Driven: 2012 Jeep Wrangler

By Brandon Turkus

August 25, 2011

—Portland, Oregon
If we had to hand out an all-star award for best brand to come out of the Chrysler bankruptcy, it would more than likely go to Jeep. The venerable off-road brand went from having a portfolio of lackluster vehicles (SRT8 being a notable exception), with shoddy interiors a few years back to being the darling of the Chrysler universe. First, it was the debut of the all-new and drastically improved Grand Cherokee. Then the Liberty and Wrangler received new, upscale interiors. Most recently, Jeep debuted the second-generation Compass, which is a dramatically better vehicle than the one it replaces.
Now, the Italian-American venture’s attention has turned back to the Wrangler, and the heart of the Jeep brand. While the new interior was a huge improvement over the plastic palace of the 2010 model, the 2011 Wrangler was still (un)motivated by an anemic 3.8-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic.
Thankfully, that’s been addressed for 2012, with the addition of the Grand Cherokee’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 and five-speed automatic. The Wrangler is also the first of Chrysler’s vehicles to offer a Pentastar with a manual transmission. To find out just how much these powertrain changes benefitted our favorite droptop off-roader, we shipped out to Portland, Oregon and the Tillamook State Forest to sample the Wrangler both on and off road.
Our first trip out would be behind the wheel of a manual-transmission Wrangler, on the freeways exiting Portland. Traditionally, the Wrangler has struggled in a freeway setting. Passing power just wasn’t there, forcing drivers to rev the old 3.8 wildly in an attempt to create some forward motion. That simply wasn’t the case with our Pentastar-equipped Jeep. With the exception of a very tall sixth gear, we had no problem conjuring up the speed to cut through traffic. Even when run up to redline, the Jeep felt strong and able, which was something we never really experienced with the old engine.
Before too long, we’d departed the freeway and hit a stretch of two-lane that wound through the countryside, allowing us to experiment with the manual-trans-equipped Pentastar. Simply put, it was great. The clutch has a nice, easy-to-adjust-to action, making the entire transmission setup one that you want to keep shifting around in. The gearbox features longish throws that take a little while to get used to, and a bit of strong-arming is necessary to get the shifter into the right gates. Once you realize that you can’t always play nice with the Wrangler, though, the whole thing comes together quite well.
Once we settled down, we mainly stuck to third gear for the twisty stuff. This allowed us to keep the engine below its 4800-rpm torque peak, allowing surprisingly brisk acceleration out of turns. The torque curve felt broad and linear, allowing us to really wind out the Pentastar to its 6600-rpm redline.
The two-lane roads also revealed that the Wrangler isn’t a half-bad dancer. The thing that surprised us was how easy it was to lace turns together in a 3800-pound off-roader. The linear steering had a nice bit of weight behind it, making it easy to modulate the Jeep’s direction through the turn, and the 11.9-inch-front and 12.4-inch-rear rotors delivered a surprising amount of brake force. There was quite a bit of body roll as well as considerable movement front and rear, but considering that it’s designed to absorb bumps the size of Fiat 500s, it performed admirably on the twisting mountain roads. Overcook it into a turn and it will immediately resort to understeer, which is to be expected.
At a rest stop, we managed to finagle our way into a Wrangler Unlimited Sport S and sample the five-speed automatic. This is the same transmission that’s found in the Grand Cherokee, and while we weren’t crazy about it in that application, it somehow felt more suited to the Wrangler. Part of that feeling has to do with the fact that this five-speed is replacing the maligned four-speed automatic that has been Jeep’s go-to auto for years. This new transmission is faster and better tuned, knowing the right time to hold a gear, and when to downshift for a little reinforcement. We still aren’t crazy about the left-to-right manual mode, which feels unnatural, but it did an adequate job. The manual mode was also willing to hold our selected gear, making it valuable in an off-road situation.
After lunch, we took advantage of the off-road course that Jeep had set up for us. We were surprised to learn that the all-wheel-drive systems of the Wrangler family were carried over from last year, with the exception of new 3.23, 3.73, and 4.10 gear ratios being added.
While the on-road Jeep’s we drove all featured the shift-on-the-fly Command-Trac two-speed transfer case, we’d be stepping up to the top-dog Rubicon to tackle the off-road course. Equipped with Jeep’s Rock-Trac two-speed transfer case, the Rubicon featured an excellent 4:1 low-range gear, as well as locking front and rear differentials. For the ultimate in factory articulation, the Rubicon also comes standard with an electronic sway-bar disconnect feature. This disconnects the front sway bars, allowing the front wheels a greater range of articulation, meaning better contact with the trail.
