The Wrangler requires no formal introduction. A true icon, it’s known all around the world as the quintessential off-roader and it’s still the centerpiece of the Jeep lineup. Ask any enthusiast to list three nameplates that represent the American auto industry and odds are you’ll hear the names “Corvette,” “Mustang,” and “Wrangler” – or at the very least “Jeep.”
A pair of round headlights, a grille with seven tall slots, and a rear-mounted spare tire characterize the Wrangler’s timeless looks. Imitators from all around the globe have tried to grab a slice of its market share for decades, but none have ever succeeded. I spent a week behind the wheel of a Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock to find out what its secret is.
The Wrangler is equipped with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that delivers 285 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. The six-cylinder spins the rear wheels via a five-speed automatic transmission, which is the automotive equivalent of a Nokia 3310 now that gearboxes with seven gears or more are common. A six-speed manual transmission is standard.
The Wrangler Rubicon has a part-time four-wheel drive system. In simple terms, it’s rear-wheel drive in everyday driving conditions. However, there’s a lever right next to the gear selector on the center console that allows the driver to engage one of the two four-wheel drive modes called 4H and 4L, respectively. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
At home where others aren’t
A key difference between the Wrangler Rubicon and today’s crop of car-based crossovers is that four-wheel drive can exclusively be used off-road or in inclement weather. Driving on dry pavement with either 4H or 4L engaged can cause damage to the driveline. While it’s not a set-it-and-forget-it system, the part-time setup gives the Wrangler more off-road prowess.
In the mountains, the Wrangler is as sure-footed as a mountain goat.
In addition to nearly a foot of ground clearance, my tester boasts the optional 4.10 rear axle, locking front and rear differentials, and a trick sway bar that can be electronically disconnected at the push of a button to allow for more wheel travel up front. Even completely stock, it’s exceptionally capable off-road. It barely breaks a sweat while climbing up steep hills peppered with loose rocks and ruts. The body doesn’t squeak and the wheels don’t spin excessively because it was designed specifically to handle torturous trails, rivers, and mud pits. In the mountains, the Wrangler is as sure-footed as a mountain goat.
Unless it’s owned by a park ranger, the average Wrangler spends most of its time on the pavement. And make no mistake, it’s not a rough, untamable off-roader that’s only at home out in the wilderness.
Over the course of three generations it has morphed into a competent daily driver. Wind noise isn’t an issue so it’s possible to have a conversation even at high speeds. A well-insulated top and a powerful heater make it usable in the winter, too. It’s smaller than it looks, which earns it the honor of being the most city-friendly SUV on the market.
There are still some concessions to make when driving a Wrangler daily. Notably, the suspension is undeniably stiff when going over even small imperfections in the road, and the short wheelbase makes handling twitchy at best. Finally, the steering is exceptionally vague, and feedback is almost non-existent.
The Wrangler isn’t a light car by any means, but with 285 horsepower on tap and the 4.10 rear axle it’s got a surprising amount of pep. The expected downside is that fuel economy is mediocre at best. I averaged about 17 mpg over a week’s worth of mixed driving, which is roughly on par with what the EPA says the Jeep should return. That’s actually not too bad for a car with a drag coefficient that’s higher than a Volvo 240’s, but it certainly won’t dazzle California regulators.
Silicon Valley? Try Rubicon Valley
The Wrangler was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of modern in-car technology. Its infotainment system is a hangover from a different era. It’s like traveling a few years back in time and using an early version of Jeep parent company Chrysler’s Uconnect software. It’s not a bad system by any means; it’s intuitive to use and it responds quickly to input. But, it’s markedly dated, overly basic, and the 6.5-inch screen’s resolution is Game Boy-ish. Clearly, there is room for improvement in the infotainment department. Though, in all fairness, no one’s ever bought a Wrangler for the tech factor.
Infotainment aside, the cabin is a comfortable place to travel in. Some of the plastics are like bedrock compared to the materials found in more upmarket crossovers, but it at least feels like it was designed in the 21st century. I couldn’t say that when I tested the Land Rover Defender, a former Wrangler rival from across the pond that succumbed to safety and emissions regulations less than a year ago. Most of the knobs and switches are placed where you expect to find them, and the instrument cluster is an easy-to-read unit with analog gauges and a pair of small, digital information screens.
The Wrangler would lose some of its rugged charm if it was too modern, and I like that Jeep has retained the flat, tall, and blocky dash. It’s a throwback to the original Willys and later CJ models that suits the current generation well.
The front seats provide a tall and commanding view of the road ahead, and adequate support whether the Mud-Terrain tires are spinning on pavement, in the mud, or over rocks. The rear bench is cramped and difficult to access, but that’s why Jeep expanded the lineup with a four-door model named Unlimited. The two-door stays close to its roots, while the Unlimited caters to families who need more space for both passengers and cargo.
My tester is fitted with Jeep’s Freedom Top, a $1,595 option that replaces the soft top with a three-piece hard top. With the Freedom Top, it’s easy to go topless on a whim because the two front panels can be stored in the cabin. The three-piece setup also facilitates the task of completely removing the top without a helper, and it provides additional protection from the elements. Rest assured, the doors are still easily removable and the windshield folds down. There are even compartments built into the trunk floor to the store the bolts.Our Take
I’m not surprised the Jeep Wrangler has been America’s favorite off-roader for the past two decades. It’s durable, it’s affordable, and it’s jaw-droppingly capable. It’s not perfect: the infotainment system is primitive at best and it lacks a touch of refinement around town. However, it’s an off-roader, not a multi-purpose vehicle, so calling those quibbles faults would be missing the point entirely.
This generation Wrangler (known as the JK internally) is not long for this world. A brand new model is expected to make its debut in just a few short months, and I can’t wait to see what Jeep has in store.
Is there a better alternative?
The DT Accessory Pack
Five years ago, I would have listed the Nissan XTerra and the Toyota FJ Cruiser as potential Wrangler competitors. Both of those are out of production today, so the Wrangler’s most direct rival is the Toyota 4Runner.
The 4Runner offers a nicer, more spacious interior, but it’s not quite as rugged as the Wrangler and it can’t go topless unless an angle grinder is involved. The Land Rover Range Rover Evoque Convertible ticks the topless box, but it’s over twice as expensive as a base Wrangler so putting the two in the same ring is hardly a fair fight. Ultimately, if you want a true off-roader there is no better choice than the Wrangler.
How long will it last?
While infotainment systems evolve every few months, off-road capacity is timeless. The Wrangler is already outdated in terms of tech yet it still tops shopping lists all around the nation. That’s because 40 years from now it’ll still be every bit as capable as it is today, and it’ll continue to turn heads.
Should you buy it?
The Wrangler is the best factory-built off-roader on the market, and also one of the cheapest convertibles money can buy. Unless comfort is an absolute priority it’s hard to think of a reason not to buy a Wrangler.