IN MANY WAYS, the Jeep Wrangler is a living anachronism. The number of body-on-frame passenger cars in today’s new car showrooms can be counted on two hands, and live axle suspensions were declared “old hat” decades ago.
But the Wrangler, Jeep’s iconic spiritual successor to the original World War Two 'GP', still soldiers on today in a form that – at first glance – looks too outdated to be competitive.
From the moment you open the driver’s door, the Wrangler's no-nonsense pragmatism is immediately apparent.
The plastic door handle is thick, chunky and probably indestructible, the door check strap is just that – a nylon strap – and the doors themselves can be removed entirely with just a single hand tool.
The entire roof can be removed too. You can ditch the two panels above the front seats just by undoing a few latches and removing a couple of screws.
The plastic roof and side panels over the rear of the car require a bit more muscle (and tools), but with the assistance of a friend they can also be off in minutes.
The design of the dashboard, with its towering centre stack and utilitarian layout, is appealing in a sort of quasi-military way, but it feels like it was built to a (limited) budget.
The upshot is that you won’t feel guilty about scratching the glovebox lid or getting mud stuck in the dashboard’s many gaps. The steering wheel is wrapped in leather, but it’s a token concession to driver comfort.
The front seats are quite flat, but reasonably well-padded. The driving position is upright and the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach, only tilt, while the pedals are a bit too far away for shorter-legged folk.
Outward visibility is limited by the letterbox-like front windscreen and the spare wheel mounted to the tailgate, but the wing mirrors are large enough to minimise the Wrangler’s blind spots.
But even so, driving the Wrangler around town reveals handling that is too harsh, steering that is too vague and a body that is too cumbersome for suburbia.
The engine, a four-cylinder 2.8 litre turbodiesel sourced from VM Motori, needs a decent prod to get the Wrangler moving too.
At 130kW it’s not exactly wanting for power, and the torque output of 460Nm on our automatic-equipped tester (manuals get only 400Nm to play with) is nothing to be sneezed at. It’s just that the Wrangler’s 2100kg-odd kerb weight is on the wrong side of the two tonne mark.
Fuel economy is claimed to be 9.5 l/100km on the combined cycle for the diesel automatic, but our test saw an average of 12.1 l/100km.
Granted, we did do some extended off-road driving, but the sheer mass of the Wrangler is largely responsible for its drinking habit.
It is, at least, practical. There’s enough room to cart around four adults (five at a pinch), and with the rear seats folded the load area is a decent 935 litres.
But is off-road, far away from town, that the Wrangler Unlimited truly comes into its own.
Thanks to its live-axle suspension and the generous ground clearance granted by its body-on frame construction, the Wrangler’s excellent wheel articulation and approach and departure angles endow it with a go-anywhere ability that’s simply hard to beat.
In low range the diesel engine and automatic transmission give excellent tractability, and the fairly grippy (and aptly named) Goodyear Wrangler tyres have no trouble biting into dry dirt and gravel.
We didn’t have an opportunity to explore its capabilities in the mud (after a longish break in Autumn rain), but on dry 4WD trails it was as sure-footed as a mountain goat and virtually unshakeable.
One downside is a stability control program that intervenes a little too late to prevent a slide when driving at higher speed on gravel, but it’s reasonably effective at halting slippage after it occurs.
The body, despite the many joins of its multi-panelled roof, folding windscreen and exposed-hinge doors, felt remarkably solid, and didn’t exhibit any flex or creaking when negotiating lumpy ground either.
Dust sealing is also reasonably good, although a lot of it seems to gather in the weather seals of the tailgate glass, waiting to drop onto whoever opens it next.
On suburban roads and highways the Wrangler feels very much like a fish out of water, but take it into the bush and it’s one of the best off-roaders around.
Unlike cars like the Land Rover Discovery, the Wrangler was never sent to a finishing school. It’s a bit rough around the edges in terms of overall refinement, sure, but it’s more characterful as a result.
There are flaws, but the Wrangler’s abilities on off-road tracks are almost impossible to fault. The Wrangler Rubicon is available for an extra $9000, but the extra diff locks and other suspension tweaks that it brings transforms it into an off-roader’s dream.
It’s a good, honest four-wheel drive that’s capable of shaming far more complex machinery, and its mechanical simplicity and bulletproof construction make it an excellent choice for serious outdoorsy types.
Retailing at $41,990 it’s also a bargain buy. The Land Rover Defender wagon retails for just under $49,000 and only has 90kW and 360Nm at its disposal, while the Toyota Prado GX diesel commands a premium of $55,990 in manual form.
Even the Nissan Pathfinder starts at $48,490 for the ST manual, making the Wrangler Unlimited the cheapest of its peers.
It certainly feels like the cheapest, but don’t let that fool you: for off-road enthusiasts, the Jeep Wrangler is one of the best in its class.