Enzo Ferrari famously said that the Jeep was the “only true American sports car.” But that was decades ago, long before the Ford Mustang got a fully-independent suspension and joined the 21st century, before the Camaro lost nearly 400 pounds and actually learned how to take a corner, and before Chevy learned to stop pilfering parts from the Cobalt and actually built a Corvette that could be counted as one of the best cars in the world. Today, the Jeep JK Wrangler isn’t that much different than when it was introduced in 2006. On paper, it really isn’t that different from when AMC ended the postwar CJ (Civilian Jeep) line back in ’86 to launch the Wrangler. Come to think of it, it isn’t all that different than the CJs either, or for that matter, the Willys MB that first rolled out of the Toledo, Ohio, factory back in 1941 – the same exact place where my test Wrangler was built.
Now 75 years on, the Jeep Wrangler is America’s most active World War II vet; our most vital link to the prewar driving world – though in many ways, the spartan charm of today’s JK would’ve even looked out of place in a ’39 Mercury. Everywhere you look, its exposed hinges, bolts, separate fenders and a healthy dose of body-colored metal inside give the impression that it could still pull frontline duty. But despite its famous army brat heritage, Jeep retired from military service in 1969. If you’re a hardcore Jeep fan, that’s integrity; a stubborn adherence to the solid-axle, body-on-frame, no compromises, go-anywhere formula that helped win a war and kick start four-wheeling as we know it. Without the Jeep, there’d be no Land Rover, no Toyota Land Cruiser, or any short-wheelbase dead-simple adventure machine, simple as that.
But if you’re not a member of the Jeep faithful, the Wrangler may be more difficult to live with everyday, especially in an era when the cheapest cars on the market can cruise comfortably and reliably over 80 all day every day. Its solid axles may turn mountains into molehills, but in everyday driving, they also make molehills into mountains. Much of the plastic interior feels hard and unforgiving, and it doesn’t feel new either – in fact, it feels about as resistant to change as your uncle who still wears that same polyester suit to family events that he’s had since before you were born.
And yet, the Wrangler is still the undisputed star of the ascending Global Jeep Brand. The marque sold over 200,000 of them last year, and it’s on track to do the same again in 2016. It’s the only Jeep model that isn’t regularly offered with a rebate, the only one that moves at (or above) sticker price. People love the Wrangler, and frankly, after spending a week with one in New York City (Jeep purists can start cringing now), I can understand why. Because potholes aside, I had more fun booming around town in it that I would’ve had in a Mustang, Camaro, Corvette, or hell, even a Ferrari. Because after years of trial and error, American sports cars needed to get better; the Wrangler didn’t, and it still delivers everyday thrills in a way that nothing else in the world can match.
You’ve seen a Jeep, right? Because my ’16 Wrangler Sahara looked like that, except very, very blue. It was Hydro Blue to be exact, with color-matching bumpers, and optional three-piece Freedom Top. While the vast majority of the hardtop jeeps out there come with the matte black top, all that extra paint really made my Sahara stand out. And even though it may be one of the louder colors offered on something that isn’t a sports car, Hydro Blue fit the Wrangler perfectly. It seemed unintentionally retro; a color that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a ’50s or ’60s era CJ-5 – or even on the recent Shortcut concept from this year’s Easter Jeep Safari. Of course, Jeep offers more sedate colors like “Mojave Sand” (beige), and “Granite Crystal” (dark gray), but if you’re in the market for a Wrangler, go bold. Leave the boring colors for Compass and Liberty buyers.
But about that Freedom Top: It’s a $1,995 option, but I can’t recommend it enough. New York weather in March is always a mixed bag, so I was able to experience about three seasons of weather in the course of a week. The front two panels come off with the twist of a few latches and a couple knobs. With two people, they came off (and went back on) in about five minutes, and stow neatly in the back inside a nylon protective bag (though it limits rear visibility). With those off, you get a “coupe de ville” driving experience like a Mini convertible – or if you’re feeling ambitious – a Porsche 911 Targa or the upcoming Mazda Miata RF.
