I must confess, the allure of the Jeep Wrangler has long issued a well-targeted Siren call, tugging at my adventurous spirit. Through the years, I have looked forward to each new generation, hoping it would be the one to hit the right balance of civility and off-road acumen that could coax me into trading in more rational transportation for this American icon. Our latest test has been completed, and I haven't given in to temptation yet.
I recall test driving the rectangular-headlamped YJ Wrangler some 20 years ago. With its low-mounted gauges, agricultural powertrain, and mail-truck dynamics, the 1987-1996 YJ simply didn't live up to its advertised promise. Then came a return to round lamps with the TJ (1997-2006).
The TJ was a significant leap forward, with a more conventional dashboard and better-finished interior. The powertrain was still gruff, thirsty, and generally ill mannered. It could make short work of trails, as experienced on numerous occasions throughout Western deserts. But the trek to the trails, and more significantly the tasking daily commute in the war-born beast, just didn't keep pace with the quickly developing SUV segment.
Like a torrid love affair, my heart would grow fonder after time away, but repeated experiences had me always holding off on commitment.
Then came the current JK: A bigger, far-better-finished model launched for 2007 with more power and driving refinement. The first example of this generation we tested more than tripled the road test score of the previous model, though admittedly the score went from a mere 5 points to 17 points. Statistically significant, though around a quarter the points needed to meet the threshold to be recommended. The JK was further updated for 2011, with a new interior, followed in 2012 with a new V6 engine. Our recent Wrangler Unlimited test shows it edged up in points, but it still hasn't caught up with my evolving expectations.
Getting behind the wheel of our latest Wrangler Unlimited, earlier this month, brought an instant smile. I love off-roading. I am as pro-American as the next guy, and my family's Jeep lore includes tales of my father and his father driving Jeeps in the military. Had this been a dealership test drive, especially around my local Jeep-filled town (I have a showroom within a mile of my house), I could have been reaching for the checkbook.
But living with it, I hate to say, the Wrangler still falls short. I can't budget a new plaything, so any vehicle has to meet daily use expectations. And I'm sad to say, the Wrangler again doesn't cut it.
The Wrangler is getting close. After all, sales show that it is spot on for a large number of people. But, its appeal could improve with a few significant refinements, and even more so with a redesign for the next generation, reportedly being developed with Fiat.
Steering and on-road handling are behind the times, as detailed in our road tests. Somehow the bouncy ride needs taming. Other things cropped up when driving with family...
Removable doors are cool, but I never see a current Wrangler with them removed. Leave this ability to just the Rubicon off-road king, and give proper door detents to the other trims, so kids (big and small) don't fling the unhindered doors open into adjacent parked cars.
I love the removable Freedom Top roof panels. Taking off the soft-tops have always been a thankless chore to contend with, especially as they age, stretch, and fray. Give me a hard top with the removable panels for fresh air, but how about insulating them and the entire top to reduce the wind-noise resonance that drowns conversation and rational thought?
And finally, a simple back-up camera would compensate for the limited rearward visibility, compromised by the tire, center brake light, and rear wiper motor. It would aid in securing a trailer hitch, as well as improve safety. Even better, offer a front camera to assist with off-roading. It could be actuated when the transmission is put into low gear, giving a helpful view ahead for proper tire placement on craggy trails.
By the time the next Wrangler appears, fuel economy will likely be an even greater concern than it is now. Given how reluctant some of us have been to log many miles on the Wrangler at 17 mpg overall, Jeep may have a real challenge ahead. Split the difference on vehicle size between TJ and JK, offer a small-displacement diesel, and tend to aerodynamics, and a few refinements to make it better-suited to the real paved world, and perhaps the next one will be the Jeep that gets me to commit.