It's no secret that I'm a zombie enthusiast--it's right there at the top of my Twitter profile. So, I tend to see things a bit differently. When tossed the keys to a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4x4, many would see a low-tech dinosaur, some would see a vehicle that has been only incrementally updated every year of its 71-year existence, and still others would see the ultimate weekender vehicle for frat boys, bros, and outdoorsy junior execs. A strong contingency of true-blue off-roading fans would see years of history, tradition, and a simple purity in a world where cars get more complex by the minute. I, on the other hand, saw the ultimate vehicle for keeping myself un-undead when society falls.
Think about it. The Wrangler is rugged. It can traverse almost any type of terrain, but it's still small enough to creep through some fairly tight spots. The simple chassis and power train are easy enough to modify and maintain. And while it's far from being the thriftiest vehicle that we've tested, it's definitely more economical than many of the larger trucks that boast off-roading cred--which is a good thing, because you'll probably be scavenging your own fuel after the zombie apocalypse.
Design: Looks like a brick, flies like one too
The Wrangler shows the "two-box" design language at its most simplistic. It looks that way for two reasons.
It's designed to be simple and rugged. The doors are held on by little more than a pair of simple hinges and a visible wire harness. The forward portion of what Jeep embarrassingly calls the Freedom Top roof pops off with two hand screws and a handful of toggles--great for a bit of extra sun, ventilation, or gaining the high ground when zombie-shooting! If you'd like, two adults can take off the entire hardtop to reveal a functional roll cage with the removal of just under a dozen bolts and a half hour's time.
Short overhangs give the Wrangler Rubicon unbelievably steep approach and departure angles and the massive ground clearance keeps the Jeep from high-centering over all but the most extreme terrain. Integrated rails on the underside of the vehicle keep drivers from damaging the body if the chassis does come into contact with obstructions, and metal skid plates protect the vehicle's underbelly from damage.
The front 2 panels of the Wrangler's 3-piece hard top can be easily removed for open-air motoring.
Things get really interesting when you start customizing the Jeep Wrangler's body. With the hardtop removed, you can install one of two different soft tops: the Sunrider, which offers full coverage, or the Bikini, for a more open-air setup. The full metal doors, with their power locks and power windows, can be removed in a few minutes for even more openness or replaced with half-doors with manual locks and windows. There's an assortment of off-road bumpers, winches, auxiliary lights, and more robust spare-tire mounts. No other vehicle that I've ever driven is as configurable as the Wrangler.
To my mind, however, the most obvious reason the Jeep Wrangler looks the way it does is because Jeep Wrangler enthusiasts want it to. There's no real off-roading advantage to the Wrangler's vertical windshield or squared-off edges. There's really nothing keeping the Wrangler from adopting a modern aesthetic a la the Range Rover Evoque, but without these rugged elements (the upright grille, the round lights that ape the sealed beam units of old, the chunky wide fenders) the vehicle wouldn't look like a Wrangler.
Consequently, many of the same design elements that are pros when off-road become cons for daily driving on-road. Jeep's promotional materials refer to the Wrangler as "refined" and "aerodynamic," but it's only either of those things in comparison with, well, older Jeep Wranglers.
The high ride height means that drivers under 6 feet tall will need a running start and a hop to reach the driver's seat without the optional side step and Mopar Grab Handle (both of which are available at extra cost). The knobby tires and pliable suspension make the vehicle a noisy, bouncy mess on city streets. The boxy aerodynamic profile makes the Wrangler feel squirmy and unstable at highway speeds. A good crosswind at 50-plus mph is a truly terrifying thing, and I could almost feel the Jeep's body rotating and rocking about as I traversed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on a windy day.
The Wrangler's iconic design is a double-edged sword that's fantastic for off-roading, but compromised for more civilized streets and highways.
I should also note that the Wrangler has a second row of seats, but it only really seats two people. The back seat is nigh-impossible to get into thanks to a smallish door opening and front-row seats that don't really articulate very much. Perhaps it's an easier task with the Freedom Top removed, but I doubt it. Thankfully, that rear row does fold and flip forward to increase the rear storage area, which is accessible through the rear, side-hinged hatch.
