Review: Jeep 2012 Wrangler Rubicon 4x4

How do you redesign an icon?

Carefully. Very carefully.

Just ask the guy responsible for the Wrangler YJ, which replaced the beloved (but slow-selling) CJ in the late 1980s. All in all, not a bad vehicle, but it was vilified for having square, instead of round, headlights.

Small beer? Not to the hard-core Jeep fan. Jeep engineers learned the lesson, and though the current model desperately needed an upgrade--especially a more powerful but fuel-efficient engine--designers knew they couldn't change the shape or alter its iconic look in any substantial way. In other words, it had to have round headlamps, as well as the seven-slot grille, to carry on the hallowed Willys tradition.

That said, Jeep knew it would be folly to undertake an overhaul that would appeal only to the hardcore enthusiast. To meet its sales figures, the new Wrangler had to appeal to a broader base. That's because Jeep's customer research revealed three crucial items. First, the new Wrangler had to have offroad capability (duh); second, it had to show on-road refinement; third, the vehicle had to include certain "I Wants."

What does "I Want" mean? It means Jeep had to create an all-new interior that combined styling, versatility, comfort, and improved features. The short list includes: automatic temperature controls, heated seats, power mirrors and power steering; larger rear windows for greater visibility; a USB port that connects to the media center, 12-volt accessory outlets located throughout, and a 115-volt AC outlet to power select two-pronged home electronics.

But before you think the vehicle has gone too far "uptown," the Wrangler Rubicon model I drove brings it all back home with heavy-duty Dana 44 front and rear axles and the Rock-Trac NV241 two-speed transfer case with a 4:1 low-range gear ratio. The Rubicon also includes electric front and rear locking differentials, a disconnecting front sway bar, and 32-inch tires, all of which I needed when we got to the offroad trail in Oregon's Tillamook State Forest.

After a week of test drives, the trail was a rutted mess, covered with lots of small (and not-so-small) rocks and loose dirt that compromised traction. The spotter told me, "There's no use following the line the guy in front takes; it changes after every driver. So, keep your eyes glued on me."

No kidding, especially since on the first hill is so steep all you see is hood and blue sky. However, with both differentials locked and in low-range, I was able to crawl successfully to the top. And that was just the opening salvo; the rest of the trail was just as bad, but when you let the gearing and suspension do the job, it's fun. Trust me; you won't have trouble getting to deer camp or your blind in the marsh.

It's also nice to know you can plow through water as deep as 30 inches. And though the interior is noticeably more comfortable, it has pull-out washable carpets. A removable plug on the floor allows water to drain; it also lets you hose down the floor, if needed--something anyone who hunts in mud can appreciate.

And though the Wrangler definitely delivers a more comfortable ride on pavement, by sticking to its roots and staying with solid axles, which allow for greater suspension articulation when offroad, the Wrangler truly does seem to be at home on pavement and in the woods.

Jeep's customer research also revealed that Wrangler owners wanted a more powerful engine. The proviso? It had to be fuel efficient as well.

To do this engineers stuffed a more powerful 3.6-liter V6 under the hood, after figuring out how to re-route the exhaust pipes to reduce back pressure. Doing so lets the engine breathe more efficiently and that means more power without additional fuel consumption. As a result, the new engine is capable of 285 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque. The second half of the equation is the transmission. The base transmission is a five-speed manual, but the new 5-speed automatic is the real story.

The idea was to provide enough gearing for a smooth highway ride (no gear-hunting) without compromising offroad ability. It does both. One of the problems with the old automatic was that when you needed a robust start to get into traffic, it took an eternity to get up steam. No more. At one highway entrance--a steep hill--I waited until I saw an oncoming car and darted in front of it. When I pushed the accelerator down all the way, the Wrangler literally jumped ahead, like a 100-meter sprinter roaring out of the blocks. And this new engine-transmission combination will deliver improved fuel economy as well. Jeep figures the 4x4 will get about 16 miles per gallon in town and 20 on the highway. That works out to what you may feel is an all-too-modest gain of 2 mpg (in the two-door models), but these days any gain is good, especially if you're also getting better performance in the bargain.

Jeep says the price for a base-level two-door Wrangler will be $22,045; four-door Unlimited models will start at $22,545. As always what you pay will depend on how many options you select. Be warned, there's a book full of those Big Os. But, clearly, choice is what the Jeep buyer wants these days.