On The Road Review: Jeep Wrangler Sahara

“Hey, that’s a cute pumpkin you’re driving.”

“Is that the new Home Depot Jeep?”

“Great looking car for going hunting!”

While the ‘cheap’ comments were never in short supply during the new Orange ‘Crush’ painted 2012 Jeep Wrangler’s visit, no one can argue with this defining statement: this is the best Wrangler ever, period.

Paint colors are frequently a personal choice, especially since the industry is very prone to making a lot of silver, white and black vehicles today. Given that the Jeep is a ‘statement’ kind of vehicle — about your lifestyle, what you like to do, or, what you would really like to be doing — wild, expressive colors should not be unexpected. Jeep senses that enthusiasm and has added Dozer, another brilliant orangey/yellow paint plus an effervescent Cosmo Blue, to its current arsenal of Wrangler colors. Don’t let it be said that you can’t find this baby in the shopping center parking lot.

Jeep also has extended its lineup of trim levels with the latest Wrangler, rising from the base level Sport ($22,845 with destination fee) through Sport S, Sahara (shown, starting at $27,970) to Rubicon ($29,995), Arctic, and on to the new limited edition COD-MW3 (Call of Duty) available in all-black or all-silver starting at a majestic $36,880 before options. Of course, four-door models in each trim have higher retails.

As the Jeep purists will revel in the new colors, new trims and new features — and plenty of people are becoming Jeep loyalists, as Wrangler sales are up 28 percent so far in 2011 with total Jeep sales up 44 percent and leading Chrysler’s resurgence — it is the subtle styling enhancements and dynamic performance improvements that are making such convincing arguments for buying a new Wrangler.

What immediately catches the eye here is the color-matched hard-top on the Wrangler as well as the color-matched fenders. These two changes, the painted removable hard-top roof alone adds $1,715 to the sticker price versus a plain black soft-top, give the Wrangler a decidedly upscale profile that better matches the premium off-roaders in the segment.

Ominously for the segment — but not for Jeep — there are few rivals left to compete with; realistically, the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Nissan Xterra are closest price wise, while Land Rover and Mercedes still field performance matching trucks like the Wrangler, but for double the price. Since the fall of Hummer, Jeep owns this niche portion of the industry.

We’ve previously documented the refinement taking place inside the Wrangler, as well as other Jeep products. These changes are serious improvements that include greatly enhanced tactile feel of all controls, softer surfaces that affect your arms, legs and hands, plus a wider array of travel-improving features such as DVD-music and video storage in the audio system, stronger performing audio systems with greater control access, as well as easy-to-use Garmin navigation systems. Add more sound insulation, better seals around the doors, heated power mirrors and terrific seat heaters for the supportive cloth perches and the Jeep has become a more well-rounded commuter car too — the role that it primarily performs Monday through Friday.

In that capacity, as well as off-road, the new Wrangler is measurably better due to one long overdue change — there now rests under the hood a serious propulsion system that makes road travel more relaxed, while off-road torque is ample enough to make short work of your rock-crawling exercises.

Like the new Grand Cherokee, as well as several other Chrysler products, the Wrangler gets the new corporate 3.6-liter V-6 engine. The new engine makes 285 hp in this application, plus 260 pound/feet of peak torque — a vast improvement over the previous 3.8-liter V-6 that produced a modest 202 hp and 237 pound/feet of peak torque. You also get the same five-speed automatic ($1,125) as the Grand Cherokee, or, the only six-speed manual transmission application currently applied to this engine. Jeep claims that there is a new clutch along with the new engine, but I don’t recall any issues with the previous setup, so the engineers must have thought the stronger engine needed a stronger clutch package.

Try these numbers on; the new Wrangler has 40 percent more horsepower, it is 26 percent faster 0-60-mph, plus fuel economy is up 10 percent despite the additional power. In every scenario imagined, the newfound power is welcome. Passing moves are now possible on rural two-lanes, long grades are no longer a challenge, plus highway travel is vastly more relaxing as the improved NVH, noise, vibration, and harshness qualities of the new motor, readily relegate the previous engine to the scrap heap. You no longer wonder if some old John Deere relic inhabits the engine room — that’s how much smoother and quieter the new Wrangler is.

My real world economy proved that the new engine is also more frugal. In a brand new Wrangler with barely 1,500 miles on the clock I got 20.3 mpg, 20.3 mpg and 20.0 mpg, which included off-roading. Nothing if not consistent, eh? EPA estimates are 16/20-mpg for the automatic and 17/21-mpg for the manual transmission, so I think the Jeep did pretty well.

You Jeep purists can relax. While it might seem that Chrysler has sanded all of the rough edges off from this distinctive American icon, the Wrangler retains many of the characteristics that are so endearing — and challenging — to so many drivers.

The Wrangler wears new gas shocks to help stability, yet the Jeep’s ungainly dimensions — 152.8 inches long on a 95.4-inch wheelbase — provides nimble slow-speed handling as well as quick on-road responsiveness. The Jeep still tends to wander a bit over even the best of surfaces and rough, undulating roads will ensure that you never fall asleep at the wheel as there are constant steering corrections needed. These are traits that most Jeep owners never find annoying.

It is still a stretch to climb into the Jeep — the optional side steps can help depending upon your personal inseam length — plus access to the rear seat is awkward at best. The vertical windshield, the wide stance and the tall body all create quite a wind-block for quiet highway travel, yet the latest Wrangler is more subdued at high-speed travel.

Our well-equipped Sahara edition (sticker was $33,460 as shown) included 18-inch satin finish alloy wheels, body color fenders, side steps, fog lamps, deep-tinted glass, power locks and windows, manual 4X4 shift lever and one of several stereo upgrades. Additional options included the painted hard-top, auto-box transmission, DVD/Nav system ($1,035), heated seats ($250), Trac-lok rear differential ($295) and tow package, ($270).

The new engine makes a huge difference in the 2012 Wrangler and is standard on both two-door and four-door Unlimited models. I wonder still if maybe Chrysler shouldn’t be looking at a diesel variant for this warrior. A diesel engine would offer even greater torque for off-roading as well as higher fuel economy. Chrysler has numerous Hemi-powered test mules of the Wrangler — and buyers can certainly outfit their Wrangler with this much power given enough numbers in the checkbook — yet at some point, it will be necessary to explore the diesel option if this iconic brand is to continue to be relevant in the face of ever-tighter fuel economy standards.

But for today, this latest Wrangler is clearly superior to earlier versions.

For more arts & entertainment news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.