In his June 2016 column, my esteemed and always insightful colleague Jamie Kitman, while opining about what he sees as the curious product strategy of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, asked, “What happens when every yahoo who ever wanted a four-door Wrangler either has one or soon will?”
Yahoo? Now, I’ve been called a few names in my time, but to be smeared by association with a fourth-rate Internet company? Well, Jamie, I guess you and I won’t be sitting together at this year’s All-Stars dinner.
I’ll admit it: I’m a yahoo. I love the Jeep Wrangler. Always have. In the late 1990s, before the arrival of the four-door Unlimited, I owned a soft-top TJ. Yes, I still had hot test metal regularly rotating through my garage — Porsches, Ferraris — but none of them made me forget about my Jeep. That’s because the TJ proved to be an almost perfect Los Angeles vehicle — and driving it was a non-stop party.
As soon as I got my new Jeep home, I dropped the soft top and didn’t put it up again for three years. If it got cold, I’d put on a leather jacket. If I felt a surge of exhibitionism, I’d take off the doors. Rain? Never much of an issue here in SoCal, but if it did — who cares? I’d get a little wet and my cigar might go out. Otherwise, driving in a warm drizzle is actually quite lovely.
There were other advantages. I could throw sandy scuba tanks and a couple of dripping wetsuits onto the back seat, and if the Jeep started smelling funny I’d just hose out the whole damn interior until it smelled like cigars again. The other bonus: A Jeep is one of those objects, like a surfboard or a Twister mat, that just screams good times. It’s an original, a war hero born in the Greatest Generation, as American as The Beach Boys, Levis, and French fries.
Those happy memories came flooding back to me recently when I flew east and borrowed a 2016 Wrangler Unlimited 4×4 for a family reunion in the leafy lakeside village of Glen Arbor in “up north” Michigan. Mind you, at first I hardly recognized the thing. My tester was a 75th Anniversary edition, and it was no stripped-down military brat. Leather seats (heated up front), nine-speaker Alpine audio system, touchscreen navigation, automatic air-conditioning — I half expected to find a Daniel Marshall humidor tucked between the seats. All told, the sticker pegged at $48,350. Uh, that sound you just heard was George S. Patton slapping his own face in the grave.
Auto journalists love to criticize the Wrangler for its pogo-stick ride and slushy handling. To which I always say: Listen, gang, it’s a sport-utility vehicle. A real one, not some supermarket pretender with chrome wheels and 20-inch, low-profile tires. The Wrangler is designed and built for one purpose: tackling the roughest off-road trails the Earth can dish up. Once, I drove one straight up the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite. Without ropes. Another time, I spent an afternoon doing loop-the-loops inside the walls of Delicate Arch in Utah. Wranglers can do anything.
Up in Glen Arbor, the Wrangler felt oh so at home. I probably did about 500 “Jeep waves” that first day; Wranglers were everywhere. I’d popped off the two front roof panels, dropped all the windows, and started motoring all over the forested, lake-filled Leelanau peninsula — the sun streaming in, the aroma of fresh-cut grass and horse farms filling the cabin, Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” playing on the XM radio. Whenever I’d find an unpaved trail in the woods — leading to who knows — I’d take it, completely relaxed in the knowledge that nothing I’d encounter (deep mud, steep inclines, a rogue troop of Boy Scouts) could possibly halt my passage. A few times I was rewarded with incomparable views of Lake Michigan.
Such are the sights and sounds a Wrangler delivers. You drive slowly, you poke around and discover your effortlessly competent 4×4 transforming the world at large into a giant antique store, all yours to peruse. Given such access, who cares if a Wrangler’s ride can’t match a Cadillac’s, that its fit and finish are more tank than timepiece?
Ultimately, I think Jeep love simply comes down to whether or not you have Wrangler genes in your blood. I assuredly do. And to that, the only thing I can add is: Yahoo!