There aren't many obstacles that slow down a Jeep Wrangler. It can climb impossibly steep slick rock at Moab, bash its way up the Rubicon Trail, plow through mud or make its own trail across the desert.
But then there are those pesky paved roads. Those it doesn't cotton to. And while many of us think we want a Wrangler, none of us feel like signing up for a bouncy ride, loud interior and a gutless engine.
Enter the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara. Like all Wranglers for 2012, it has an all-new engine and an interior that was completely redesigned just last year. It also offers a new five-speed automatic transmission if you don't want the standard six-speed manual. Rest assured it can still do all those great things off road, but this time it promises good things on the road, too.
Pentastar to the Rescue
Even traditional Jeepers will admit the previous pushrod 3.8-liter iron-block V6 was a slug. It made adequate torque, critical when trying to climb up the face of a cliff in 4WD Low, but on city streets the Wrangler could barely get out of its own way.
For 2012, the Wrangler has been upgraded with Chrysler's newest V6. Dubbed the Pentastar, the new 3.6-liter DOHC engine pumps out 285 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Those are typical numbers for a modern V6 these days, but compared to the old 3.8 they represent an improvement of 83 hp and 23 lb-ft of added torque.
The all-aluminum Pentastar is also some 90 pounds lighter and 3.7 inches shorter than the outgoing 3.8-liter six. And as if that wasn't enough, it's more efficient, too, as the Wrangler gets an EPA rating of 16 city/20 highway mpg, a 1-mpg improvement over the previous numbers.
We averaged a less-than-stellar though not completely globally irresponsible 16.7 mpg during our two weeks with the Wrangler. Not terrible for a 4,493-pound vehicle with virtually no aerodynamic efficiency whatsoever.
Five Is Better Than Four
Jeep also replaced the long-outdated four-speed automatic transmission with the A580 five-speed ($1,125) found in the Grand Cherokee. A six-speed manual remains the standard transmission on the Wrangler, as does a low-range transfer case. Off-roaders fear not, as the new five-speed has a lower 1st-gear ratio than the outgoing tranny.
At the test track this combo of more power and an extra gear ratio netted a not-quite-as-underwhelming 0-60-mph time of 8.8 seconds (8.5 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip), a full 1.8 seconds quicker than the last four-speed automatic-equipped Wrangler Unlimited we tested. The quarter-mile came and went in 16.4 seconds at 85.1 mph.
Clearly, the Wrangler still won't set your hair on fire with its breathtaking acceleration. It's still slower to 60 than a Toyota FJ Cruiser (8.3 seconds) and the Nissan Xterra (7.6 seconds). One new SUV it can leave behind is the 2012 Ford Explorer with the EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder (9.1 seconds). Not exactly much of an off-roader, but still a vehicle that buyers of the four-door Wrangler might consider.
Out on the road, the new engine and tranny offer big improvements in terms of refinement. The engine is smooth, reasonably quiet and has a nice surge of power from 3,700 rpm to 6,400. The automatic offers supple shifts, but it's not exactly eager to offer them up. We found ourselves dipping into the throttle deeper than we expected to get it to kick down. We're guessing that Jeep's goal of improving the Wrangler's fuel economy no doubt contributed to that.
Handling? Don't Talk About Handling
Despite its newfound refinement, this is still a Jeep Wrangler. Therefore, on-road handling is not its forte, even with its newly retuned suspension. Between the live axles at both ends and the recirculating-ball type steering system, the Jeep feels far more detached than most modern SUVs. The long-travel suspension allows lots of roll and the nonlinear, slightly overboosted steering provides little in the way of feedback. Fast corners require an extra correction or two because there's a delay with each steering input.
Any hopes of legitimate numbers were quashed with the first run through our slalom course. The Wrangler's insanely aggressive electronic stability control system can't be fully defeated (except in 4WD at less than 35 mph), and it stabs the brakes at the slightest bit of roll angle or tire slide. Hence the pathetic 51.4-mph slalom speed and 0.63g of lateral grip. We didn't sweat it much, though; it's a Jeep after all.
With 11.9-inch rotors up front and 12.4s at the rear, not to mention its substantial weight, the Wrangler's 138-foot stop from 60 mph isn't half bad. We were less impressed with the Wrangler's mushy pedal, considerable nose dive and noticeable side-to-side squirm that will grab your attention when you're hard on the binders.
In Its Natural Habitat
You can't do the Wrangler justice without taking it off-road. So we headed to the desert where we bashed around on rough fire roads, climbed rock-filled ascents and put the Wrangler's hill descent control to use on a couple of steep downhills. Everything worked as advertised. In fact, it felt almost too easy sometimes.
Through it all its suspension easily soaked up everything we threw at it while the 10.2 inches of ground clearance kept us from touching down on any rocks. The Command-Trac four-wheel-drive system is a snap to use and the addition of the optional Trak-lok limited slip makes it that much more capable, even with the Sahara's meager on-/off-road tires.
If there's one downside to the 2012 Jeep Wrangler's off-road prowess, it's the difficulty in finding its limits. With most SUVs, it's easy to predict what they'll tackle with ease and what's better left untouched. In the Jeep, you're tempted to take on just about anything. And with the right driver and a good spotter, you'll probably make it, too.
The Price of Progress
Although a base two-door Wrangler starts at just $22,845, pricing on our four-door 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara begins at $31,545 (including $800 destination). Yeah, four-door Wranglers with a healthy set of standard features aren't cheap. With options such as the automatic transmission, navigation system and three-piece body-color hardtop, our Wrangler shot up to a whopping $37,200.
To anyone who hasn't been in a Wrangler for awhile, that kind of money looks downright ridiculous for a Jeep. But get inside the latest version and it's not so hard to believe. After a heavy interior redesign last year, the Wrangler now looks like a modern SUV inside. The materials quality has drastically improved, there are modern electronics and the cabin is relatively quiet with the hardtop in place.
It's nowhere near the refinement you get in something like a Ford Explorer or Dodge Durango, but that's fine with Jeep. The Wrangler will never be a crossover or even a truly mainstream choice. Even though the level of refinement has been raised yet again, the Wrangler is still authentic. In other words, the Wrangler is right where it was before: perfect for nontraditional SUV buyers and a stretch for typical SUV buyers.
The new engine is a huge improvement, but the 2012 Jeep Wrangler still isn't the fastest or the most efficient vehicle in its class. It doesn't have the most features either, or the most comfortable cabin. What it does have is a combination of modern conveniences and legendary off-road abilities wrapped up in one of the most distinctive shapes on the road today. Is that worth $37,000 to you?
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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