I never liked the Wrangler. Then I drove a new one.
Over the last few years I grew to dislike the Jeep Wrangler. Everyone has a car or truck they hate, and the Wrangler was mine.
I admit that this isn’t totally rational, but I live in New York, where most commuter Wranglers are kitted out with absurd wheels, angry-eye headlight covers, ridiculous bull bars, and blinding LED lights. None seem to go off road. The previous-generation, the JK, is, frankly, an awful car to drive that isn’t particularly good looking, and somehow incredibly expensive.
But a few months ago, I saw a new two-door JL Wrangler Rubicon street parked, and to my shock and horror, I thought it was pretty good looking. I realized it might be time to challenge my prejudices, and so did R&T Editor-In-Chief Travis Okulski. When Jeep sent a two-door Rubicon to our office, he assigned it to me for the week.
On the drive home, I was struck by how nice the Wrangler’s interior is. The JK’s interior was good for 2006, but it didn’t age well, setting the bar low, but by any standard, the JL’s is really great. Everything feels well put together, and Fiat Chrysler’s uConnect infotainment system remains one of the most intuitive, full-featured on the market. I also love the incredibly shallow dash, which puts the driver super close to the windshield for a great view out. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the wide dashboards endemic of so many modern cars—only the Mercedes G-Wagen can match the Wrangler today.
The driving experience is still pretty old-school. It’s what you’d expect from a truck that retains a solid front-axle. The steering is slow and doesn’t provide much sense of what’s happening at the front end, requiring lots of minor corrective inputs. I don’t really care much, though. It’s part of the charm.
And that’s the word I kept coming back to—charm. Many modern cars and crossovers are so competent, they tend to feel homogenous. The driving experience is perfectly fine, but totally forgettable. The Wrangler is different. It won’t let you forget that you’re driving something that, at its core, is a specialized piece of equipment.
After that first drive, I texted R&T’s biggest Jeep enthusiast, deputy editor Bob Sorokanich, that I was starting to get it. There’s a real appeal in using one of these things as if it’s a normal car.
I’m a sucker for bright colors, like my tester’s Punk’n metallic, but no matter the hue, the JL Wrangler is a great design. Those bigger headlights, indenting into the iconic seven-slat grille, and the LED running lights on the fenders dramatically alter the proportions on an icon. It’s the definition of handsome.
The Wrangler looks best as a two-door. While the four-door and Gladiator pick-up are a lot more practical, the Wrangler is really meant to have a short wheelbase. With big knobby tires, it looks like a goofy orange bulldog.
That short wheelbase brings big drawbacks to the driving experience, though. It doesn’t have what one might call “high-speed stability,” and the ride was choppy over NYC’s terrible pavement. But, that’s the compromise you’ll have to put up with in the two-door. It’s worth it.
The engine isn’t too smooth, either. Our tester had the standard Pentastar V-6, which transmits a lot of vibration and noise into the cabin, though that’s reasonable to expect in an off-roader like this. It’s not a luxury car. NVH quibbles aside, the engine’s not bad, though I can’t help but wonder if I’d appreciate the turbo torque of the optional 2.0-liter four-cylinder. This V-6 can just feel a bit gutless at times in this 4,145-pound 4×4. That said, it works well with the optional eight-speed automatic.
Over the course of my week with this Wrangler, I stopped caring about its drawbacks. It was liberating in the city, with tires and suspension that seemed to handle virtually anything I threw at it. In a Wrangler, you don’t need to worry about potholes, and you can hit speed bumps on throttle, confident the tires and suspension will shrug them off like nothing. You start to drive like a goofball in it, just because you can.
I’m an introvert, but on day six of Wrangler driving, I wanted to hang out the window and shout at people. I was starting to get mad with the power afforded to you by a true off-roader.
This Wrangler came with Jeep’s optional Freedom Top, with two lift-out fiberglass panels over the front seats that can be stored in a special case in the trunk. With the panels out, the Wrangler makes a pretty excellent convertible. A lovely perch for me to enjoy an unseasonably warm, if very windy New York winter evening. I can only imagine how nice it’d be with the doors off and the windshield lowered on a summer night.
A week with a new Wrangler didn’t make me suddenly appreciate the poseurs and LED-enthusiasts who buy these things and drive like jerks. But I understand why normal people buy them even if they never intend on tackling the Rubicon trail. It’s an indulgence, but so is a sports car, and I’ve got one of those.
So, this whole Jeep thing? I’m starting to understand.