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First Drive: 2012 Jeep Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited [Review]

by Andrew Ganz

Jeep's worst-kept secret is finally shoehorned under the hood of the company's off road flagship.

Jeep's most enduring icon has edged closer to immortal status over the last couple of decades by making strides in two seemingly inverse categories: On-road refinement and off-road capability. But what it lacked was a strong heart, the kind of underhood motivation that would catapult it from pokey weekend toy to plausible daily driver.

Wrangler, your savior has finally arrived for 2012, bringing with it 3.6-liters, six cylinders, 285 ponies and 21 mpgs. Those are heady numbers for a brick-shaped mountain goat ready to out 'wheel any potential rival.

To find out if Wrangler's heart transplant was a success, we ventured to the Tillamook State Forest in northwestern Oregon to put 2012 models of every shape, size and color through their paces on winding mountain roads - both paved and left to nature's whims.

Formula for success
Pentastar, if you haven't been paying much attention, is the public name for Chrysler's new 3.6-liter V6 engine now available in almost every midsize or larger vehicle the company offers. We've genuinely enjoyed this powertrain in every vehicle Chrysler has found for it, especially the company's big Chrysler 300 and DodgeCharger sedans. Although it lacks direct injection, this lightweight six-cylinder cranks out solid, if somewhat peaky power and has been tuned for impressive NVH.

It replaces a 3.8-liter, 202-horsepower V6 that was ill-suited to Chrysler's old minivans, let alone the Jeep Wrangler. Always feeling like a place-holder for a more impressive motor, it didn't offer the mountain of torque of Jeep's legendary 4.0-liter inline six-cylinder (which ended production in the Wrangler in 2006) and it guzzled a lot of fuel.

Naturally, things are better on all fronts for the 2012. In addition to the aforementioned 285 horsepower at 6,400 rpm, the new V6's spec sheet reveals 260 lb-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm, improved tow ratings as high as 3,500 lbs. when properly equipped and big fuel economy gains.

A Mercedes-Benz-developed five-speed automatic leftover from the DaimlerChrysler days replaces a four-speed automatic, while the long-throw six-speed manual returns with a new clutch unit to mate to the Pentastar.

Otherwise, things mostly stay the same for both two-door Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited aside from some new colors and expanded availability of a body-color hardtop and fender flares made available on range-topping Rubicon models. All Wranglers were treated to an impressive new interior design last year that brought with it better materials and a more convenient, expressive design.

Impressively, the power upgrade doesn't really affect Wrangler's bottom line. Volume Sport models see no price changes despite the new V6, while premium Sahara and rugged Rubicon models increase around $250 depending on configuration.

Tried and true
Don't look for Wrangler to abandon its boxy look dominated by a seven-slot grille and trapezoidal fender flares any time soon. The base Sport flavor still comes standard with rugged steel wheels and unpainted flares, but other models approach luxury levels both in terms of their style and content. Jeep says that more than half of all Wranglers sold are four-door Unlimited models, where the demographic skews a little younger and a little wealthier. Designed to appeal to off roaders who want to take the whole family along, the Unlimited opened up an entirely new market for Jeep when it sprouted two extra doors in 2007: The daily driver-types.

And it was those drivers who found the outgoing 3.8-liter V6 to be positively unacceptable. Although it was sufficiently powerful for most off road situations, the 3.8 simply didn't cut it on road when it was tasked with moving the 4,000 lbs. plus box-on-wheels through an average buyer's daily slog.

It took only a few seconds behind the wheel to appreciate the Pentastar V6's added power. Combined with the far more sophisticated five-speed automatic, the new powertrain motivated the Wrangler with authority. It won't win most drag strip races with its 8.3 second 0-60 sprint times (for an Unlimited automatic, the best-selling Wrangler combination), but mid range torque is vastly improved (mainly because it finally exists).

The five-speed automatic is quick to downshift, something it has to do often since this V6 doesn't produce much grunt until around 2,000 rpm. Fortunately, good NVH tuning and new underhood insulation help quell any grumbles. As a result, we started noticing other noises inside the Wrangler's cabin - like the occasional creaks from the three-piece hard top, and a squeaky clutch in one model. Minor nitpicks at best.

We weren't quite as enthralled with the six-speed, even though it has the kind of gratifying long throws that remind drivers that they're controlling a rugged machine. Clutch travel is especially long, which throws off the steering wheel-to-seat-to-pedal geometry. But we had no problem coaxing an indicated 23-24 highway mpg from the fuel thriftiest of Wranglers, a soft top two-door. For the record, the EPA says to expect 17/21 mpg for two-doors regardless of transmission and 16/21 or 16/20 for an Unlimited manual or automatic, respectively.

Unchanged is Wrangler's ride, which is positively civilized in long-wheelbase Unlimiteds once you take into account their off road acumen. Short-wheelbase models get a little bouncy and confused over undulating terrain and all models force the kind of side-to-side head bouncing endemic to vehicles with a pair of solid axles. Make no bones about it: Wranglers, especially Unlimiteds, are perfectly tolerable vehicles for those intent on a true SUV-type experience.

Where they shine the most is off road, of course. We didn't have a chance to try the sort of higher-rpm dune-type driving where the Pentastar's extra power might come in handy, but we did sample Wrangler Rubicons on a strenuous logging trail. The new automatic's numerically lower first gear ratio gives Wrangler Rubicons a lower crawl ratio, which helps them meander over moguls with limited driver interaction.

In fact, Rubicons almost make off roading too easy with their standard electronic locking differentials (to reduce wheelspin), automatic disconnecting swaybars (for added suspension articulation) and unique 4.01:1 low range ratio (to keep revs high but vehicle speeds low).

Standard Wranglers are nearly as capable in the hands of most drivers, but Rubicons take some of the challenge out. Maybe it's a case of the good being too good?

Leftlane's bottom line
With its two most glaring faults addressed over the last two years - upgrades to the interior and engine room - the only question now is: Why isn't a 2012 Jeep Wrangler in your driveway?

Combine this newly civilized, more muscular powertrain with the greatly improved dashboard, center console and door panels that Wrangler netted last year and it is becoming difficult to find fault with Jeep's most capable - and amazingly livable - off roader.

2012 Jeep Wrangler base price range, $22,045 to $29,995
2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited base price range, $25,545 to $33,320

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz. Some photos courtesy Chrysler.