Driven: 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The Wrangler is the Jeep franchise. It's the rock on which the entire brand's positioning is built. The Wrangler is not always be the bestselling Jeep (although through November of this year it's ahead of the Grand Cherokee by a nose), but it's the most important.

Of Jeep's many overseers -- Kaiser, AMC, Renault, Chrysler, DaimlerBenz, Cerberus, and now Fiat -- the current ones seem to understand this. The Wrangler underwent its last major redesign in 2007. Typically, you'd expect to see a minor update after three years and a major redo after six. Indeed, there were some changes visited upon the Wrangler for 2010; but Jeep has continued updating the vehicle, giving it a new interior for 2011 and a new powertrain this year.

Having not been in a Wrangler since 2010, both the 2011 and 2012 updates were new to me. Alas, the much-anticipated new interior turns out to be pretty underwhelming. Only in a Wrangler could the arrival of padded armrests (up front at least) and heated seats be considered a huge step forward. I guess we'll have to wait another decade for the much-needed driver's dead pedal or a telescoping steering column. The navigation unit is the same one offered previously, with a small screen and not enough physical buttons, particularly for the audio system. Thankfully, steering-wheel-mounted audio controls are part of the new-interior upgrade, and they are most welcome.

Unlike the new interior, the new Pentastar V-6 does not disappoint. This engine is far superior to the old 3.8-liter V-6. That's apparent from the first moment you step on the gas. Instead of grudgingly accelerating to highway speeds -- as if to emphasize the fact that it would rather be picking its way along some backwoods trail -- the 2012 model confidently surges forward with a light press of the right pedal. Nice. With 285 horsepower, the new 3.6-liter wastes the old 3.8 and its measly 202 hp. The torque increase isn't as dramatic but is still notable: 260 pound-feet, up from 237. That torque is parsed out among five forward ratios with the new automatic transmission, versus the previous four. If you want a six-speed, you have to stick with the standard manual gearbox.

How refreshing it is to experience a Wrangler without a cacophony of engine noise. The Pentastar six is so quiet you'd almost think it shuts itself off at stoplights. Come to think of it, adding an auto stop/start system wouldn't be a bad idea, as the city fuel economy is a pretty grim 16 mpg. Highway mileage is 20 mpg -- 21 with the manual. (With the previous engine, those figures were 15/19 mpg.) It least it drinks regular fuel.

When you behold the Wrangler Unlimited in person, you realize that this is not a vehicle that is going to sip lightly at the fuel pump. It's a big beast, nearly two feet longer than a two-door Wrangler, and stands almost six feet high. In Rubicon trim, it rolls on massive, 32-inch off-road tires, and like all Wranglers, it has the aerodynamics of a billboard.

Speaking of the huge off-road tires, they're no friend to steering precision, nor is the recirculating-ball steering system. But the latter comes with the territory when you have a solid front axle -- considered a must for the Wrangler's extreme off-road capability. The tires, off course, are there for the same reason. They're standard on the Rubicon, along with more sophisticated off-road fare such as electronically detachable antiroll bars (to allow for greater wheel articulation) and electronic remote-locking front and rear differentials.

Some compromises -- vague steering, a high step-in height, bluff aerodynamics -- are worth making because they're necessitated by the Wrangler's mission. Others -- a weak and noisy engine, a cheap interior -- are not.

Accentuating the positives, while chipping away at the negatives, is the best way for Jeep to keep its signature product current, and yet still preserve its unique character.

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