The 2012 Jeep Wrangler is a game-changer because of its new powertrain that moves Jeep out of the dark ages. It's the Pentastar V6, new last year to Chrysler, named one of Ward's 10 Best Engines for 2011. The new engine makes considerably more power with slightly better fuel mileage, an EPA-estimated 17 City/21 Highway mpg. It's smaller, lighter, and more advanced than the engine it replaces.
A smooth new 5-speed automatic transmission for 2012 replaces last year's inadequate 4-speed. The transmission is well behaved and doesn't hunt for gears. It was designed for use with Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi engine, so it maintains Jeep-like industrial strength. A Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is rated to tow 3500 pounds.
The 2012 Wrangler Unlimited four-door is totally civilized, thanks partly to the smoothness of the new engine. The Pentastar block was designed to have accessories bolted to it, to reduce vibration. This pays off with a smooth and silent interior, even at 80 mph in the hardtop Wrangler. The Wrangler Unlimited corners well. The Wrangler Unlimited is built on a wheelbase that's 21 inches longer than that of the regular Wrangler.
The soft top that comes standard slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, although there's already a rollbar. The available removable hardtop comes off in 3 pieces, like T-tops and a sunroof over the rear seat. With T-tops removed, at 65 mph it beats you up; but with the top on it feels smooth at 75 and beyond.
In the popular two-door Wrangler there's very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks is filled to overflowing. But if it's just you and some stuff, the rear seat can be removed, creating a spacious 61.2 cubic feet of cargo space. Same with the four-door Unlimited, making 87 cubic feet.
Wranglers are available with all the electronic trimmings, including a $1035 Media Center with navigation and touch screen, but the screen doesn't work well with the simple rough Jeep; for starters, with the top removed, the screen is erased by the sun. It's a challenge to tune the radio by touch-screen in a bouncing Jeep.
Even with 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the Wrangler has to work hard on two-lanes. But a lack of neck-snapping acceleration must be compared to what it had before. And if it weren't an aerodynamic brick, it wouldn't be a Jeep. There are seven boxed crossmembers in the chassis adding strength but weight. The Rubicon with 5-speed automatic weighs an anvil-like 4130 pounds.
Riding a Rubicon in Oregon's Tillamook Forest, we tackled a trail that looked impossible for a vehicle off the showroom floor. Later, another Wrangler Rubicon scarcely broke a sweat on rocky trails crossing peaks in Washington's Cascades. Our passenger, a former Wrangler owner, was astonished by the comfort level.
The Wrangler is no gas-mileage champ. Running it hard, it averaged 18 mpg for us. It's EPA estimated at 17/21 mpg Wrangler and 16/20 mpg Unlimited.
The 2012 Wrangler looks like a Jeep, and when that can't be said, it's time to worry. It may be the most recognizable vehicle in the world. Even the Unlimited four-door, whether hard top or soft top looks like a Jeep. Round headlamps, 7-slot grille, wheel flares, removable doors, bolt-on fenders, fold-down windshield. Meanwhile, the Wrangler Unlimited is the only four-door 4×4 convertible on the market.
The soft top slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, although there's already a rollbar. The hardtop is $735 option; it comes off in 3 pieces, like T-tops and a sunroof over the rear seat. We spent a summer day on Jeep trails in the Northwest in a Wrangler Rubicon with all three parts removed, and it was fabulous. The body-colored hardtop is new to the Rubicon in 2012. The soft top remains the sportiest in appearance. We think the hard top is better for hunters, fishermen or other outdoorsmen, however, because it provides better security for your outdoor gear in shopping center parking lots against thieves and better security for your food in camp against bears. Can't decide or want both? The Dual Top option allows buyers to get both.
Pretty new colors for 2012 are Dozer Yellow (nice blend of Corvette Yellow and Porsche Mustard, and a favorite for pilots in search planes), Deep Molten Red, and Crush Orange (another search party favorite). Our Rubicon was Cosmos Blue, like French Racing Blue, a color that almost brings grace to the ol' Jeep. Standard colors are available for those who want to blend into the environment, whether suburban or bucolic.
The Jeep Wrangler interior was revised and dressed up for 2011. There are no significant changes inside for 2012.
We lived in a hardtop Wrangler for a week and it was all good, comfort-wise. With the top off there was a lot of wind buffeting in the back seat, but aside from that the Wrangler “is more comfortable than my Jetta,” said our passenger, riding shotgun on rocky trails for a day.
We also got seat time in a Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, roomy and comfortable, with leather, still every bit a Jeep. Good rear legroom, easy to climb in and out. The rear 60/40 seat folds or can be removed to create 87 cubic feet of cargo space, comparable to a Toyota 4Runner.
The Pentastar engine block was designed to have accessories bolted to it, to reduce vibration. This clearly pays off with a smooth and silent interior, even at 80 mph in the hardtop Wrangler.
The center console was raised to make a better armrest, although now you have to raise your elbow when using the shift lever. Gears in the 5-speed automatic can be changed manually, with side-to-side movement of the lever.
There's very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks is filled to overflowing. But if it's just you and some stuff, the rear seat can be removed, creating a spacious 61.2 cubic feet of cargo space.
