First Drive: 2012 Jeep Wrangler

When Disneyland closed Space Mountain in 2009 for refurbishing, Internet message boards erupted with apprehension. "Don't screw it up!" collectively exclaimed the enthusiasts at and others. A signature attraction for almost thirty-five years, the thrill ride embodied the Disney experience nearly as much as Mickey Mouse himself. But the theme park isn't alone in having to safeguard an icon: it's much the same whenever Jeep changes the Wrangler. (Heck, some of us still haven't accepted the name Wrangler, given in 1987, because "Jeep" is the quintessential eponym, the word perfectly representing the object.) Nevertheless, change becomes necessary as demand grows for more power and better fuel economy.

In other words, good-bye clamorous, pushrod-operated 3.8-liter V-6, the engine that Jeep shared with Chrysler's minivans. Good-bye, also, to its hunting companion, the four-speed automatic transmission. Powertrain refinement was never part of the Wrangler's story; potency only was when AMC stuck its V-8 into the 1973 CJ model.

For 2012, the Wrangler gets Chrysler's fully contemporary Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, a dual-overhead cam unit that features numerous advances in efficiency and noise reduction. Output jumps from 202 hp to 285 hp, and torque advances by about 10 percent, to 260 lb-ft. The 3.8's best attribute was compactness, thanks to the low-profile overhead-valve layout. Squeezing the tall Pentastar V-6 under the hood was almost like getting Jay Leno jaw-first through the tiny door inside Alice's Wonderland. Engineering chief Tony Petit lost a lot of sleep before adapting the powerplant with a revised throttle-body; a serpentine belt that would stay clear of water and mud; a high-mounted, rear-facing alternator; and unique exhausts. An acoustic cover helps to suppress noise.

A new five-speed automatic further enhances powertrain efficiency, but many buyers will keep the standard six-speed manual transmission. With either gearbox, two-door Wranglers achieve the best fuel economy of 17 city/21 highway mpg. Meanwhile, acceleration improves almost shockingly, with 0 to 60 mph occurring in 8.4 seconds, a figure derived from Jeep's test of the high-volume Sahara Unlimited. Revving the engine to its 6500-rpm redline is perversely pleasurable; considering the improved interior that was fitted in 2011 and the much-reduced cabin noise, the only thing to complain about is the vague steering that must be tolerated because the solid front axle dictates a recirculating-ball design. Overall, the Wrangler—especially the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, which is accounting for nearly 60 percent of all sales—compares favorably to the typical midsize SUV. Minor distinction: the average midsize SUV can't drive right off the showroom floor and conquer the Rubicon Trail, as the top-of-the-line Wrangler Rubicon once again proved it could do. After the snow melted away in early July, Jeep put us on the trail, which old hands agreed was at its most difficult because of the unremitting winter; but of course the two- and four-door versions were unfazed.

Wrangler sales are booming—they're expected top 100,000 for 2011, a first—and Jeep's biggest problem will be figuring out how to build enough units at the Toledo plant to meet demand. And the prospect of even more desirable Wranglers extends from the possibility that the Pentastar V-6 could receive direct injection and turbocharging. A 400-hp Wrangler? That's something to ponder while lining up at the new Space Mountain.

The Specs
On Sale: Fall
Price: Wrangler Sport $22,845 to Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited $34,370
Engine: 3.6L V-6, 285 hp, 260 lb-ft
Drive: Part-time four-wheel

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