Pros: Open-air cockpit; great off-road ability; wide variety of trims and price ranges; it's a Jeep

Cons: Average fuel economy; marginal side-impact crash tests; lots of plastic bits; uncomfortable rear seat

The Jeep Wrangler is one of the best known, most recognizable American cars. Okay, it isn't very sophisticated, it doesn't get great fuel economy and it's not the safest family vehicle on the market. But none of that matters to Wrangler owners or those who aspire to be Wrangler owners, because more than any other vehicle we can think of, the Wrangler represents freedom. A Jeep Wrangler means freedom to go wherever four wheels can take you; freedom to travel topless, doorless, and even windshieldless if you choose; freedom from being entrapped in a boring, four-door sedan.

The 2012 Wrangler's shape bears a strong resemblance to the original Jeep CJ but is much larger in both length and width. In addition to the two-door model, there is a four-door model dubbed the Wrangler Unlimited. Both are available with removable soft or hard top shells. The Wrangler comes in a number of flavors, all adept at handling off-road adventures, so opting for the most affordable Wrangler requires only sacrificing creature comforts, not capability.

There is a Wrangler to suit just about everyone. The 2012 Jeep Wrangler is available in Sport, Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon as well as a number of Special Edition packages including Arctic and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 versions.

Comfort & Utility

The Wrangler is still a rugged beast, but it has been tamed over the years to become a rather civilized 4x4. You won't find a highly useful interior space or a whisper-quiet cabin, but many things once thought of as luxury are considered necessities for the modern off-roader. Thus, the Wrangler now has power windows, a GPS navigation radio and Bluetooth hands-free cell phone connectivity. Heated seats, leather upholstery and automatic climate controls are options.

The Wrangler's front seats are actually quite comfortable, with tall backs and wide seat bottoms, but the rear seats are a bit upright and narrow. However, the rear seat does feature a fold-and-tumble feature that makes it easy to increase the cargo bay without having to pull the seats out and store them. The interior gets a heavy dose of hard plastic, good for durability but not terribly attractive or comfortable for resting one's arm.

Four-door Unlimited models ride on a longer wheelbase that offers more rear-seat legroom and space for more gear. But the Wrangler's greatest versatility is found in its numerous roof options. Opt for the softtop, and you'll get a sliding front panel that can be opened to create a sunroof-like opening; the top can also be folded back completely and stowed behind the rear seat or removed. The Freedom Top option includes a hard shell top with removable roof panels, a glass rear window with wiper and full metal doors. For a custom look, both Sahara and Rubicon trims can be ordered with a body-color hard top.

Technology

Although the Wrangler isn't exactly a paragon of technology, it does offer some fairly advanced electronics. The UConnect option brings with it Bluetooth, Sirius satellite radio, iPod and USB integration and on-board navigation radio with maps by Garmin. Audiophiles will be thrilled by the 368-watt Infinity sound system that includes an overhead speaker bar so you can take your music with you even when you leave the top and doors behind.

On the Rubicon model, the standard Command-Trac 4x4 system is replaced by the Rock-Trac option that includes lower gear ratios for slower rock crawling, electronic locking differentials and an electronically disconnecting front sway bar. Also standard on the Rubicon is a Dana 44 front axle, additional skidplate protection and 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires.

Performance & Fuel Economy

New for 2012 is the Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 engine, which is now standard on every Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited. With 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, the new V6 represents a 10 percent improvement in power over last year's 3.8-liter engine. The new engine also gets better fuel economy, with an EPA mileage rating of 17 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, regardless of whether you choose the six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission.

Safety

Despite its removable top and doors, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler has performed well in crash tests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Wrangler Unlimited a "good" rating in its frontal offset crash test, with a "marginal" rating in the side-impact test for models without the optional side airbags. Standard safety equipment for all Wranglers includes electronic traction and stability control, electronic roll mitigation, Hill Start Assist and Hill Descent Control.

Driving Impressions

Considering its solid front and rear axles, 10-inch ground clearance and off-road tires, the Wrangler can't be expected to handle well by modern SUV standards. However, the Wrangler is easy to manage under normal driving conditions, with good feedback from the steering and fairly level cornering at reasonable speeds. The ride is still rough and there's not much shelter from wind and road noise, but that is to be expected.

Where the Wrangler shines is off the pavement. The base 4x4 system is remarkably adept at tackling snow, mud and sand. Unfortunately, unlike more modern 4WD systems, the Wrangler cannot operate at highway speeds with its 4WD system engaged. Serious off-road enthusiasts will love the Rubicon, which features an electronically detachable front sway bar allowing for maximum wheel travel, a Dana 44 front axle and a 73:1 crawl ratio providing the ability to crawl at speeds as low as half a mile an hour.

Other Cars to Consider

Toyota FJ Cruiser - The FJ Cruiser is a fairly competent off-road vehicle, but it's not as flexible as the Wrangler, comes only in a two-door version and has a fixed roof with plenty of blind spots.

Nissan Xterra - A nicely equipped Xterra is less expensive than the Wrangler, and it is pretty good for modest off-road adventures. But the Xterra lacks the adept suspension and the slow rock-crawling capability of the Rubicon, and like the others in this group it doesn't offer the option of a removable top.

Jeep Grand Cherokee - If you're looking for great off-road ability in a vehicle that carries the legendary Jeep name but offers better safety and a more carlike ride and interior, you might be happier in a well-equipped Grand Cherokee Laredo.

AutoTrader Recommends

If all you need in a vehicle is the basic 4x4 ability and the open-air cockpit of the Wrangler, then you can't go wrong with the Sport S trim. It has a very reasonable sticker price, comes nicely equipped and can take you anywhere the more expensive Sahara can. If you're serious about off-roading, then there is only one choice: the Rubicon. Short of a Hummer H1, there is no vehicle we'd rather take off-road.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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