If you want to talk about the classic, go-anywhere, do-anything American off-roader, the only vehicle to discuss is the Jeep Wrangler. Since World War II, it’s been an American icon, and unlike many American icons, it actually does exactly what it’s supposed to do—like rock climbing on the Rubicon Trail—very well. Roads, dirt roads, or no roads, the Wrangler will still take you there.
But, what if your daily commute does not consist of climbing goat trails in the mountains or fording green, jungle streams? What if you just want to drive a Jeep Wrangler as, you know, a car? What it is like to live with on a daily commuting basis, as opposed to weaving between trees in the trackless forest?
How it looks
Well, it looks pretty much like it always has. Except for the period in 1986-1995 when the lunatics at Chrysler renamed the Jeep CJ the Wrangler and put square headlights on it, it has always looked pretty much as it does today. The classic Jeep styling is essentially unchanged from when Grandpa took one to Paris to look for hookers on R&R from shooting Nazis. If you could magically transport a GI from 1943 and plonk him in front of a 2013 Wrangler, he’d recognize it instantly, though he would be disappointed that it doesn’t fly. Come to think of it, I am, too. I’m pretty sure were promised flying cars by now.
In stock trim, the Wrangler is remarkable for just how true it still remains to the look of the original Willys MB jeep of World War II. Except for Harley-Davidson motorcycles since the 1970s, I can think of no other product that has maintained such consistent styling over time. With the exception of adding doors and having seven vertical slots in the grill instead of nine—to symbolize Jeep’s use on all seven continents—the base Willys MB/Jeep/CJ/Wrangler has looked basically the same for 70 years.
So, I’ll assume you’re familiar with it.
Of course, one of the nice things about the Wrangler is that you can radically alter how it looks. The Wrangler-owning community is pretty maniacal about customization, and there’s huge aftermarket support for just about every imaginable component. The doors and roof are removable. So are the seats. How it looks when you buy it, in fact, may be quite different to how it looks after you’ve owned it for a while. Though, it will, of course, still be perfectly recognizable as a Jeep.
Inside, the Jeep is a bit more modern, though still rather austere in Sport trim, with its $22,395 MSRP. It’s all hard plastic surfaces and cloth seats. There’s no sat-nav or touch-screen. The doors lock by pressing a mechanical lever, and there’s a crank to raise and lower the side windows, like it’s 1975. Still, there’s USB connectivity to the stereo, which also has CD/DVD/MP3 capability. There are audio controls on the tilting and optionally leather-wrapped steering wheel. There’s voice control and Bluetooth connectivity for your smartphone, as well as cruise control.
It’s roomy enough, both front and back, though the front seats seem claustrophobically close to the vertical dashboard by modern design standards. Headroom isn’t a problem either, but if it is, you can eliminate it by removing the soft top. Or the hard top, for that matter. Getting into the back seats aren’t a huge ordeal, either, as the front seats slide well-forward to allow ingress and egress. That’s a lot easier with the top off, too. Behind the rear seat, there’s just enough storage space for some gear, groceries, or a moderately-sized dog. Take out the rear seats, and there’s a lot more.
It’s not actually nice inside, but it’s not horrible. You can live with it. And, to be fair, there are higher-spec versions of the Wrangler that actually are nice inside, though they add up to $9,000 to the Wrangler’s price.
How it drives
First of all, let’s dispense with the 4x4 stuff. If you ever need or want to use it, it’s great. It’s got a shift-on-the-fly system to switch between 2-wheel drive, 4-wheel high, and 4-wheel low. It’s got a Dana axle in the rear. For 4x4 work, it’s the business. Nobody doubts that, so we don’t have to belabor it.
In 2-wheel drive, the Wrangler is a Rear Wheel Drive vehicle, which is a plus. It’s also a very short-wheelbase vehicle, which affects the driving dynamics noticeably. First off, the Wrangler tends to want to wander around a bit, requiring you to keep a bit of a firmer hand on steering it. The ride is also affected, being a bit harsher.