Taking the front panels off makes for a great open-top driving experience, but if you want to go completely topless, Jeep provides a tool kit in the dashboard to undo the row of bolts that holds the rest of the roof to the body tub. Once everything is bolted back together, the fiberglass cap is surprisingly capable, keeping warm air trapped inside the cabin on cold mornings, and keeping road noise largely at bay. If you want to get the full Wrangler driving experience but have to put up with harsh winters, go for the Freedom Top, you won’t regret it.
Exterior pros and cons:
+ In the market for a Wrangler? Two words: Hydro Blue. You’ll never forget where you parked again.
+ Speaking of parking, parallel parking is a breeze. See where the C-Pillar ends? That’s the back of your Jeep.
+ The JK is 10 years old, the formula is 75; it still looks great.
– The top’s front panels are a breeze to handle on your own, but make sure you have a friend (and a safe garage) around to take off and store the rest of the roof.
– I hesitate to use the word “precious,” but the fog lights integrated into the bumper seem a little too ornate compared to the rest of the Wrangler.
– Small potatoes, but I would loved to get the Freedom Top in something other than body color or flat black – white fiberglass would make for an even cooler retro vibe.
Since 2006, the Wrangler’s base powerplant has been Chrysler’s 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, and it does the job almost as admirably as the classic AMC straight-six used from ’72 to ’06. The Wrangler is no featherweight (the lightest models weigh in at nearly 3,900 pounds), but it can move when you’re stomp the gas to get through a yellow light or scramble up a gravel mountain trail. Fuel economy isn’t great (17 city, 21 highway), but then again, there aren’t many people cross-shopping a Wrangler with a Prius.
I took the Wrangler out of the city for an afternoon of exploring upstate, and it handled the gravel seasonal roads and wide open spaces of the Hudson River Valley exactly like you’d expect a Wrangler to. The five-speed automatic transmission comes with Hill Descent Control, which came in handy when I came to a few steep drops off-road. And the shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive is as reliable as you’d expect it to be. Automotive technology may changing at break-neck pace, but when you’re facing an incline between you and the paved road back to civilization that would make most modern utility vehicles want to run and hide, there’s nothing more satisfying than shifting a Wrangler into 4WD and pressing on.
Powertrain pros and cons:
+ The 285 horsepower Pentastar V6 makes the heavy Wrangler feel fast.
+ Hill Descent Control was great for an off-roading novice like myself.
+ Looking down and seeing that shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive stalk is the equivalent of a lite off-roading/inclement weather security blanket.
– Gas may be cheap, but that doesn’t make the Wrangler’s fuel economy any better.
– At highway speeds, it can feel like the powertrain and body are working against each other.
– Unlike most modern cars, you feel like you’re going faster than you really are. Off-road, that’s great. On the highway, not so much.
The interior is where the majority of people seem take issue with the Wrangler. The first Jeep I ever rode in was an uncle’s ’78 CJ-7 off-roader that used a repurposed keg as a gas tank; the interior layout in the ’16 Wrangler is largely the same as that now-38 year old rig: black plastic dash cap, grab handle on the passenger side, radio in the center, and instrumentation that tells you what you need to know, and nothing you don’t. Admittedly, there are some big differences (dual front airbags, more plastic for crash protection, a 6.5-inch touchscreen with Chrysler’s UConnect system), but the amount of hard, unforgiving plastic feels out of place in this era of near-universal interior improvements.
That said, it’s a Wrangler, and like fuel economy, no one’s ever bought a Wrangler for its opulent interior. If anything, it feels like the Jeep has been brought into the 21st century against its will, and there’s something charming about that. The narrow touch screen seems incongruous and doesn’t seem to work as well as other Chryslers, and the acres of plastic seem like they were fitted to comply with safety standards, nothing more, nothing less. Concessions to modernity (the Sahara is a higher trim, after all) like a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel seem out of place in a truck where the doors come off and you can remove the carpet to hose out the floors. If you’re going from a Cherokee to a Wrangler, the tall front buckets, cramped back seat, and minimal cargo space may seem like a downgrade. But if you know what you’re getting into, and you understand that the plastic is durable and could survive a hosing, there isn’t much you could break and not live without, and that there’s probably a good reason why the Jeep’s interior layout hasn’t changed too much since Truman was in office, you’ll feel right at home.
