On the Road

Automakers are getting better at finding middle ground between the extremes — nimble handling with reasonably good ride comfort, for example. The Wrangler is old-school; it swings unapologetically toward the extreme. The non-independent, solid-axle suspension delivers ride quality reminiscent of trucks in the 1990s. Encounter anything short of glass-smooth interstates, and the Wrangler bounces up and down erratically, barely resettling after one expansion joint before the next one sends it into another tizzy. My Rubicon's 32-inch BF Goodrich Mud Terrain tires did a decent job masking road noise, but wind noise became intrusive at highway speeds, and any bumps mid-corner sent the Wrangler hopping sideways. With a lighter-duty suspension, other Wranglers likely pack a more controlled ride. If you test-drive the Rubicon back-to-back with one of them, let me know your thoughts.

The Wrangler's 3.8-liter pushrod V-6 is old-school, seeing duty in some form through two decades of Chrysler products. Here it's good for 202 horsepower and 237 pounds-feet of torque — enough power for stop-and-go driving and torque-needy off-road maneuvers. But the Wrangler and its truck-based peers are heavy. My four-wheel-drive Rubicon weighed in at 4,340 pounds; that's a bit more than the four-wheel-drive FJ Cruiser and nearly 800 pounds more than a loaded Ford Escape or Honda CR-V. Highway acceleration is weak, and the engine sounds coarse when pushed.

A six-speed manual is standard. We drove it in a 2007 Wrangler, the first year of the current generation, and its rubbery throws and heavy clutch are typical of the manual transmissions you'll find in truck-based SUVs. Our 2010 Wrangler had the optional four-speed automatic. It upshifts smoothly but begs for more gears on the open road; 60-to-70 mph acceleration sends the automatic hunting between 3rd and 2nd gears, underpowered in one and bellowing furiously in the other. Non-Rubicon grades have a lower rear axle ratio — 3.21 or 3.73, to the Rubicon's 4.1. That could make off-the-line acceleration even worse. Still, the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is … well, slow. Our friends at "MotorWeek" tested a Wrangler Unlimited Sahara back in 2007, and it loafed to 60 mph in just under 11 seconds.

Given all that, it's hard to reconcile the Wrangler's gas mileage. At 15/19 mpg city/highway with either transmission, the four-wheel-drive Wrangler matches the stick-shift, four-wheel-drive Toyota FJ Cruiser but falls 1 to 2 mpg short of the automatic FJ and all four-wheel-drive versions of the Nissan Xterra. Towing capacity, at 2,000 pounds for the Wrangler and 3,500 pounds for the Wrangler Unlimited, also trails the competition.

Typical of a truck, the Rubicon's steering is a soupy mess. The wheel requires constant corrections to stay on course on the highway — something you'll be doing often, as the Wrangler's aerodynamics fall easy prey to crosswinds. Find a corner, and the vague steering turn-in and excessive body roll add an unsettling degree of uncertainty, even for an SUV. Steering this slow might befit tricky off-road situations, where you don't want to do anything too suddenly. On the pavement, however, it's a bane.

Urban weekenders should note that the Wrangler Unlimited's 41.2-foot turning circle (with 16-inch wheels) will make alley maneuvers and tight angles especially troublesome. The two-door Wrangler's 34.9-foot circle is a much better fit.

Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard across the board, but the mushy pedal doesn't inspire much confidence. Overall stopping power is modest: In "MotorWeek's" tests, the Wrangler Unlimited required 141 feet to stop from 60 mph. That's 11 feet longer than it took MotorWeek to stop a three-ton Toyota Sequoia.

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