Performance: A power train that keeps it simple, stupid
The Jeep Wrangler's power train features everything you need and nothing that you don't for off-roading, but while it's basically a low-tech extravaganza, there are a few high-tech touches.
The Wrangler lacks the advanced terrain management profiles of, for example, the Land Rover LR4 or Ford Explorer, but that doesn't make it any less capable. The Wrangler just does things the old-fashioned way: with a torque-y engine, a simple 4x4 transfer system with user-selectable 2WD, and 4WD low-high ratios, and big knobby tires.
Under the Wrangler's hood, which is held in place by a pair of rubber latches and flips back to rest on the windshield, is the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine. This grunty mill outputs 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. When combined with the flexible power train, which we'll discuss shortly, this engine offer lots of low-end grunt. It's also pretty loud, but only relative to, for example, a Toyota Camry. Frankly, a bit of noise is par for the course when you're talking about a rough-and-tumble vehicle like the Wrangler. Most importantly, the engine feels bulletproof--and it needs to be because the Wrangler Rubicon can find itself pretty far from your local auto parts store.
Power leaves the engine by way of either a six-speed manual transmission or, as in our tester, a five-speed automatic gearbox before being split between the front and rear axles via a center transfer case. The automatic provided smooth shifts and was generally unobtrusive.
You'll have to forgive us for not attempting to put the tippy brick of a vehicle through any performance-driving paces, but that hardly seemed like the point here. For our brief soft-roading tests, which involved climbing a few massive construction-site dirt mounds and generally crashing through any mud puddle we could find in the whole of the San Francisco Bay Area, and for what I believe are most drivers' needs, the slushbox should do just fine.
This rugged SUV makes short work of all but the largest of obstructions thanks to its massive ground clearance and torque-y power train.
The 4x4 system works the same way as it has for as many years as I care to remember. Switching from 2WD (best for streets and efficiency) to 4WD high (best for improving grip in rain and snow or for most moderate-speed off-road situations) is as simple as pulling a lever. You can even do it when the vehicle is in motion. However, switching down to 4WD low--an extremely low-geared 4x4 mode that's best used for maximizing torque multiplication and speed control during, for example, rock crawling and other low-speed, high-grip off-roading situations--requires shifting the vehicle's transmission into Park or Neutral, then shifting the transfer case through its own neutral setting and into the lower drive mode. It's tricky to do and requires quite a lot of elbow grease to get the gears to mesh if you're not on a perfectly level surface.
Other off-roading features are a mix of the high- and low-tech. For example, the Wrangler can electronically lock the front, rear, or both axles to further maximize grip in situations that would call for such a thing. The electronic antisway bar can be decoupled at the touch of a button (at speeds below 18 mph) to allow the wheels to more freely articulate over uneven surfaces, and can be re-engaged to help keep the SUV relatively flat during on-road cornering.
Fuel economy is not this vehicle's strong suit. I managed to empty most of the 18.6-gallon tank in two days of running errands around town in hilly San Francisco. The EPA fuel economy estimates for the Wrangler Rubicon 4x4 are 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. The trip computer hovered around 16 mpg for the duration of my light-footed testing, so let's just call the EPA's estimates "optimistic" and move on, shall we?
There's not a vehicle in Jeep's lineup that's better suited to wear the Trail Rated badge.
Cabin tech: Listen to Nero fiddle while Rome burns
The Wrangler may be a blunt instrument--a decidedly simple vehicle built to be as unbreakable and infinitely useful as a fire axe in a zombie outbreak--but that doesn't mean that it's not without its creature comforts.
Ours was equipped with a Uconnect voice-controlled Bluetooth hands-free calling system with A2DP audio streaming, which will display song metadata if the paired device and the audio playback application support it. Additionally, there's a USB port for MP3 and iPod playback, a 115-volt power outlet for powering your gadgets when the grid goes down, and a fairly kick-ass Infinity audio system.
