The Jeep Wrangler is still the quintessential American off-roader. It’s also gawky, inefficient, and built to the standards of a cereal box toy. But we buy Wranglers in droves, love them like pets, and hang on to them like heirlooms. I think that proves there’s a little car enthusiast in all of us.
[Full disclosure: Jeep lent me a 2015 Wrangler Rubicon to get from LAX to a ranch in the desert. I took the long way home.]
The Wrangler’s a legit off-roader, and it’s fun because of that whether you’re using the full extent of its capability or not. The same way a Porsche 911 or Audi R8 are fun before you break the speed limit. And the fact that so many people “get that” enough to pay crazy money for Wranglers gives me faith that there really are a lot of car people out there.
If there’s one car your three-year-old, grandpa, and Great Aunt Bertha can all recognize I bet it’s the Jeep Wrangler.
Jeep knows how much brand equity is wrapped up in this thing, and that’s why it’s got the same face as its WWII-fighting great-great-great-granddaddy and “SINCE 19whatever” stamped into it like a Hollister t-shirt.
The current Wrangler bodystyle, known as the JK, has been with us since 2007. That was the first year a four-door Wrangler variant went into production and, who’dathunk it, the vehicle’s popularity has surged.
In 2012, the 3.8-liter V6 was replaced with a 3.6-liter unit that supposedly improved every aspect of the vehicle’s performance. I can’t speak to that, I’ve never driven the old one.
But I can speak to what it’s like driving the 2015 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon; the absolute peak of the current Wrangler lineup with a factory lift, locking differentials for getting traction anywhere, an electronically disconnecting sway bar for climbing through rough stuff, chunky tires, and a price of $45,000.
Of course the Wrangler comes in quite a few different flavors, starting at the $30,000 Sport which leaves the showroom with open differentials and road tires. The difference is pretty pronounced from stock, but the aftermarket can turn any Jeep JK into a beast if you’d rather upgrade at your own pace and budget.
We’ve driven the Wrangler off-road, it feels great until you wake up the traction control tech that cuts power when you need it for slamming through sand. You can fix that by pulling a fuse, but you didn’t hear that from me.
Anyway we know the Wrangler’s capable and has an aftermarket so big you can pretty much turn your Jeep into anything with a few clicks or phone calls.
What you can’t fix as easily is the truck’s deplorable build quality. My Wrangler had just over 1,000 miles on it when I scooped it up, and enough rattles to make you think it’d been around the Earth a couple times.
Push lightly on the metal body with your fist and it bows. The plastic fenders feel like they could be shattered by an errant shopping cart. Interior trim is Wal-Mart spec.
But even accepting all these faults, I totally understand why something like 20,000 Americans plunk down their hard-earned money for these things every month. And I’m actually thinking about joining them.
I mean, we all love old trucks. Scouts, Broncos, and CJ-7s have so much mass-appeal because we get turned on by nonchalance and true capability. Vehicles like that are the four-wheeled manifestation of stealing some babe’s heart and riding off into the sunset with it.
That glory of riding with the roof down, that loose kinda swaggery ride from long-travel suspension. I promise you don’t have to be off-roading to get the full-effect of fun out of this experience; comping up Venice Boulevard with sand tires and no roof or doors is just a good time any way you slice it.
So why not spend $10,000 on a sweet old CJ and get the “real deal” than $30,000 on a new Wrangler that’s just an imitator?
Watch the crash-test results of any 1970something 4x4 and you’ll have your number one answer.
Most of us live in places like Los Angeles and New York and hell, even Hopewell Junction where we’re regularly surrounded by the opportunity to get slammed by another speeding vehicle every day.
Riding in an International Scout suddenly becomes a lot less fun when the steering wheel is lodged in your spleen, where the same accident would have left you with just a headache in a 2015 Wrangler. Don’t take my word for it, read the crash test results.
“A working heater” is also a pretty nice bonus that’s a lot harder to come by in an old SUV. Even beach towns get cool at night, and cruising from Santa Monica to Culver City with the roof open and heat blasting is like driving a hot tub and it freaking rules.
This would be a good time to say “and modern infotainment!” but the touchscreen rig in Wranglers takes the trucks nostalgic vibe a little too far. Nothing sexy about a Windows 95-esque GUI, guys. Seriously who orders this?
The last big one is feeding cost. As dumb as it sounds to use the Wrangler as an example of “good fuel economy,” you’re lucky to get 15 MPG in real-world driving, it beats the hell out of its predecessors which get around half that. And of course you don’t need to know a specialist to get good replacement parts or upgrades when you want ‘em.
The point is, the Wrangler needs to be capable to be taken seriously. And you just can’t build all that much refinement into a truly off-roadable vehicle with a quick-release body.
You want to know about the engine? It’s got an engine. It’s fast enough to merge onto the highway without getting steamrolled by a semi-truck. It’s got a transmission too, notchy enough to make the Rubicon’s off-road suspension bob with each gear change.
The Wrangler’s faults are a necessary byproduct of its flavor. They provide constant affirmation that you’re riding in the real deal, not another castrated crossover.
You want John Wayne, not your uncle in a cowboy hat. And you always will. That’s why the Wrangler’s so popular and why it’s gonna stay that way.
Now, as to why they have to cost so damn much and stay expensive no matter how old they get or prolific they are, I’m still just as stumped as the rest of y’all. But at least you can’t get a bad deal on a Wrangler, since apparently you can always sell it for whatever you want.
Images by the author, Jeep
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