Jeep's been improved, off-road and on
Published On Sun Aug 21 2011
PORTLAND, OREGON — The top comes off, as do the doors, and if you really want the wind in your face you can fold down the windshield.
These unique features have been Jeep hallmarks for years and they're still included on the latest Jeep Wrangler, in both the two- and four-door models.
And they're timeless novelties, unlike the anemic cast-iron 3.8-litre pushrod V6 that has powered the open-air four-by-four until this year.
That engine was long due for a replacement, and for 2012 the Wrangler series (which got an upgraded, quieter interior and body-colour roof in 2011) gets Chrysler's all-new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6, which boasts a welcome 40 per cent increase in horsepower and 10 per cent more torque.
For number crunchers, that's 285 hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. The new all-aluminum DOHC 60-degree V6 is 9.4 cm shorter and 40 kg lighter than the 3.8 litre. It's also mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission, while hardcore trailblazers can choose a six-speed manual gearbox.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover a very quiet interior as I drove on the highway towards Tillamook State Park in the $31,495 Unlimited Sahara model, equipped with air conditioning, power locks and windows and a 268-watt, six-speaker sound system with Sirius satellite radio — among other frilly amenities.
Wind noise was well managed, an especially trick task when considering the Wrangler's traditionally boxy appearance is about as aerodynamic as a brick.
Ride quality was refined and well mannered, especially when considering the Wrangler's tall stance and off-road focus.
The new automatic is much smoother than the previous four-speed, and gears can be selected manually by moving the shift knob left or right when in Drive.
One oversight in the shifter's design is that there's no separate, parallel channel for manual shifting, and while in the passenger seat I turned to reach for something in the back seat and inadvertently pushed on the shift knob with my knee, downshifting the transmission and surprising my colleague behind the wheel.
So to avoid unnecessary bickering between couples, there should be a Drive lock feature.
We arrived at Tillamook at noon, where we swapped the Sahara for a top-of-the-line $34,495 Unlimited Rubicon. The Rubicon is equipped for serious off-roading with Tru-lok locking axles, Rock-Trac transfer case, electronic sway bar disconnect and tall, aggressively treaded tires on 17-inch wheels.
Our hosts guided us towards a 1.2-kilometre off-road course that posed several challenges.
With the sun beaming down on me in the topless Wrangler, it revealed its true colours here. After shifting the transfer case into low four-wheel drive, locking both axles (the rear can be locked independently) and disconnecting the sway bar, the new automatic's lower first gear allowed a slow, steady pace as the Jeep climbed the rocky incline like a mountain goat, many times with a wheel in the air.
The course ended with a steep, rocky descent, and here I let the Rubicon do the driving by turning on the electronic hill descent control.
It maintained a steady pace (adjustable by selecting gears manually with the auto transmission), and all I had to do was steer.
We ended the day with a chance to sample the outgoing 2011 model on the road, and after all the hype surrounding the Pentastar V6, I wasn't going to miss an opportunity to sample it back to back with the outgoing 3.8 litre.
Now, if you just bought a 2011 Wrangler, you may want to skip the next two paragraphs.
Immediately noticeable in the older model was its lethargic acceleration.
Pushing the gas pedal to the floor produced a lot of engine noise and not much of an increase in velocity. The four-speed automatic held gears a long time as the engine struggled to gain revs, and when it did shift, the gap between ratios was so great it put the engine out of its optimum torque range, especially noticeable going uphill.
The engine also revved higher at highway speeds (2,500 rpm vs 2,000 rpm at 100 km/h on the Pentastar), which increased interior noise noticeably.
As a former mechanic, the best I could describe the difference in performance is to liken it to disconnecting a couple of spark plugs (0-100 km/h time is now 8.4 seconds, a 25 per cent improvement). As an added bonus, the new engine boasts better fuel economy, now rated at 12.7L/100 km city, 9.5L/100 km highway (two-door model), compared with 14.5L and 10.0L respectively.
Jeep has done the Wrangler good with this new engine, and with the changes introduced this year, it's become quite the adult plaything.
2012 JEEP WRANGLER
PRICE: $22,595 - $34,495.
3.6 L V6, 285 hp; 260 lb.-ft.
FUEL CONSUMPTION: 12.7L/100 km city; 9.5L/100 km highway.
COMPETITION: It's in a class by itself, really; maybe a side-by-side ATV?
WHAT'S BEST: Pentastar V6 brings performance to where it should have been long ago.
WHAT'S WORST: Automatic gear shifter doesn't lock into Drive.
WHAT'S INTERESTING: Still the only production car that lets you drop the windshield.