Interior pros and cons:
+ Simple and well thought out; everything you need, nothing you don’t.
+ Interior feels as classic and rugged as the exterior.
+ Front bucket seats are comfortable on- and off-road.
– The rear seat is pretty cramped, and its tall headrests reduce rear visibility.
– Seating for four, luggage space for one.
– The Sahara is loads of fun, but my tester rang in at $36,960. If you’re shopping for a utility vehicle on interior alone, look elsewhere.
Tech and safety
Like the rest of the interior, the Wrangler’s tech and safety features feel decidedly last decade, if not last century. In a time when the Chevy Spark comes standard with 10 airbags, the Wrangler has two. The government gives it a three-star rollover rating (thanks to that beefy roll bar), and the IIHS gives it good to marginal ratings in crash tests. But remember, the Wrangler is a vehicle that lists “Fuel Tank Skid Plate” on its list of top safety features, so if you’re looking for a family-friendly Jeep, look to a Renegade or Cherokee.
The Wrangler occupies a unique position in the automotive world because people love it more for its lack of technology – something that’s put it at odds with increasingly strict federal safety and emissions standards. By all accounts, the 2018 Wrangler, will be a lot more, ahem, contemporary, but Jeep’s challenge won’t just be making it compliant, it’ll be keeping that rugged analog feel that 1.25 million people (and counting) bought JK Wranglers for.
Tech and Safety Pros and Cons:
+ One of best the best – and cheapest – analog driving experiences in the world.
+ Chrysler’s UConnect is so easy to navigate.
+ I wanted to give the Jeep a name, but was caught off guard by the shockingly life-like GPS voice called Michelle. By the end of the week, I think Michelle and I had a Twin Peaks-style Agent Cooper/Diane thing going. I don’t know if she feels the same way.
– Want a touch screen bigger than 6.5 inches? You’re out of luck.
– Again, it’s hard to justify that high price with what you don’t get.
– Safety ratings could be worse, but, well… don’t crash it.
Have you ever heard of the “Jeep Wave?” It’s real, and it’s fantastic. It started happening about 50 miles north of New York; sometimes it was a friendly open palm, other times it was biker-style flick of the wrist, with the thumb, index and middle finger open, like an umpire calling strike two. It was like instant access to a club, and all I had to do was drive around in this cheerful blue off-roader. Upstate, probably 80% of Wrangler drivers waved. In the city it was a lot less, but I always tried to establish friendly contact because even though I was an interloper, because, you know, it’s still a Jeep thing.
In the city, the Wrangler is tall enough to see above most traffic, and makes it easy to find where you parked. It rocks back and forth like a ship at sea over potholes, but I didn’t have enough time with my Wrangler to get sick of it. At possibly extra-legal highway speeds, the hood likes to shimmy under those iconic external release latches (which can be more than a little worrying), but it handles surprisingly well at speed, stays surefooted around corners, and the cabin never got loud enough to interrupt a conversation.
Wrap up and review
The Wrangler may have a unique place in automotive history, but it could also be one of the last mass-market models that buyers need to make compromises for. The days when economy cars and pickup trucks were torture on long trips may be long over, but the Wrangler is a throwback to when you researched and bought a vehicle to suit your lifestyle, not just flipped a coin and took home a one-size-fits-all crossover. A Wrangler certainly isn’t a crossover, but it isn’t really a modern SUV either; it’s something slightly different, maybe on a parallel evolutionary branch.
That said, over 1.2 million people over the past decade have decided that the JK Wrangler is the perfect vehicle for them, and after spending just a week with one, I can see why. It wasn’t a great city car, it wasn’t good on gas, and it didn’t ride particularly well, but I haven’t had this much fun running mundane errands in a modern car in a long time, and I’m the only one who feels that way either. A lot has changed since Enzo Ferrari made his famous declaration, but the Wrangler’s stubborn refusal to grow up has made it all the more greater. Here’s hoping that for 2018 we get more of the same.