If you thought Jeep's Wrangler was strictly for Californian rock hoppers and D-list boy band members, think again. The latest model builds on previous improvements and has a brand new petrol engine and auto transmission. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
Never a car to shy away from even the toughest off-road conditions, the Jeep Wrangler's on-road credentials left something to be desired. The latest Wrangler addresses that problem with a brand new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine which brings more power, refinement and efficiency to the classic Jeep's repertoire and, along with a new five-speed auto transmission, makes it a far more likable proposition to drive where it will spend most of its time - on the road.
A bit of history first. Shortly after the surface of the earth cooled, vertebrates appeared, developed into dinosaurs and then died for reasons still not fully understood. Shortly thereafter, the Willys Jeep was built and spawned countless generations of Wrangler models, first driven by cigar-chomping beefcakes in aviator sunglasses who hadn't realised World War II had ended. Unfortunately, the brand image suffered a terrible knock in the mid Eighties when boy band Bros chose the Wrangler as their vehicle of choice.
Bear with me, we're nearly there. Realising that the Wrangler just didn't cut it in an increasingly sophisticated world, Jeep subjected it to major surgery. The importance of this could not be underestimated as the Wrangler is sacrosanct in Jeep circles. The challenge for Jeep was to modernise the vehicle without alienating the hardcore fans of the marque. The first step was to make sure it rode a whole lot better than the old car (no miracle required) while, for this latest round of improvements, powertrain refinement and efficiency have been the focus.
Just about the only way I can describe the ride of the old Wrangler to the uninitiated is to imagine being stricken with a rather severe case of haemorrhoids and then being superglued to a spacehopper. Perhaps that's a tad harsh but after the novelty of the old car's bouncy ride had worn off, you were left with a vehicle that could crawl through deep mud but which wasn't much good at anything else. Two generations on, things have improved - if not dramatically then, at least, unequivocally. You won't mistake the latest Wrangler for a Rolls-Royce Phantom but it's clear that Jeep's suspension recalibrations have reaped further gains in comfort over the previous generation car's already greatly improved ride. It's quieter too thanks to beefed up insulation from engine and road noise.
And, of course, the new 3.6-litre V6 petrol unit is a much sweeter thing than the old and rather crude 3.8-litre lump it replaces. All aluminium and some 40 kilos lighter than the iron-blocked V6, the new engine delivers more power and torque from its more compact dimensions - some 285bhp and 260 lb ft, which in two-door form, with the new five-speed auto, means a 0-60mph time of just 8.1s. The 2.8-litre CRD turbodiesel engine continues from the previous Wrangler and delivers 200bhp, though torque output depends on the transmission it's teamed with: 302 lb ft for the six-speed manual and 339 lb ft for the five-speed auto.
Whichever engine and transmission combination you go for, the Wrangler is still brilliant off road with its super aggressive approach and departure angles. Opt for the entry-level Sport or Shara trims and the car comes with clever brake lock differentials. In the two-door short wheelbase range we're looking at here, the range-topping Rubicon model gets even more specialist front and rear locking differentials. On road manners feel safe and predictable, if a little slow-witted, but there are decent levels of grip and, on broken or rutted surfaces, the handling is no longer stymied by a bouncy ride.
Design and Build
What hasn't changed is the styling direction. Round lights, the Jeep seven-slatted grille, trapezoidal wheel arches, external door hinges and rubber bonnet catches are all present and correct. The Wrangler still looks properly butch. The cabin is pretty spacious in all dimensions and a fold and tumble feature for the rear seat virtually doubles the available cargo capacity, while the curved glass windscreen reduces drag and helps refinement.
On the inside Jeep has upgraded touch surfaces, redesigned the instrument panel, centre stack and storage areas and improved the switchgear layout. Heated, power mirrors are optional, and rearward visibility has been improved with larger rear windows.
Market and Model
Pricing is pitched in the £23,000 to £30,000 bracket with features such as ESP stability control with off-road mode, 16-inch steel wheels, a DVD-compatible stereo with six speakers, Command-Trac shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive and remote keyless entry offered as standard on even the most basic models. Range topping Rubicon models will have 4:1 Rock Trac part time four-wheel drive system, electronic front detachable anti roll bars, Tru-Loc front and rear axles and performance suspension. Only buy this car if you're very serious about off-roading. Otherwise you'll merely be wasting your money.
Cost of Ownership
Official fuel consumption and CO2 figures have yet to be confirmed for the European markets but the returns are expected to be better than those for the outgoing models - which also benefitted from Stop/Start technology - despite the increased power and torque outputs, with the 2.8-litre diesel likely to top 30mpg for the combined cycle.
Depreciation is a tougher one to finger but the fact that Wranglers tend to have very long lifespans between major revisions helps prop up residual values significantly. As for insurance, the Wrangler again scores relatively highly compared to the Defender, with some insurance companies refusing to quote on the Land Rover due to its poor security provision while the Jeep scores an excellent 10E rating. Emissions aren't stellar on either engine, every Wrangler being rated above 250g/km.
Jeep had to walk a very precarious tightrope with the latest Wrangler. On the one hand, they needed to make it safer, more civilised and more relevant to the majority of compact 4x4 buyers while at the same time not alienating those customers who loved the model's rough, tough go-anywhere ability. On the basis of a drive both on and off road, I'd have to say that Jeep has succeeded.
Although still not the most obvious choice for the heavy diet of on-road work, it is now a much more capable all-rounder: quieter, more comfortable and with a much improved interior. Given the very tough brief of widening its appeal while keeping the faithful happy, the latest Wrangler is a commendable effort and the installation of a rugged much more sophisticated and muscular 3.6-litre petrol V6 will bring a whole new generation of Wrangler customers on board.