Car reviews - Jeep - Wrangler - 3.6 petrol range
Smooth and quiet new engine, gravel and dirt-road driving experience, sheer off-road ability, infectious iconic style
Room for improvement
Modern engine makes five-speed auto seem even more dated, not great on bitumen (especially short wheelbase), ergonomic and practicality foibles
2 Mar 2012
THERE is no rational reason that we can see for buying a Jeep Wrangler.
It has an illogical tailgate arrangement, doors that do not stay open if the car is parked on a slope or there is a slight breeze, its steering is vague, slow and inaccurate, it is badly affected by highway cross-winds and its ride is jiggly on bitumen roads.
If you require off-road ability because you live in the bush or the outback, you are likely to err towards something Japanese, with unburstable quality and reliability and the knowledge that mechanical expertise and parts for your vehicle are within reasonable distance should you require them.
Yet the Wrangler has long been Chrysler Group’s best-selling product in Australia and in December 2011 outsold mainstream SUVs such as the Volkswagen Tiguan, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sportage, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Mitsubishi Challenger and Nissan Pathfinder.
Perhaps it can be explained in part by a simple bumper sticker slogan popular among Wrangler aficionados: “It’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand”.
The fact the Wrangler range starts from a reasonable $32,000 (plus on-road costs), has respectable levels of equipment and removable roof, doors and fold-down windscreen, no doubt adds to its appeal, not to mention its charmingly rugged, old-school looks and the almost limitless customisation potential.
Jeep says that, compared with most SUV buyers, of which only 15 per cent take their vehicles off-road, 60 per cent of Wrangler owners venture off the beaten track – rising to 80 per cent for owners of the more rugged Rubicon variants.
During our drive around King Island, we found out why – the Wrangler’s ride and steering start to make more sense as soon as the tyres leave tarmac.
Company officials also claim they have been told by dealers that customers are cross-shopping the Wrangler against cars like the Mini Cooper Cabrio – suggesting people are looking for a stylish lifestyle vehicle.
Interestingly, Jeep also claims that Wrangler buyers tend to have a high average household income, with the Wrangler being a bit of a toy and not necessarily relied on as the main mode of transport.
So as the picture of why people buy Wranglers becomes clearer, we felt ourselves fall a little for the “Jeep thing” as we walked up to the black two-door that would be our partner for the King Island drive program.
It is a cool-looking thing and we can just imagine the appeal to customers kicking the tyres of a highly-polished showroom specimen.
Stepping aboard, we were pleasantly surprised by the look of the interior, which was updated about a year ago when the 2.8-litre diesel engine got more power and fuel-saving idle-stop technology.
The latest update is all about Chrysler Group’s 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine, which with 209kW of power and 347Nm of torque is 63kW and 32Nm up on the 3.8-litre unit it replaces, while using just a little less fuel.
A few extra standard equipment items have also been added, such as automatic climate-control air-conditioning and electrically folding heated mirrors.
An optional five-speed automatic transmission is an improvement, too, replacing a four-speed unit, enabling it to match the manual’s 8.1 second 0-100km/h time (down from a leisurely 11.2 seconds).
As a result, the Wrangler has become more mechanically refined and better able to keep up with city traffic.
Unless the engine is being revved out towards its redline, it remains quiet and the creamy smooth power delivery is a pleasure to behold.
While the new auto does the job, its old design is off the pace next to the thoroughly modern engine it is connected to, especially compared with rival six, seven and eight-speed units that are now commonplace. Shifts are slow and waiting for it to kick down will usually result in an overtaking opportunity missed.
Its handy manual mode – accessed by moving the shifter left and right Mercedes-style – makes it better, but it remains slow to respond.
We preferred to use the six-speed manual, even though its long, constantly vibrating lever bashed the left knee of your long-legged correspondent when driving along in fifth.
Although the interior is aesthetically better than before, the dash is all hard plastic, with some strangely located switchgear, like the lower dash-mounted electric mirror adjuster and low-mounted, hard-to-reach (and see) buttons for the hill descent control and stability control.
Central locking controls are located on the doors where the electric window switches should be and the dash-mounted window controls are located in a hollow-feeling piece of worryingly flexible plastic.
Like many of the Wrangler’s other foibles, perhaps we can put it down to that elusive “Jeep thing”.
Of course, locating switchgear on doors that are designed to be removable could prove problematic and they are free to swing around in the breeze when open for the same reason, just like the back-to-front two-part tailgate opening exists because the roof is removable.
Just think about it, Jeep have had to specially design the wiring harness and rear windscreen washer plumbing to be easily disconnectable in certain places just to offer the flexibility Wrangler owners take for granted.
As well as being impressed by the quiet drivetrain, we noticed a pleasing lack of road noise entering the cabin, the peace only disturbed by some wind rustling around the windscreen of the Wrangler’s boxy shape.
After mixed driving using rear-drive bitumen mode and 4WD mode on gravel and dirt roads (although there was no urban element because we were on King Island, population 2000), we achieved fuel consumption of 12.5 litres per 100 kilometres, not far off the claimed combined figure in the mid-11s for the automatic.
If that sounds a bit too thirsty, the diesel is claimed to return between 7.1L/100km in the two-door manual and 8.8L/100km in the four-door auto.
Because the Wrangler has no centre differential, driving on tarmac is a rear-drive affair, with a clunky-to-operate manual lever beside the gearlever for engaging 4WD high range (normal usage) and 4WD low range (for negotiating tricky off-road obstacles).
As mentioned earlier, the transition from so-so bitumen steering and ride quality in our two-door instantly improved once we were off the sealed road.
We later found the on-road steering and ride to be better on the inherently more stable four-door long-wheelbase Unlimited variants that, apart from carrying more weight and having a slightly worse breakover angle, lose little of the two-door’s off-road ability.
The short-wheelbase variant was understandably twitchy on loose surfaces in rear-drive mode, but selecting 4WD made it feel instantly more planted, the slow steering coming into its own for making small adjustments without inadvertently changing course or exhausting the driver by constantly transmitting surface feel to the fingertips.
We drove an automatic two-door standard Wrangler and a manual four-door version of the even more off-road-oriented Rubicon on an off-road trail that included soft sand and rugged coastal tracks with some steep climbs and descents thrown in revealed its sheer competence – and availability of low range – making light work of obstacles that would have been a challenge for many SUVs.
Pressing the dashboard buttons to lock the Rubicon’s front and rear differentials for an uphill section of soft sand resulted in progress of such consummate ease that we felt as though the car would climb a wall if asked.
No rock crawling was involved, so we had no reason to use the Rubicon’s electronic swaybar disconnect function, which increases wheel articulation.
The simple grab straps attached to the roll cage came in handy for the passenger during off-roading and we missed them in the non-Rubicon variant. Luckily these are a low-cost option.
Jeep offers a unique proposition with the Wrangler, a vehicle that has few direct competitors and none that offer its potential for open-top (or doors-off) driving.
The price is hard to beat, too. The starting price of Land Rover’s equally iconic but diesel-only Defender is almost $13,000 higher at $44,990 ($1000 less than the most expensive Wrangler Rubicon) and Toyota’s FJ Cruiser is $46,490.
All things considered, we are willing to forgive the Wrangler’s lack of on-road finesse because our short drive on King Island was enough for it to get right under our skin.
The Wrangler is one of the cheapest ways of getting completely lost in the great Australian interior, so here is our verdict: Go out and buy one.
Why the about-face? It’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand.
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