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Jeep Wrangler finds its softer side

By Scott Burgess / The Detroit News

America, along with the rest of the world, has cheapened our icons.

Nowadays, everything is iconic: Robert Redford, a water tower and even a good Coney dog might qualify. The problem with making everything iconic is that then nothing really is. It’s like saying every child is special.

But one special vehicle deserving of this trail-rated badge is the 2012 Jeep Wrangler. It defines more than a brand — it defines a country, a way of life. Close your eyes and think of a Jeep and it’s the Wrangler crawling slowly up the side of your brain, fording cerebral fluid like it was crossing the Amazon River itself.

And finally, the Wrangler is opening its doors to more than just those wonderfully crazed enthusiasts who always have mud splattered on their sunglasses and dust covering the dash and floor and gear inside of other gear. The Jeep life used to be a dusty one.

Now the Wrangler has made room for everyone else, including the people who don’t care for dust.

Jeep put the Wrangler in its transmogrifier and popped out the 2012 version with better gas mileage, more power and a lot more refinement inside and out.

At first glance, the Wrangler’s looks haven’t changed much. There are still all of those great cues that say you drove to work via the Continental Pass. The big, round headlights, the seven-slotted grille and chunky 18-inch wheel strapped onto the back. There are a few other things enthusiasts know about, such as the exposed door hinges and the trapezoidal shaped fenders that help define the Wrangler.

But something happened during assembly that gives the Wrangler a cleaner look. Jeep attributes some of this to improved manufacturing and a new paint shop. This made it possible to provide a body-colored hardtop for the 2011 regular Wranglers and for 2012 Sahara and Rubicon models.

Inside, an interior overhaul has moved this 4×4 up a few rungs of the sophistication ladder. It’s a delicate ascent, as Wrangler still wants to have all of its rugged appeal but still attract people who enjoy some of the finer things in life, such as a well-made dash and comfortable seats.

The interior is comfortable and complete. The softer dash pushes out on a few inches from the nearly straight up windshield, and the redesigned instrument gauges are much more crisp.
Finally complete

Really, the difference is just the way this dash looks and feels over the previous generation. Jeep underwent a small overhaul for the 2011 model year, but critics called it half-baked.

Now, it’s finished. The materials feel high-grade, and there’s a completeness the previous model lacked.

There are the easy-to-reach USB connections and heated front seats (always been needed on chilly fall days when it’s sunny enough to keep the roof down).

(There are two types of roofs, a soft or hardtop, available for the Wrangler. Personally, I like the soft top, which is surprisingly quiet when it’s up; it takes a few minutes to lower, once you find all of the zippers involved.)

Jeep also brings it new UConnect system. The voice-activated system will connect your phone via Bluetooth for hands-free phone operation and your music-playing device.

My test vehicle still included the old-generation 6.5-inch color touch screen with chunky buttons down each side, but this system is better than last year. It took only a few minutes to get the speakers mounted on the roll bars and cranking out tunes.

Of course, sitting in the back of the Wrangler remains an uncomfortable experience and just getting back there can be a hassle. (This explains why the four-door Wrangler Unlimited continues to outsell the Wrangler two-door.)
More mileage

There are also convenient features such as the 115-volt outlet in the second row, a feature that every vehicle in the world should have. Jeep also added lockable storage, which comes in handy when the soft top is down and the Wrangler is parked. The Wrangler used to symbolize roughing it, but now, you don’t have to sacrifice anything inside the Wrangler.

Driving the Wrangler, there’s never a sense of sacrifice. First, it can do everything, if not more, than all of the Wranglers from years gone by. (This Wrangler was introduced in 1987, and the original Jeep Wiley pulled four years of military service before it even became available to the general public.)

Now, the Wrangler has the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 under its clamshell hood. This engine, the driving force behind Chrysler Group’s revival, is smaller, more powerful and all around better than the outgoing 3.8-liter V-6 formally in the Wrangler.

It produces 83 more horsepower (285 horsepower total), 23 pound-feet more torque (260 pound-feet total) and better fuel economy. The new Wrangler can get 17 mpg city and 21 mpg highway.
More mileage

Naturally, when you’re going to put an engine into a Jeep, it will require modifications. Jeep engineers improved the intake, giving the Jeep more power, and moved the alternator up, just in case of an Amazon crossing.

Some of that mileage improvement can be attributed to the new five-speed automatic transmission (there’s also a German-made six-speed manual available). The manual transmission is extremely smooth, and a few times during my test-drive I forgot to put the Jeep in the fifth or sixth gear because the Wrangler was so responsive. The automatic was equally as responsive, never hunting for a gear.

The suspension, while created for all of that crazy wheel articulation off-road, provides a smooth ride on the highway and county roads. Even the Rubicon model felt comfortable on the road.

And that’s the difference between this Jeep and any other Wrangler.

Off the road, it will chew up almost any terrain in front of it. It relishes every opportunity to get dirty. On the road, it feels like a nice SUV with a smooth ride.

And this Wrangler will never call itself iconic. It knows if you have to call yourself that, then you’re not. And this Jeep certainly is.

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