2012 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

Except for the Porsche 911, no vehicle has preserved its purity of essence like the Jeep Wrangler, an original creation as American as jazz and Kim Kardashian's ass. Now its new Italian don has blessed it with the latest corporate power parts. Could change actually make the Jeep better?

Disclaimer: Jeep wanted me to drive the Wrangler so bad they flew me to Oregon and housed me in yet another hotel with sex toys in the minibar. When Jeep said we'd be playing with a new tranny, these were not the lubed vibrating rings I was thinking of.

Last year, the funslayers at Consumer Reports proclaimed the Jeep Wrangler the worst vehicle for sale in America, even over the Smart ForTwo. Noisy! Harsh! Vibrate-y! — which, to Jeep enthusiasts, are features, not bugs. But the funslayers have a point.

Since it came home from World War II and began civilian life as a glorified farm implement, the Wrangler has lured thousands of buyers promising a jamboree of toughness, only to reward them with the on-road manners of a surly mule and the durability of a box of pinot grigio at a Josh Groban concert.

2012 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

After Fiat saved Chrysler from its death wobble, the Jeep has undergone an inside-out transformation meant to address its faults among the Philistines, leading to this: a Wrangler with more standard horsepower than a Nissan 350Z sported just five years ago.

True Wrangler acolytes embrace changes with the giddy enthusiasm of Popes. Fans have never stopped mourning the death of the antique AMC 4-liter inline six motor, and with reason; The advent of the 3.8-liter V6 in 2007 with the heavier JK chassis and its cranky four-speed automatic transmission dragooned from Mopar minivans left Wranglers feeling as if forward motion came from a hundred junebugs bridled to the front tow hooks.

The new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, now the go-to power for all things Chrysler, sports 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, weighs 90 pounds less that the boat-anchor 3.8. Changes for Wrangler duty include new intakes, exhaust and an alternator that will give mechanics a "hey, lookit" moment: To ensure the engine could survive the Wrangler plowing into 30 inches of water, the alternator was not only raised but reversed, with its pulley facing the block. Behind it is Chrysler's five-speed automatic transmission, the one 80% of buyers will take, along with the carryover six-speed manual for those who want to keep the mule whip in their hands.

2012 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

On pavement, the Wrangler now gallops to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds — a full three seconds faster than the previous edition. Combined with last year's extreme interior improvements and some additional soundproofing, no longer does driving a Wrangler on a freeway resemble marshaling mountain goats through a windstorm. There's still more noise than a family sedan, and the Bridgestones' chatter comes through the floor, but it's at a dinner-table level, not "Bad Girls Club." The five-speed plays well with the V6, blipping the throttle before downshifts and letting it brush redline under a full boot.

The steering still remains more truck than car, but the suspension doesn't attempt to exhaust passengers with urgent updates about road seams; it also tracks towards just slight understeer. The weakest link is the brakes; soft as a deep-fried butter stick, you find the pedal down a few inches before the orders arrive to the wheels.

But Jeep purists want to know about going slow, which is how I ended up in a Wrangler Rubicon on a clear-cut hillside in Oregon's Tillamook forest with my nose closer to zenith than the horizon and wheels spinning on rocks the size of garden gnomes. Those of us who like cars attached to the ground aren't used to windshields of nothing but blue sky, and a few days of journosaur trampling had left the trail with a slick coat of dust.

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It's situations like this where the utter genius of Jeep engineering kicks in. At 2,000 rpm, the new 3.6 is pumping 96% of its total torque. Thanks to the extra lubed ring in the five-speed gearbox, a 2012 Jeep with the standard 3.73 rear axle sports a better crawl ratio — the measure of how that torque is multiplied through the axles to the rocks — than last year's Rubicon with the heavy-duty 4.10 axle. With the front sway bars electronically disconnected, the catawampus tires simply took an extra swig from the accelerator and moved on. Yes, the track was arranged by Jeep for Jeep — but few vehicles can survive crawling through holes large enough to swallow a Smart.

The good news on prices is that Chrysler held the base sticker at par with the old model, around $22,000. The bad news is that fully loaded varieties quickly ascend to heights of $34,000, and since Chrysler is setting sales records for Jeep Wranglers and struggling to keep up with demand, there's no plans to either adapt the four-cylinder diesel those sooty Europeans get or build a pickup truck at the factory.

By taming its on-road manners while preserving its off-road skills, Chrysler has finally made the Wrangler a truck that people can live with, not in spite of. After seven decades of hauling everything from farm implements to Daisy Duke, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler is the most capable ever.