The seven-speaker Infinity audio system consists of a powered subwoofer, front midrange speakers mounted in the lower dash rather than in the doors, a pair of rear midrange speakers hanging from the roll cage, and two tweeters housed in dashboard-mounted frog-eyed pods. For spoken-word programming, such as talk radio or audio podcasts, the system is pretty lackluster. However, connect your MP3 player of choice and feed it some bass-heavy hip-hop, hard rock, or electronica (it's the end of the world, no one's left to judge your crappy musical tastes, so why not go ahead and crank some dubstep!) and the audio system springs to life. The powered subwoofer fills the Wrangler's otherwise plasticky, echoing cabin with bass and easily overcomes wind and road noise even with front panels of the Freedom Top removed. To my ear, there's actually a bit too much bass at the system's flat setting, and I found that the optimal EQ setting for most types of music involved dialing down the bass a few ticks and cranking up the midrange to match.
Can you even get navigation technology in this vehicle? Sure you can. The Wrangler Rubicon is offered with two different navigation options: the Media Center 420N option features a 6.5-inch screen, a 40GB hard drive with 20GB devoted to ripped audio, and a navigation system powered by Garmin that's similar to that of the 2012 Chrysler 300 we recently tested. There's also the more expensive Media Center 720N option, which is mostly identical, but gets its turn-by-turn directions from the automaker's own MyGig system. Then again, if you're driving a Wrangler the right way, you'll be outside of the realm of turn-by-turn directions most of the time anyway. Most certainly, the post-apocalyptic roads will be too clogged with stalled cars to navigate anyway. So just, toss a PND in the glove box for emergency navigation when the infrastructure crumbles and use your Bluetooth-paired smartphone for daily driving.
In sum: World War Z or weekend warrior?
The same features and design elements that make the 2012 Jeep Wrangler great for zombie outbreaks also make it great for weekend warriors of the less violent type. It goes almost anywhere, it's ridiculously easy to modify and maintain, and although it's not the smallest or most efficient vehicle, it's much nimbler and thriftier than a Land Rover or a Hummer. When society collapses, look for me hightailing it to safety behind the wheel of a Wrangler clad in improvised armor.
But until the dead rise and the grid goes down, you'll have to live with keeping the Wrangler in polite company. Unsurprisingly, the newest Wrangler Rubicon is pretty good for that too, if you don't mind a lot of compromises. You see, the Jeep Wrangler is to off-roaders what the Mazda Miata is to driving enthusiasts: it's everything you need to get the job done and nothing else. However, like the Miata, the Wrangler is pretty much rubbish at everything outside of its designed purpose. You could live with it--the Bluetooth and various forms of MP3 connectivity, the premium audio system, and optional navigation make for a surprisingly comfortable daily driver--but unless you see regular off-road excursions in your commute, the Wrangler is probably best relegated to second-car status.
The Wrangler is a vehicle that wants to crash through mud holes, over rocks, and off the beaten path. If your Wrangler isn't covered in dirt at least once per month, you're missing the point.
Our Flame Red 2012 Wrangler Rubicon started at $29.995, but the Freedom hardtop adds $735 to the bottom line. Additionally, our tester was outfitted with heated leather seats (a $900 indulgence in a Wrangler), the $385 Uconnect Bluetooth and USB Connectivity Group, $685 for power mirrors, power locks, and remote keyless entry, and $1,125 for the five-speed gearbox. Along with the $800 destination charge, that brings our as-tested price to $34,625--which is a small price to pay to survive the fall of mankind in style.
|Model||2012 Jeep Wrangler 4x4|
|Power train||3.6-liter V-6, 5-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||n/a|
|Bluetooth phone support||yes|
|Disc player||single-slot CD|
|MP3 player support||standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection|
|Other digital audio||SiriusXM Satellite Radio|
|Audio system||7-speaker Infinity premium audio with powered subwoofer|
|Price as tested||$34,625|