past week, Jeep allowed us to clamber to one of the highest viewpoints on the Coast Range—and with an arranged course up on the ridge, they even made it a little harder than it would otherwise be. Using Portland as our base for a day of driving, we put two-door 2012 Jeep Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited models through the paces on city streets, expressways, and winding country two-laners.

Jeep has always had a certain swagger with respect to off-road activities—especially in the iconic Wrangler—but this year, thanks to the second part of a surprisingly thorough mid-cycle refresh, Chrysler's rugged, outdoorsy brand has nothing to be ashamed of on the road and in the city, or well past where the pavement ends.

Last year, Jeep brought the Wrangler's interior up to modern tastes without at all ruining its authenticity—quite a feat, really. An all-new instrument panel has softened edges and nice contours, yet it keeps the upright, we-mean-business look—enhanced with vent bezels and matte-metallic trims that carry a machined, industrial look. And to bring it all home, there are better upholsteries and trims, including soft places to put your elbows (atop the door ledge and center console). For 2011, the Wrangler got larger rear windows, along with features like heated mirrors, heated seats, and automatic climate control for the first time.

And that's only the part of it. Last year Jeep also rolled out much-improved NVH improvements for the Wrangler, helping to better seal out road and wind noise especially.

Wrangler gets the latest powertrain goodness

But for 2012, Jeep has finally tossed out the old 3.8-liter V-6, replacing it with the new Pentastar V-6 that made its debut last year in the Grand Cherokee, and more recently in the Chrysler 300, Dodge Durango, Dodge Challenger, and Dodge Charger. In the Wrangler, it makes 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet—or about 40 percent more horsepower and ten percent more torque than last year.

The new Pentastar 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 Mercedes-Benz models). It replaces the old, somewhat obstinate four-speed unit (which is still used in the Nitro and Liberty this year, by the way).

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. Meanwhile the Pentastar feels almost odd in the Wrangler at first, that this is almost too refined of an engine for such a rough-and-tumble-looking, military-heritage ute. But you get used to it quick; 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. The NVH improvements go hand-in-hand with it, too; considering its sharply angled exterior, the Wrangler is shockingly quiet inside. Even at 70 mph we heard only a faint whistle around the front pillars.

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