Test Driven: 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sport

Jeep has the reputation that a good many other brands dream of–durability, reliability, and timeless appeal.  The Wrangler is probably their best-known product, and having never driven one before, I took a chance and grabbed the keys to a brand-new, 2011 Sport model, in red.  While the Wrangler isn’t for everyone, I’ve been appreciative of it for a long time now, and its appeal has not dropped that much even in these times of higher fuel economy and a high demand for safer cars.

First off, the Wrangler pulls off the retro look, but isn’t really a throwback in terms of its styling.  It still carries the traditional rough-and-tumble shape, along with the traditional Jeep Wrangler attributes everywhere.  The doors are still removable, the top is still reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine, and the step-in is noticeably high.  This basic design has been around since 2007, but it’s been improved upon greatly since its launch.  The interior, once a poster child (like other Chrysler products) for what not to do, was updated for 2011 with soft-touch panels everywhere and higher-quality plastics.  The steering wheel carries a new chrome ring around the badge, which, along with the other new brightwork, really gives life to this otherwise-dark interior trim.  Of course, the seating position is pretty high, and so is the step-in, but that’s to be expected.  This particular Wrangler was equipped with only the basics: air conditioning, a simple CD player with an AUX jack, and power “nothing” (crank windows, manual mirrors, no power locks, etc)–the way a Wrangler should be.

This being the 2011 model, I was already aware that the Wrangler still had the not well-regarded 3.8L V6.  It’s not that powerful (only about 202hp) and as I started driving it, I realized that the engine was really the only problem with this truck.  It’s matched to the transmission (a 4-speed automatic) pretty well, but thanks to its lack of power, it’s not adept at climbing hills with a lot of authority.  Instead, the 3.8 is more satisfied to make an unnecessary amount of noise while not doing a lot of real work.  That said, on the move, the Wrangler is a different experience than what I’m really used to.  The bouncy ride and significant visibility issues (rear visibility is obscured by a few external parts, like the spare tire and the brake light assembly) would normally put me off, but in the Wrangler, the quirks are appropriate.  The brake pedal was nice and stiff and brought this little truck to a halt with surprisingly little nosedive.

On the move, road noise is a given but it’s not actually a serious problem.  Jeep did a decent job of making the Wrangler livable, but with the new Pentastar V6 to be added for the 2012 model year, I’m pretty sure a big improvement is in store for buyers at this point.  Overall, I wouldn’t necessarily buy one, as I’m not a big off-roading nut, but for someone who still pines for the woods and could care less about on-road experiences, the Wrangler is still pretty much perfect (save for that engine).  For $25K or so, this particular model doesn’t have a lot in it, but there’s always room to improve with better axles, bigger tires, and more ground clearance.

-Al

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