When it comes to tackling the most unfriendly off-road terrain, experts unanimously name the iconic 2012 Jeep Wrangler (Base MSRP: $22,045 to $29,995) as the most capable, hard-core off-road vehicle. Stellar off-road capabilities come with a few compromises, as many reviewers point out.
Critics absolutely love the traditional look, which unmistakably says "Jeep" and immediately conveys the Wrangler's off-road abilities with high ground clearance, very short front and rear departure angles and meaty tires. Car and Driver notes that in relation to Jeep's other offerings, "none of those other so-called Jeeps has anything close to the Wrangler's old-time testosterone levels…we're talking seriously butch here, as well as seriously all-terrain." The Wrangler also boasts some old-school features, like doors that can be removed and a soft-top that can be removed to make it an open-air off-roader.
The Wrangler's true selling point is its off-road prowess. Edmunds.com calls it "pretty much unstoppable in off-road situations…thanks to its specialized hardware," which includes low-range four-wheel drive, front and rear locking differentials, an optional limited slip differential and hill-start assist for the manual transmission. And The Detroit News notes that while the Wrangler is tuned "for all of that crazy wheel articulation off-road," it still "provides a smooth ride on the highway and country roads."
For decades the Jeep Wrangler had a basic, low-rent interior, but that trend reversed direction with its 2011 redesign that brought a new center console, upgraded interior materials and modern creature comforts that were once absent. For instance, the Wrangler can now be had with power mirrors, steering wheel-mounted controls and heated seats, among other things, leading Motor Trend to call it "the most refined Wrangler cabin ever." Other modern crossovers are still more comfortable, but the upside is that, as Edmunds.com puts it, the Wrangler is "still a vehicle meant to drive through dust, dirt and muck and then be easily cleaned afterwards."
The Wrangler comes in either two-door or four-door configurations (the latter known as the Wrangler Unlimited), and can be had in three trim levels: Sport, Sahara and Rubicon. Standard equipment on the base Sport trim level is relatively basic; it gets a CD player and steering-wheel controls, but it still lacks other conveniences like power windows, locks and air conditioning. The higher trim levels benefit from mostly mechanical upgrades in the form of beefier suspensions, bigger tire and wheel combinations, heavy-duty axles and four-wheel drive systems. Four-wheel drive is standard on all versions of the Wrangler.
One option of particular interest is the hardtop, which adds much-needed security from thieves, not to mention a much quieter ride on the road. Furthermore, it alleviates the burden of lowering and raising the soft-top, which some reviewers say is cumbersome and bulky to work with.
Overall, the interior is improved but still not the most comfortable or convenient for passengers. The two-door version has seating for two in the rear, but legroom is in short supply, and back seat access is a real chore with the hardtop installed. The four-door version alleviates this problem somewhat, but still isn't the most comfortable place to be. The lack of a telescoping steering wheel and limited fore/aft adjustment on the driver's seat make it awkward to find a comfortable driving position. Finally, there are limited storage options (read: only a glovebox), though with the rear seats removed the Wrangler Unlimited can hold an impressive 86 cubic feet of cargo.
The biggest update for the 2012 Wrangler is the arrival of Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, which provides a burly 283 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque, a huge leap over its anemic predecessor. Motor Trend says that the engine "offers excellent response and a noticeable improvement in power," and that it "sounds much more upscale than the coarse 3.8-liter." The new engine is mated to a six-speed manual transmission that The Detroit News calls "extremely smooth." A new five-speed automatic transmission is available as well.
Best of all, fuel economy is improved by the new, more powerful engine. Regardless of transmission choice, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the Wrangler will achieve 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway/18 mpg. This isn't particularly high relative to other SUVs, but it's much better than the 2011 model.
Compared to more conventional SUVs and crossovers, the Jeep Wrangler has rather long braking distances and quite a bit of body roll when taking faster corners. The tires generate a fair amount of road noise as well.
The Wrangler has lower crash-test scores than most SUVs today, rating just Poor to Marginal in IIHS side-impact tests and Marginal in IIHS rear-impact evaluations. (NHTSA hasn't crash tested the Wrangler.) Antilock brakes, traction control, stability control and front airbags are standard safety equipment, but side airbags are optional.
