Taming America's sport utility vehicles and turning them into new-day minivans for mainstream buyers took a toll on most classic SUVs. But the iconic Jeep Wrangler escaped the trend.
Today, the Wrangler _ with new, more powerful engine and a five-speed automatic transmission added for 2012 _ stands out in the wilderness and the marketplace.
With rugged styling derived from Jeep's World War II heritage, the immensely off-road-capable Wrangler has posted a 28 percent increase in U.S. sales this year. Sales are up over 100,000 and top those of some other SUVs _ off-road ready or not _ like the Toyota FJ Cruiser, 4Runner and Highlander.
The Wrangler is the only mass-produced SUV with removable doors. The roof, which can be soft top or hardtop, can come off, too, for close-to-nature travel. And, the 2012 Wrangler comes only with four-wheel drive. No two-wheel drive is offered.
With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,845, the 2012 Wrangler arguably packs the most off-road SUV capability for the price. The starting price is for a base, 2012 Wrangler Sport 4X4 with 285-horsepower V-6 and six-speed manual transmission.
In comparison, Hyundai's lowest-priced SUV, the Tucson, has a starting retail price of $23,845 for a more on-road-inclined, all-wheel drive model that has 165-horsepower four-cylinder engine. All-wheel drive Tucsons come only with automatic transmissions. The 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser starts at $27,930 with 260-horsepower V-6, four-wheel drive and manual transmission.
Time was when the jaunty ride of a Jeep was part of the unique experience of these vehicles, when people expected and even relished the ride as a memorable treat not to be missed.
Too many auto critics spending too much time in today's soft-riding SUVs have led to complaints about the Wrangler's ride, which, because of the vehicle's short wheelbase of 95.4 inches, can feel a bit choppy, especially over highway segments with prominent concrete expansion cracks. There can be a tippy sensation, too, in turns because of the vehicle's high center of gravity.
But anyone who dislikes a numbing ride and who believes in really piloting an SUV, rather than merely going along for an insulated, sublime ride, will find the Wrangler, especially in Rubicon dress, a satisfying, one-of-a-kind experience.
With the new 3.6-liter, double overhead cam, Pentastar V-6, the test 2012 Wrangler Rubicon had ample power to merge, pass and amble easily with other traffic on roadways. It's a major difference from the previous Wranglers that seemed to strain to deliver sufficient power for on-road travel.
The new engine, by the way, delivers a significant 83 more horsepower than last year's 3.8-liter V-6, is the same one used in the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee and is winning lots of praise from Wrangler enthusiasts.
The test Wrangler Rubicon responded readily when I pressed the accelerator, and while not ripping forward in sport car fashion, the 4,100-pound vehicle felt all-around sprightly. Zero-to-60 mph time has improved to 8.3 seconds.
Torque peaks at 260 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm, which is 10 foot-pounds more than last year.
While a six-speed manual still is the base Wrangler transmission, Jeep officials upgraded the automatic for 2012. It's now the five-speed from the Grand Cherokee and makes more efficient use of engine power and gasoline. I liked how well timed the shifts were and how smoothly they occurred in the test Wrangler.
Also, with lower first gear ratio than last year's four-speed auto, the new automatic provides a lower overall crawl ratio for off-roading.
Fuel mileage is increased, officially, to 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway from last year's 15/19 mpg. During the test Wrangler with gusto, I averaged just 16 mpg in combined city/highway travel.
Fillups can be pricey, requiring some $65 to load the 18.6-gallon tank with unleaded regular. The gas tank warning light came on in the test Wrangler well before I had traveled 300 miles.
There's no quiet ride in the Wrangler. Even with the hardtop on, I readily heard nearby vehicles, and road noise from the off-road-ready tires was present all the time.
No adults were eager to climb into the back two seats of the test, two-door Wrangler.
For one thing, they had to lift themselves up off the pavement while squeezing past the front seats, which is not easy to do. Some groused about no running boards, but that would be nearly blasphemous for a perfectly good Wrangler Rubicon.
Once settled in back, passengers found their knees resting upward because the bench seat cushion was positioned near the floor. At least they had good headroom _ a full 40.3 inches, which is just 1 inch shy of what front-seat passengers have. Legroom in the rear seat is 35.6 inches but it can expand to 37.2 inches in the Wrangler Unlimited, which is the larger Wrangler model with four doors, not the typical two.
Overall, the Wrangler is a quirky vehicle that is loved for its authenticity and its quirks, such as the soft and hard tops that can be difficult to remove and put back on, with many steps and sometimes frustrating instructions.
The Wrangler windshield is one of the few that sits so upright that it doesn't take a lot of travel in summer before bug "splats" make cleaning a necessity.
Seats, even the optional leather-trimmed in the test Wrangler, aren't form-fitting, but they give good views out above traffic and off-road obstacles.
And the little turning circle of 34.9 feet provides for amazing agility on- and off-road.
Consumer Reports predicts Wrangler reliability to be average.