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2016 Jeep Wrangler 75th Anniversary Edition: Real World Review

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author photo by Jason Fogelson May 2016

The Jeep brand has a rich history that traces directly back to the U.S. effort in World War II. The 2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4x4 75th Anniversary Edition ($33,695 base price; $48,035 as tested) pays tribute to that heritage, but is packed with modern technology that helps maintain its reputation as one of the most capable off-road vehicles available from any major car maker.

We got a chance to drive the Wrangler during the Motor Press Guild's (MPG) Droptops and Dirt event at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, California. Each year, the MPG gathers a group of new off-roaders and convertibles for a day-long series of test drives, both on challenging trails through the Santa Monica mountains above the Pacific Ocean and on the roads surrounding the venue. It's a tough day for automotive journalists.

Exterior

Even from a hundred yards away, there's no mistaking a Wrangler for anything else. Get closer, and the Wrangler Unlimited starts to come into focus. Right off the bat, two doors per side and an overall length of 184 inches announce that there's something different going on -- for most of its 75 years, the classic Jeep was a 2-door. The wheelbase has been stretched by about 10 inches to allow for this configuration. This setup has its advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, there's more room for passengers in the Unlimited and it's easier for them to get in and out. The longer wheelbase transforms the Wrangler's on-road handling from twitchy and terrifying to confident and composed. Off-road, the extra length has some negative effects, though. The wheels are further apart, which reduces the breakover angle by about 20 percent. Breakover angle is "the angle between your tires and the middle of your car's underside," according to How Stuff Works. It's an important measurement when it comes to conquering obstacles when rock crawling or cresting steep inclines. Unlimited's greater overall length (184 inches vs 164 inches) also makes itself known in tight situations off-road and on-road.

If you're going to focus solely on off-roading and want the absolute best capability, get a 2-door Wrangler. If you're going to drive your Wrangler every day and rear-seat passenger comfort is important to you, get the Unlimited. It's so much more pleasant to drive that the choice is easy, and the Unlimited is still incredibly, astonishingly capable off-road that you'll be looking for opportunities to leave the pavement everywhere you go.

Wrangler is a lifestyle vehicle as much as it is transportation and part of that lifestyle is experiencing the outdoors while you drive. The standard setup is a soft top and it's one of the areas in which Wrangler is still a nightmare. Putting the top down and back up can make a grown man cry. Luckily, there is a dual top option ($1,785), one of the features that was installed on our test vehicle. If you have the storage space available in your garage, you can leave the hard top behind on a beautiful day, and live with the soft top. Additionally, the Freedom Top option ($1,100) gives you a 3-piece hard top in body color for the best of all worlds.

The Jeep 75th Anniversary Package applied to our Sahara Unlimited test vehicle ran $4,680 on top of the base price. It includes heated front seats with leather bolsters and cloth inserts, interior trim accents and special badging, special paint, 17-inch wheels and other distinctive functional and decorative features.

Interior

One of the ways that Wrangler has evolved over the years -- some say for the better, some say for the worse -- is in terms of interior comfort. Far from its rugged, purpose-built roots, it now features modern conveniences like carpeting, soft-touch materials, padding and even a tilt-adjustable, leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel. Glass power-side windows are standard, as are power-door locks. Individualists can still order removable plastic side windows, and all four doors are easily removable, too, without tools. The windshield can be folded flat to lie on the hood -- not recommended for on-road use, but handy in certain extreme off-road conditions.

Technology and Performance

A few years ago, Jeep switched from a traditional inline 6-cylinder engine to the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine for Wrangler, as part of the vehicle's domestication. It's a great engine, perfectly executing the compromise between everyday utility and off-road capability. Our test vehicle had the optional ($1,350) 5-speed automatic transmission (a 6-speed manual is standard).

Off-road, the Wrangler is a marvel. A long list of off-road technologies belies the simplicity of operation without compromising the essential Jeep-ness. Unlike many off-road SUVs, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Land Rover LR4, Wrangler doesn't have Terrain Control or other new-fangled electronic features. Wrangler still leaves setup choices to the driver, but makes the operation transparent and achievable without leaving the driver's seat -- no more manually locking hubs. A novice off-roader can drive the Wrangler effectively, but a deep dive into the science of off-roading and into the owner's manual will unlock capabilities that can truly astound. Any owner who doesn't take the time to understand and use the vehicle's many capabilities is cheating themselves of a much richer off-road experience.

On-road, Wrangler is reasonably comfortable, though limited by its off-road focus. No amount of padding can fully tame the rough ride you get with solid axles front and rear, or the road noise and constant rattle from the Wrangler's metal body parts.

Our Take

As a lifestyle vehicle, Wrangler has few equals. If you're going to take advantage of the Jeep experience and can live with the compromises, you'll be buying into a vibrant community of fellow Wrangler aficionados. You can get close to the Jeep crowd with a Jeep Grand Cherokee without as many of the day-to-day downsides, so consider that option, too. Also, look at the other off-road capable vehicles from Toyota, Land Rover and Subaru for more choices.

Jeep has used the slogan "There's only one Jeep" for years. In truth, there's only one 2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 75th Anniversary Edition -- and it's a really good vehicle.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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