Jeep Wrangler — Off-road master gets on-road improvements

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman
As much as we enjoy crawling over rocks and wading through muddy streams in a rugged four-wheel-drive truck, we like to have experts on hand or at least no more than 10 minutes away if trouble should rear its ugly head. We don’t want to damage a vehicle that has been loaned to us and perhaps more importantly, we don’t want to be embarrassed by having to call for help.
This makes the opportunity to attend manufacturer events designed to show off a truck’s ruggedness important. We get to experience its ground-pounding capabilities in a controlled environment. And in this case we did things with the 2012 Jeep Wrangler that would make a mountain goat envious.
This past summer we were given the opportunity to put the Wrangler through its paces, both on road and off in mountains near Portland, Ore. And by “off,” we mean “OFF.” Like a 5.4-mile circuitous drive to the top of a mountain where Camp Jeep engineers built a complex, teeth and kidney-jarring obstacle course to take us even further upward.
Despite undergoing its biggest transformation in years, Jeep enthusiasts will be happy to note that the updated iconic Wrangler has lost none of its amazing off-road capabilities.
How about the Jeep’s on-road persona? Even for the most ardent weekend off-roader, it is on road where the Jeep will spend most of its time, commuting to and from work, hauling weekend home project supplies from Home Depot or transporting the kids to and from school. Here’s a key word: improved!
Let’s remember the Wrangler is the original sport-utility vehicle, and was derived from the original military Jeep. For decades it has remained true to its roots as a rough-and-tumble go-anywhere truck, but that means it has always exhibited a bouncy, jarring ride and a noisy interior particularly with the cloth top. 
And it has never been particularly adept at quickly reaching highway speeds or very swift of foot merging or passing. It has always been designed foremost for crawling over rocks and tackling muddy trails.
The good news is that Jeep has addressed some of those issues with the 2012 redesign making the Wrangler easier to live with on a daily basis between those occasional adventures off road.
But we need to place a big asterisk here. As appealing as the Wrangler is it still has considerable drawbacks as a daily driver including a bouncy, rough ride courtesy of solid axles, an interior noise level that probably ranks at the top of a dubious list, and a soft top that is not user friendly to remove or reinstall. The good news is that the Unlimited version with a three-piece removable hardtop mitigates some of the drawbacks.
The most noteworthy improvements come in the drivetrain where the award-winning Pentastar V-6 has been installed as the standard engine, and in a reworked interior that includes higher quality materials and a redesigned instrument panel and center stack. (Actually much of the interior overhaul occurred for the 2011 model year).
Despite the improvements you would be hard pressed to tell the new 2012 Jeep from a 2011 model. The Wrangler retains the same iconic shape, the same seven-slot grille, the same round headlights, the same hard or soft top choices, and the same exterior dimensions.
And the Wrangler can still be purchased with family-friendly four doors, a styling feature added in the last major overall in 2007. 
The inclusion of the well-endowed V-6 is a stroke of genius by the Jeep folks. Gone is the lifeless 202-horsepower V-6 in favor of the Pentastar V-6 with 285 horsepower offering smooth and efficient performance mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission.
No more on-road issues such as passing, merging and jumping off the line at stoplights with the new 3.6-liter engine. 
We found the performance satisfying with the automatic. (A 6-speed manual is standard equipment). Our perceptions are backed up by major magazine testing time of around 8.5 seconds from 0 to 60 and quarter mile times in the upper ranges of 16 seconds.
Unfortunately, the Wrangler still retains its lane wandering nature and it takes concentration to keep the Jeep headed down the road in a straight line.
Road and wind noise, even in the hardtop version, are still excessive in our estimation, even though the noise level has been reduced from previous Wranglers.
We found satisfying a reworked interior that is user friendly. Clear round gauges are easy to read, climate controls with large round knobs are easy to use and we like the large center screen radio readout that clearly dispensed all the necessary satellite information.
Four wheel drive is still accessed through a separate shifter placed next to the transmission shifter, which we think is where it should be in a serious off-road vehicle.
Our traditional two-door test truck accommodated only two riders in the rear seat and they had limited leg room. And as before, the seat back folds forward in one piece, which is not as usable as a seat that folds down in two pieces, allowing for one passenger and cargo storage. If space is a concern, opt for the four-door version. Its family-friendly nature is more welcoming.
Our base Jeep Wrangler Sport test vehicle, carrying a price tag of $22,845, came with several necessary options including automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows and doorlocks and satellite radio, bringing the bottom line to $29,015. 
Our 4-door Unlimited Sport had a base price of $26,345 and with the a ton of optional equipment including the off-road trick stuff like hill holding and hill descent control, Trac-loc limited slip rear differential, automatic and the three-piece hardtop plus a one-year subscription to SiriusXM the bottom line came to $31,325.
The Wrangler comes in Sport, Sahara and Rubicon designations in both two and four doors. The four-door models have the Unlimited designation.
While the Wrangler has never been better, it is still a relatively crude vehicle for everyday family transportation. But you can’t deny the Wrangler’s impressive off-road credentials and its incredibly “cool” factor. Kudos to Jeep for the considerable upgrades in performance and interior improvements – it’s really improved.

Base price: $22,845; as driven, $29,015
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 285 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 260 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: 4-wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 95.4 inches
Length: 152.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,760 pounds
Turning circle: 34.9 feet
Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
Luggage capacity: 17.2 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 61.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 21mpg highway, 17mpg city
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Xterra
The Good:
• Class-leading off-road capability
• Four-door version available
• Better performance from Pentastar V-6
• Cool image
The Bad:
• Noisy cabin
The Ugly:
• Still needs to be herded down the road