The course featured a steep incline (seriously, we could see more sky than ground out of the windshield), as well as large boulders, deep depressions, and sharp pieces of shale. We were handed the keys to a Wrangler Rubicon sans roof and doors, and let loose. After slotting our Rubicon into low-range, locking both front and rear diffs, and disconnecting the front sway bar, we began our ascent. The course featured a few sections that would generate cross-articulation, and by disconnecting the front sway bar, we could actually lean out of the Jeep (a benefit of not having doors) and see the amount of articulation on the front suspension. As we climbed, the trail became even tougher, with small rocks limiting our grip. Through it all, the Rubicon kept going, unphased by the terrain. The course itself was disappointingly short, and before long, we were making our descent back to the lunch site.
We dropped the top of our Wrangler for the ride home, enjoying the unusually sunny northwestern day. On this longer and straighter freeway run, the Jeep proved surprisingly stable, even with stiff crosswinds and the occasional bump or pothole. It was certainly a far cry from the Jeeps of a few years back, which often felt unsettled at high speeds.
We were pleased to here that, despite all the improvements, price increases for 2012 were kept to a minimum. In fact, the base Wrangler Sport, Sport S, Sport Unlimited, and Sport S Unlimited retain their 2011 prices ($22,045, $24,245, $25,545, and $27,745 respectively). Sahara and Rubicon two-door buyers will see $225 and $175 increases, while Sahara Unlimited and Rubicon Unlimited jump $300 and $350.
Jeep sold a record 14,355 Wranglers in June, and expects to smash another record with August sales, with the possibility of a new yearly record becoming more and more likely. And those numbers were with the old powertrain. With the release of the Pentastar-equipped Wrangler this fall, we expect things to only get better for the Jeep brand.
VS: Toyota FJ Cruiser
Boasting more horsepower (285 versus 260) and a 510-pound weight advantage (4295 pounds for a four-wheel-drive FJ automatic compared to 3785 pounds for a Wrangler Sport automatic), the Jeep is clearly the faster vehicle, despite the FJ having 11 more pound-feet of torque (271 pound-feet versus 260 in the Jeep). It should be noted, though, that those weight numbers are for a two-door Wrangler, not the four-door Unlimited, which doesn’t have curb weights available at present.
Besides being heavier, the FJ Cruiser lacks the off-road gear. While it does feature all-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case, you’ll be looking at paying $31,770 to get an FJ with a locking rear differential, which is right in between the prices for the two-door and four-door Rubicons. The Toyota can only be had with a rear locker, while the Rubicon offers both front and rear locking diffs. True, the Sport and Sahara models don’t offer locking diffs either, but there is an option for a limited-slip differential, which would still aid greatly off road. The FJ’s low range also isn’t as effective as anything in the Jeep range. With a 2.56:1 low-range ratio, the FJ lacks the traction of the 2.73:1-equipped Sport and Sahara, let alone the 4:1-equipped Rubicon.
The FJ is also more expensive than the Wrangler. With a base 4x2 starting at $26,600, it’ll cost you $27,780 to get into a four-wheel-drive model. At the same time, the Wrangler offers all-wheel drive standard across its lineup, even on the base, $25,545 Sport Unlimited model. The FJ also forces you into an automatic transmission in order to add on any options. That means you need an automatic to get things like cruise control, keyless entry, and power mirrors (all of which are standard on the base Wrangler).
VS: Nissan XTerra
It’s sad to say that the small, off-road oriented SUV is a dying breed, as the segment seems to only be contested by the Wrangler and FJ Cruiser. To find another suitable rival to the Jeep’s blend of power, affordability, and off-road capability, we need to move up to the mid-size SUVs.
Comparing the XTerra and the Wrangler is a wee bit of a stretch, but considering the pricing and off-road orientation of both vehicles, we can’t really ignore the Nissan. We acknowledge that the Nissan is (a lot) heavier, with even the lowliest 4x2 weighing in at 4143 pounds (14 pounds heavier than a Wrangler Rubicon with the five-speed automatic). Like the FJ, the XTerra boasts a horsepower deficit and a torque advantage. With 261 horsepower and 281 pound-feet of torque compared to 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the Nissan has a considerable amount of extra pull off the line. Again, though, its weight plays against it.
In terms of equipment, we’ll be looking at the base four-wheel-drive XTerra X. With a base price of $26,310, the XTerra is about $1400 cheaper than the volume Wrangler Unlimited Sport S. As was the case with the FJ Cruiser though, the Jeep delivers a wealth of standard equipment that the Nissan can’t match. Hill descent control and steering-wheel audio controls are both standard features on all automatic Wranglers, but aren’t available on anything but the top-end Pro-4X XTerra.
Like the FJ, you need to spend some money to get off-road equipment. You can get a two-speed transfer case (with only a 2.63:1 low-range gear ratio) on the XTerra, but you’ll need to pony up for the top-spec Pro-4X to get a locking rear differential. And like the FJ, there is no choice to get a front locker. While both the FJ and the XTerra have some off-road chops, neither offers the level of equipment or capability built in to the Wrangler.
2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport S
Engine: V-6, 3.6 liters, 24v
Output: 285 hp/260 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 7.7 sec
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 16/21 mpg
Base Price: $24,245
On Sale: Fall 2011