Wrangler is Jeep's star turn
Things appear to be working out for what used to be the greater Chrysler empire.
With Sergio Marchionne's Fiat group taking the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep operation under its wing, and pruning the weak points out of the operation, while encouraging the stronger elements, its future looks assured.
Least touched of the former Chrysler operation's lineup is the Jeep range, with Marchionne having the common sense to leave the heritage brand largely alone. After all, the wars it didn't help win, it certainly helped prosecute.
It has also been the lifestylers' choice, with rugged affordable models like the old Wagoneer that came on to the market long before far less talented sport utility vehicles became fashionable.
Actually, the company's Italian chief executive didn't really leave things completely alone. It's just that if you look at the Wrangler through Grand Cherokee lineup, cursorily, it seems much the same as it was before. Underneath, the Marchionne/Fiat influence is far more palpable and none more so than in the good old Wrangler.
For a start, the dash and driving environment looks as if it was made for this century rather than halfway through the last one, with lots of nicely radiused quality vinyl surfaces, easy-to- read instruments and proper levers for the gearbox and transfer case. Previously, the latter used items that looked like the points adjusters in a railway signal box.
The footwell still snags one's feet - as do all Fiat-Chrysler products, I might add - until you learn to be a little more deliberate about your pedal-pushing.
But it's a nice place to be, and even the windscreen wipers, which previously seemed to just rearrange the mess on the glass, now seem to mean it, and the washer pressure appears more serious too, a simple thing but an important one.
My test car is the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, and it puts the traditional, dirt-capable two- door model in the shade now, for the extra $5000 required for the additional metre of overall length, longer wheelbase, supplementary rear doors and more effective cabin space is worth every cent.
Now, the old two-door is more a seaside, roof-down poseur's choice than an effective day-to-day drive like the four-door.
In fact, the rear cabin means that the Wrangler is for the first time a single car choice rather than merely a plaything.
Don't get me wrong, however. The two-door is still unimpeachable off road, but the longer wheelbase of the four-door has benefits in terms of calming the ride pitching that has been a Wrangler trademark for years, and in the dirt I never found the longer car compromised by its size.
The big news for both configurations of the 2012 Wrangler is the arrival of Chrysler's poster-child new Pentastar V6, which has already transformed previously sluggish Chrysler and Dodge products and will be found under the nose of the recently revamped Chrysler 300C when it arrives here.
It is already fitted to the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee in New Zealand, while Fiat's favourite on the Chrysler manifest, the Dodge Journey, has become a hot rod with the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 in its engine bay.
It transforms the Wrangler into a real hot shot off the lights. I had no problem stirring the car to a zero-to-100kmh time of about eight seconds. The factory claim is half a second quicker than that.
Using a soft-shifting five-speed automatic, the Pentastar's useful 209 kilowatts is pretty impressive. Overtaking is much more brisk and calm than with the thrashy old in-line and V6 engines the car previously used, and a 100kmh cruise at 2100rpm takes up only one-third of the car's tachometer sweep, which means it's relatively quiet and refined on the highway and, from my time in the car, pretty frugal too.
There's still a place for the carry-over 2.8-litre turbodiesel alternative power unit. It chucks out an off-road friendly 410 to 460 newton metres of torque between 1600 and 2600rpm.
While amateur off-roaders might find the smooth, revvy Pentastar more than adequate for their gravel-road travels and occasional riverbed forays from fishing hole to picnic spot, serious rock-hopping is definitely the domain of the lusty diesel.
Either way, with coil-sprung, live axles at both ends of the chassis, it loves groping about in the dirt, and the now much more slick-shifting Command-Trac is easier to deploy when things get tough. Should things get much tougher, there are locking front and rear differentials to call upon, and you can opt for the even tougher Rock-Trac setup.
Suffice to say, the Wrangler feels as if it would walk up the side of a house, but I was impressed with the way it dug itself out of coarse riverbed berms after I had dug it in there, right up to the running rails.
Thinking a companion car and/or a shovel would have been easy to organise, I saw my phone had no reception and decided it might just get out of my self- inflicted hole.
It did, proving that the Wrangler's ability in the dirt, even with the Pentastar petrol V6, is even better than my reticence and common sense deserve.
Basic Wranglers come with a fabric roof, which can take five to 10 minutes to remove and stow, if you have a willing helper who doesn't have long fingernails, they won't have any afterwards.
Once open, it's great fun, and as long as you know that there's no point in rushing to put the thing back up again at the sight of a few spots of rain (the sun will be out again before you complete the task), all's well.
You can get a fully detachable hardtop system like the one illustrated and this would be my choice, but there have been improvements in the standard fabric top which sits much more snugly than before when erected and does not crackle and flap at legal speeds.
It's best to take time about the Wrangler if it looks as if it would suit your needs. While all models come with a decent sound system, comfortable trim and a raft of electronic driving aids, including a Trailer Sway Control, it's possible through ticking boxes such as Sport and Rubicon (named after the United States' toughest off-road trail) to dress, toughen or make your choice more luxurious.
The Wrangler is a very tough SUV now, thanks to its added size and that terrific Pentastar engine and, for the first time, could conceivably be a family's single- car choice.
Things we used to make excuses for, like the knee-bashing dash, noisy and wheezy power unit (in petrol guise) and often recalcitrant low-high levers, have all been fixed. There are still a few things to note, such as its dislike of side winds, the cramped footwell and the fact that the stereo won't store radio stations unless you use two buttons instead of one.
But the Wrangler is a changed beast with this gorgeous new Pentastar V6, and I can't wait to see what else Mr Marchionne has in store for his recently acquired Jeep brand.
AT A GLANCE
Drivetrains: 3.6L Pentastar V6 petrol unit with 5-speed automatic transmission, and 2.8L CRD I-4 turbo diesel engine with 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission.
Performance: 3.6L V6 - 209kW at 6350rpm, 347Nm at 3600rpm. 0-100 8sec, 9.1L/100km. 2.8L CRD - 147kW at 3600rpm, 410-460Nm at 1600-2600rpm. 0-100 10.5sec, 7.5L/100km.
Chassis: Coil suspended live axles front and rear, high-low range, part- time, shift-on-the-fly transfer case.
Safety: Front and front-side airbags; four-wheel disc brakes; ABS; stability and traction control; electronic roll mitigation, trailer sway control; hill start assist.
Dimensions: L 4223mm, H 1840mm, W 1873mm, W/base 2947mm, fuel 85L, weight 2253kg.
Pricing: Wrangler four-doors from $56,990, two-doors from $51,990.
Hot: Dash redesign works well; vast improvement in refinement; great new V6 power unit.
Not: Footwell snags in LHD model; ride is still a tad pitchy; doesn't like side winds; hood destroys nails.
Verdict: It's the off-roader that actually goes off road, and the four- door model revitalises the Wrangler brand.