Wrangler owners wave to each other. I had forgotten this until the first mile of driving our 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited home from the dealer. Critics have called me cynical and jaded, but I have to say, there is something heart-warming and friendly about people constantly waving at you. And since there are lots of Wranglers out there (including two owned by my Auto Test coworkers’ spouses), Jeep drivers get waved at a lot.
They wave because Wranglers are different.
Few vehicles have changed so little from their origins, let alone share a common silhouette after seven decades. The basic design is iconic, recognized around the globe. It is the rare vehicle whose manufacturer intends (maybe even expects) owners to take it apart, and even provides places to store the bolts and hardware when you pull off the roof and the doors. The carpet comes out, too, so you can hose out the interior after off-roading. For many owners, Wranglers aren’t done when they buy them from the dealer; the aftermarket is vast and wide as the terrain they were bred to travel.
But modern Wranglers are often used as everyday transportation rather than trail rats. For most buyers, they have to be a daily driver because Jeeps don’t come cheap when you start dipping into the options pool, as we were recently reminded.
We just bought a relatively well-equipped 2012 Unlimited Sahara, and it took a lot of diligent dealer searching to find one without a navigation system. Still, our Jeep stickered at $36,340, and it’s not hard to approach $40,000. Compare that price to the $30,735 for our 2007 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara test model—or what other civilized crossover SUVs are available for that coin.
Part of reason for that hefty price is that our Wrangler has features that were unimaginable in a Wrangler even four years ago. Power heated mirrors! Heated seats! iPod control and Bluetooth! Automatic climate control! Remote start! We also bought dual hard and soft tops, an automatic transmission, front side air bags, a limited-slip rear differential, and a towing package. Daresay, it is becoming downright civilized.
While Wranglers may have changed little in concept, recent years brought big changes in execution. The biggest news for 2012 is the addition of the thoroughly modern 3.6-liter V6 and a five-speed automatic. This is a huge improvement from the old 3.8-liter (best known from Chrysler minivan fame) and four-speed automatic. The heavy four-door Wrangler can now easily get out of its own way. Continual tweaks have also improved fit and finish and reduced noise.
Still, there’s no escaping some inherent problems. Access and visibility are lousy. Forget about a plush ride. Wind noise around the boxy body builds with speed. And for anyone used to driving a modern, nimble car or SUV, the Wrangler’s handling is something entirely different. All of this can easily add up to a love/hate relationship.
We’ll see how much the Wrangler has improved as we rack up more miles and thoroughly test it here at the track. Until then, wave if you see us.