Actually, the ride is a bit harsh because it’s set up to take off road at the drop of a hat, with a stiff suspension and lots of suspension travel. Imperfections in the road surface make themselves known, and that gets a bit tiring after a while. As does the noise, since the soft-top version doesn’t isolate you very well from wind and road noise. OK, let’s face it: the ride is horrible. Even if you aren’t driving down a dirt track, you might as well be, for all the bouncing and bumping you’re going to do.
The steering is…OK. It’s a bit numb for driving on surface streets, though the short wheelbase makes the Wrangler very maneuverable, and quick to respond to driver inputs. Braking is just OK, too, as the Wrangler takes 140 feet or so to come to a stop from 60 MPH, even with ABS. Did I mention it’s heavy? Well, it is, and physics is still a thing.
The 3.6L Pentastar V-6 that powers the 2013 Wrangler puts out 285 HP and 260 torques, which seems pretty sporty. Then you realize that the Wrangler is built out of lots of very heavy metal bits, and weighs 3,900 lbs. Oh, and the front of the vehicle is composed entirely of flat, vertical surfaces. So, while it’s not an underpowered slowpoke, a lot of that 285 HP is devoted to hauling around a lot of weight while simultaneously pushing a lot of air out of its way. But the powertrain is far better and more powerful than the pre-2012 Wranglers, giving you 20% more power and 10% more torque than the previous generation’s 3.8L V-6 lump could manage.
You can expect a 0-60 time somewhere in about 8.5 seconds, which is 0.5 seconds faster than my ‘86 Alfa Romeo Spider could manage, so, passing power on the freeway won’t be a problem. Also, the new engine, with its lower back pressure exhaust, will tempt you into buying an aftermarket forced-induction system that will give you enough power to promptly kill yourself when you touch the accelerator. On the plus side it will make for quite a dramatic entrance into Heaven as you pass through the pearly gates backwards, in a ball of fire. Angels will talk about it for millenia.
You may also go to Heaven quite quickly from a side impact, too. The removable doors are quite convenient, but they’re about as protective in a sideways crash as a small umbrella. So if you want to get out a wrench and remove the side doors, then, seriously, don’t let safety concerns stop you.
There’s also the matter of fuel economy. There’s very little good news here, with the Wrangler’s 17 MPG city/21 MPG highway rating. A Dodge Charger SRT8 gets 23 MPG on the highway, going about 100 MPH faster, for cripe’s sake. So, there won’t be any penny-pinching when it comes to fuel costs.
What’s good about it
It’s a great off-road vehicle. The 3.6L Pentastar engine is pretty good. There are a lot of customization options. It’s got a great 4-wheel drive system. It’s reasonably roomy inside.
What’s bad about it
Warriors from ancient Sparta would complain about the ride quality. The only people who’ll like the gas mileage are the Saudi royal family. The short wheelbase gives it some directional stability challenges. The interior has very much of a budget feel.
You can spend the equivalent of half a house to get a Range Rover, and you won’t really improve on the off-road capability of a Wrangler Sport. You’ll just be safer, and infinitely more comfortable. And faster. With lots more room. And better gas mileage. Basically, except for pure off-road capability, the Range Rover will be massively better than the Wrangler in every possible way. So, maybe that’s not the best comparison.
Let’s try again, then.
If you want an extremely capable off-road vehicle, the Wrangler is hard to beat. But, all of the things that make the Wrangler so great off-road ruin it as a daily driver. Dealing with it on a daily basis, with the bad ride, noise, and constant steering correction is just tiring. As soon as it touches pavement, the Wrangler Sport becomes seriously not fun.
So, here’s what you do. Buy a Wrangler Sport to go off-roading on the weekend. Spend another $1500 on a mid-90s, V-8 powered, Ford Thunderbird LX to drive during the week. Your gas mileage won’t be any better, but you’ll be lots more comfortable, and you can hoon around in it like nobody’s business on Monday through Friday. Then, on the weekend, you can take the Wrangler up and down trails where mountain goats watch you and say, “No way I’m trying that, Man.”