Our Wrangler was equipped with $1035 Media Center option, and if you go offroad or take the top down much, you won't like it. The touch screen is invisible in the sun, and in a bouncing Jeep it's not easy to land your finger where you want it, even trying to tune the radio. A Jeep needs knobs you can grab. And for all the 6.5-inch size of the screen, with some functions only about 40 percent of the screen is used, tiny little radio words, the other 60 percent says JEEP.
The navigation system in the Media Center is fairly simple in its display. It didn't make any errors on the routes we programmed, although finding the button to enter destination was maddening. We suggest you skip the Media Center, be satisfied with six speakers in the standard sound system, and get your own GPS for navigation. It's a Jeep-like choice.
We went trail climbing in Oregon's Tillamook Forest with a Wrangler Rubicon. Look ma, no doors.
We got opportunities to gather driving impressions in a number of Wranglers, from the Unlimited in SUV-like surroundings, to the Rubicon on rock-climbing trails and the Sport on fast backroad two-lanes at night.
The Unlimited Sahara, resplendent in rich brown with dark leather, is almost astonishingly smooth and quiet, totally civilized, thanks hugely to the new engine. The 5-speed automatic is well-behaved, and doesn't hunt for gears; it uses the gear it's in. It was designed for use with Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi engine, now refined for the Pentastar, but still Jeep-like industrial strength. A Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon can tow 3500 pounds.
The Unlimited corners well, and head sway on weaving roads is light. You can only do so much with a solid axle and tall body. The gas-filled monotube rear shocks have been retuned for 2012 for a better balance between handling and ruggedness, and we like it.
The Unlimited gets more out of its 116-inch wheelbase, 10 inches more than a Nissan Xterra. The twitchy handling that lingers in the Wrangler because of its short 95-inch wheelbase is not present in the Wrangler Unlimited. The first pleasant surprise of the Unlimited: it doesn't feel like a Jeep.
With 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, it seems like the Wrangler should feel more powerful, and accelerate faster. We ran a lot of high-speed two-lane miles, and our Wrangler had to work, using momentum to pass. We've driven a Chrysler 200 convertible with this same engine, and it seemed faster. Oh well, if it weren't an aerodynamic brick, it wouldn't be a Jeep. After all, there are seven boxed crossmembers in the chassis. The Rubicon with 5-speed automatic weighs an anvil-like 4130 pounds, about 500 pounds more than the Chrysler 200 convertible.
Riding a Rubicon in Oregon's Tillamook Forest, we tackled a trail that looked impossible for an unmodified vehicle off the showroom floor. Press a button to disconnect the splined front swaybar, to allow extreme angles of articulation at the wheels. Another button locks both front and rear differential. Slip it into Low Range. You've got a final drive rear-axle ratio of 4.10 in the offroad-oriented Rubicon (3.21 or 3.73 in the Sahara or Sport), and 32-inch tires. Three skid plates protect the fuel tank, transfer case and oil pans. Ground clearance is 10.1 inches at the rear axle and 10.5 inches at the front.
In some spots the best technique is to take your feet off the throttle, and just steer. At idle in Low Range, the Rubicon powers up and over obstacles that would totally stop most vehicles; even though torque peaks up at 4800 rpm, it plugs along like a tractor. A new lower first gear for 2012 in the 5-speed automatic transmission gives the Jeep more capability, with a lower overall crawl ratio.
Our Rubicon scarcely broke a sweat over rocky trails that would turn back all but the ruggedest and hardest-climbing of vehicles. We ran support for a 50k trail run in the Columbia River Gorge, over two 3500-foot peaks in Washington's Cascades, and it was a hard 12-hour day. “In my old Jeep, I would have been in misery, dying to get out,” said our navigator. “But I could ride all day in this Jeep.”
On the highway at 70 mph the Wrangler can be a bit twitchy. Hopping out of an Unlimited as we did where the twitchiness is absent, the twitch in the short-wheelbase Wrangler is heightened. But as soon the driver adjusts, the turns and corrections come more smoothly. When the Wrangler is pointed straight and steady, it stays that way.
There's a huge difference in how stable the Wrangler feels with the top on and off. With T-tops removed, at 65 mph it beats you up; but with the top on it feels smooth at 75 and beyond.
Keep in mind that the Sport, Sahara and Rubicon models have different tires and shock absorbers, and this changes their character significantly. Our Rubicon was great at high speed, either in spite of or because of its heavy-duty tires and shocks.
The Wrangler is no gas-mileage champ. Running it hard, it averaged 18 mpg. It's EPA-estimated at 17/21 mpg Wrangler and 16/20 mpg Unlimited, City/Highway.
The 6-speed manual transmission, German-made, isn't as friendly as the 5-speed automatic, American-made. To accommodate the new V6, there's a new clutch with long travel at the pedal, sometimes awkwardly long. The throw is way long at the lever, too. However, real men don't drive Jeeps with automatics.
With a terrific new powertrain, the Wrangler has fully arrived. It's win-win with improvements to comfort, handing, power, smoothness and fuel economy, while no loss to mind-blowing off-roadability with the Rubicon. Wrangler Unlimited, the world's only four-door 4×4 convertible, delivers a smooth ride and secure handling. Soft top or hard top, nice new colors. We recommend the Unlimited for families; off-road capability is nearly the same. Singles and couples might want to go for the traditional two-door, however.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drives of several Wrangler models in the Pacific Northwest.