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.

Only about a fifth of all Wrangler buyers prior to this year opted for the six-speed manual, and Jeep thinks that with the even better automatic transmission even fewer will do so. Overall, we liked the feel of it, 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. Again, ratios in regular 2WD-High are very tall. And we should note that with the manual, you also hear a fair amount of gearbox whine and whoosh—which definitely makes the automatic the more refined choice of the two.

On all the models we tested, final drive ratios are 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.

Steering's lost in translation

The Wrangler's dull recirculating-ball steering was about the only thing about this rig's driving experience that we didn't either find charming and novel (like all of its packaging quirks) or simply excellent (like its powertrain). 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.

You'll also be frequently made aware that this is one of the few vehicles (other than heavy-duty pickups) that still offers a live front axle. Any mid-corner bumps reliably produce a full-frontal shudder from the front end (the back end can hop somewhat but seems to soak such things up a bit better). Ride quality is actually not too bad; but we did notice that our route included mostly smooth roads when we weren't on pavement, so we'll get a better idea in a follow-up drive.

Jeep claims that the Wrangler is the most capable production off-road-capable vehicle in the world, and we have no plans to challenge that. Out on the trail the appropriate word was one that we caught ourselves uttering frequently: Wow. In this age of overly electronic-nannied systems, one can forget the inherent goodness here.

Functionally, Jeep picks and chooses from a mix of traditional mechanical hardware and newer electronic aids in the Wrangler, but all the fundamentals—body on-frame construction; front and rear live axles; a rugged five-link suspension setup, front and rear; and a part-time, dual-range mechanical four-wheel drive system—are all there. But electronic lockers, with a simple on-dash button, take away much of the fuss, and hill-descent and hill-hold features make steep slopes less pulse-raising.

Godly good off-road

Matched with approach, departure, and breakover angles that are better than just about any other off-roader available, the Wrangler, can perform off-road feats that will have you wide-eyed in disbelief.

A lot of the things you'd find frustrating in nearly any other car, you might find novel or charming in the Wrangler: For instance, the doors completely lack detents, with only a fabric retainer strap limiting their travel. On manual-transmission models, there's no dead pedal on the far left to rest your foot; instead, the three pedals are large and widely spaced; surely, you could drive the Wrangler with hiking boots. But positively, you still have a choice of many top arrangements and can still pivot the windshield forward when you so desire (in private, low-speed use).

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.

The model lineup for the Wrangler remains mostly unchanged. Including base Sport, the popular Sport S, showy Sahara, and super-off-road-focused Rubicon. For 2012, the Rubicon model now shares its body-color hardtop with the Sahara.

But mostly, a pretty expensive niche vehicle

Jeep has held the line on pricing for 2012, putting the base Wrangler at $22,845 and the base Unlimited at $26,345, including destination, with only slight increases on Sahara and Rubicon models. But unless you want it basic, the Wrangler sure ain't cheap. The bottom-line price can be surprisingly high; of the three well-equipped Wranglers we drove on the road, all of them topped $30k, and one Sahara Unlimited we drove totaled more than $37k, and loaded Rubicon models can top $40k. At that price, it's hard to see many owners not gulping heavily at the possibility of scratching paint or scraping a boulder.

After all the varied conditions we tackled on our drive, we can say that all 2012 and 2011 changes come together as a complete package, amounting to an extreme mid-cycle makeover for the Wrangler.

Overall, Jeep has done a great job in making the Wrangler tolerable on-road—maybe even enjoyable for commuting—without changing it too much. The 2012 Wrangler now has the on-road refinement and powertrain performance to match (or beat) a Nissan Xterra or Toyota FJ Cruiser while maintaining all the off-road cred, the iconic look and the no-sacrifices tough-as-nails layout.

Mission accomplished. 

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