Overall, the Jeep Wrangler isn't the best everyday on-road SUV by any measure, but it's one of the most capable vehicles around when it leaves the pavement for more adventuresome terrain.
The editors of Edmunds.com cover every new car with detailed reviews, and they're one of the best sources for unbiased vehicle information. They note that the Wrangler does have its shortcomings compared to modern SUVs, but go on to commend its unrivaled off-road abilities and all-around honesty.
Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler, Editors of Edmunds.com
ConsumerReports.org is an excellent, unbiased source of information on automobiles. In addition to road tests, they offer survey-based information that indicates predicted reliability, depreciation and owner satisfaction.
Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler, Editors of ConsumerReports.org
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler gets an estimated 18 mpg combined when equipped with all-wheel drive.
Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler, U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler hasn't been fully tested by NHTSA, but it does receive a 3-star (out of 5) rating for rollover resistance.
Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the 2012 Jeep Wrangler the highest rating of Good for frontal offset crash-test results, but the lowest rating of Poor for side crash-test results. The four-door version of the Wrangler gets a slightly better Marginal rating for side crash tests. Rear crash protection is relatively low as well, garnering the Marginal rating.
Review: Jeep Wrangler 2-Door, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
6. USA Today
James Healey from USA Today highlights the 2012 Wrangler's significant updates in this review from December 2011. He notes that the engine is much improved over 2011, and recommends that potential buyers not be tempted by a good deal on a 2011 Wrangler, as the 2012 model is that much improved. The lack of rear visibility is cited as a significant drawback.
Review: Test Drive: 2012 Jeep Wrangler Refines 2011 Redo, James Healey, Dec. 2011
Brandon Turkus at WindingRoad.com samples the Wrangler in all its trim levels and comes away impressed with the 2012 improvements. The review has on-road and off-road impressions, and gives a useful comparison to the Wrangler's closest rivals, the 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser and the 2012 Nissan Xterra. Turkus concludes that the Wrangler is simply better equipped to tackle tough off-road situations.
Review: Driven: 2012 Jeep Wrangler, Brandon Turkus, Aug. 2011
8. The Detroit News
As with other reviewers, Scott Burgess at The Detroit News points out that the engine upgrade in the 2012 Wrangler is the big news. It not only provides smooth and refined power, unlike the last V6, but also allows for better mileage with both transmissions.
Review: Jeep Wrangler Finds Its Softer Side, Scott Burgess, Not Dated
9. Motor Week
MotorWeek is the online outlet of the automotive television program "MotorWeek." Reviews from MotorWeek typically don't have much criticism or detail, but the review still offers useful information on the 2012 Wrangler's updates and how they change the driving experience.
Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler, Editors of MotorWeek, Not Dated
10. Car and Driver
Car and Driver samples the six-speed manual 2012 Jeep Wrangler. Reviewer Tony Swan loves the transmission, finding it ideally suited to the new engine and the Wrangler's mission. He concludes that despite its shortcomings on the road, "the Wrangler is still more fun than about anything else capable of making tracks where there are none."
Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sahara 4x4 Manual, Tony Swan, April 2012
11. Motor Trend
Like a few other reviewers, Allyson Harwood from Motor Trend samples a variety of Wrangler trims in on- and off-road conditions. First, she finds that the interior updates to the 2012 model make it "the most refined Wrangler cabin ever." She concludes that "the new Wrangler stays true to the model's roots, but now it's a lot more fun to drive on-road."
Review: First Test: 2012 Jeep Wrangler, Allyson Harwood, Oct. 2011
InsideLine, the blog and review outlet of Edmunds.com, provides news and reviews for many new vehicles. Editor Jason Kavanagh finds that despite the significant drivetrain improvements, "the Wrangler remains a staggeringly capable off-road steed." The improvements make the Wrangler "like having your cake, eating it, and then finding out it lowers cholesterol, too."
Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler First Drive, Jason Kavanagh, Aug. 2011