A freak snowstorm frosted over the Northeast in October when I was testing the 2012-model Jeep Wrangler. Fortunate, since I was heading into Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains, where snow was falling hard.
As I turned onto a rutted dirt road in the late afternoon, tree boughs were hanging heavy with the white stuff. The forest was beautiful, but the road was a mess.
I slipped the $28,770, two-door Sahara model into four-wheel drive and easily plowed through. Nothing like big knobby tires and plenty of ground clearance to joust with mother nature.
The word iconic gets thrown around way too often, but in the case of the Jeep it qualifies. With roots that stem from the World War II runabout, you’ll find generations of the vehicle still on the road.
Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari famously called the Jeep America’s only true sports car. That’s not entirely the case, but it’s not wrong-headed either. Its boxy shape is virtually imprinted with a go-West-and-find-adventure spirit. That undiluted design is deeply desirable.
The brand is owned by the Chrysler Group. As Chrysler’s fortunes slid in the last few years, so too suffered the Wrangler. Lack of innovation left it with an inefficient, underpowered engine and creaky transmission. While the interiors were never luxurious, the latest generations just felt cheap.
Chrysler has been sprucing up all its models, and the 2012 Wrangler’s makeover is a good one. They left alone the exterior -- don’t mess with a classic -- and focused on the powertrain.
The former asthmatic 3.8-liter V-6 was ousted in favor of an all-new, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, also found on the latest Grand Cherokee. Despite a smaller displacement, it has more than 80 extra horsepower and 20-plus pound-feet of torque, bringing it to 285 and 260 respectively. Better if not great.
Buyers who want an automatic transmission will now get a five-speed rather than a four-speed. That’s about as cutting-edge as FM radio, but it’s also an incremental step toward modernity. Both the automatic Wrangler and the standard six-speed manual get 17 mpg city, 21 highway.
Several weeks after playing in the snow -- the Wrangler looks best when dirty -- I tested the four-door model on the same roads. This longer, pricier Jeep is called the Wrangler Unlimited.
The four-door looks and drives like a much bigger vehicle than the regular Wrangler. Little wonder that the extra room entices many buyers. You can fit five passengers plus gear. With wide flared fenders, however, it can be a beast to navigate into garages or tight parking spaces.
The Unlimited Rubicon is the top of the range, starting at $34,370. My test model had an automatic transmission and came to $37,900 with add-ons. For that price, you’d better be serious about your off-roading. Otherwise, a lesser Wrangler should suffice.
Available with either a removable hard or soft top, the Unlimited is the only four-door convertible on the market. (A good trivia question.)
Heavy-duty axles are able to take a beating from the roughest roads and the standard electronic locking front and rear differentials enable the vehicle to navigate through heavy snow or thick sand.
No matter how much of a dirt-rock-and-snow hound you might be, at some point you’ll be driving on asphalt. And all those throwback 4X4 elements like the body-on-frame design and live axles take a toll on smoothness and stability when you’re doing 65 mph on the freeway.
Nonetheless, I found both the two- and four-door models to be surprisingly forgiving on three-hour highway drives. Road noise was significant but tolerable, and it tracked down the road confidently. I liked the steering.
Drive older models with oversized tires and you feel like you’re going to tip over every time you turn. While I wouldn’t care to do a sudden evasive maneuver at high speed, this generation feels stable even when quickly changing lanes.
But if you expect a high level of refinement, think again.
The automatic transmission pushes through the gears with the subtlety of a dive-bar bouncer. Charge up a hill and the ensuing downshift is abrupt, with a corresponding rise in engine noise.
That’s okay, though. While a lot of customers buy a Wrangler for the attitude and tough looks (and probably live to regret it), many others really do rely on its go-anywhere ability, as evidenced by my trip through the woods. You’ll see plenty of aging Wranglers in snow country with plows attached.
And the latest interior is far easier to live with. It was updated for the 2011 model year, and includes options like touch-screen navigation system, automatic temperature controls, and heated seats. Those who want their vehicle a whole lot fancier should look at other SUVs like the Grand Cherokee or Ford Explorer.
No, the new Wrangler isn’t perfect. You may have to wait for the next generation for more power, more gears and better gas mileage. But the most glaring foibles have been worked out and its pure design remains undiluted. Enzo would have approved.
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sahara and Unlimited Rubicon at a Glance
Engines: 3.6-liter V-6 with 285 horsepower and 260 pound-
feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or five-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 17 city, 21 highway (automatic
Wrangler), 16, 20 (automatic Unlimited).
Price as tested: $33,480; $37,900.
Best features: That design; goes anywhere.
Worst feature: Gas mileage.
Target buyer: The mountain climber and snow driver.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)