Iconic off-roader still delivers where it counts
by: Courtesy of Northwest Automotive Press Association The seven-slot grill makes the 2011 Wrangler instantly recognizable as Jeep.

With automotive retro styling so hot these days, the 2011 Jeep Wrangler asks the obvious question - why buy an imitation icon when you can own the real thing?

Chevy, Dodge and Ford have struck gold with their revived Pony Cars, the retro Camaro, Challenger and Mustang. Same for the BMW's retro MINI Cooper. And Toyota has found a following for its FJ Cruiser, which is modeled after the company's early Land Cruisers.

But the Wrangler is not a new version of an old car. It is a direct descendent of the original WWII Jeeps. Introduced in 1987, the Wrangler essentially replaced the CJ (Civilian Jeep) model, the updated version of the small four-wheel-drive vehicles that carried troops and equipment across European and the Pacific theaters of war over 60 years ago. Although slightly larger, the Wrangler retained the boxy looks, stiff suspension and part-time four-wheel-drive system of its ancestors.

Slightly revised in 1997 and again in 2007, the Wrangler has never been fundamentally altered. A number of different inline four, six and V6 engines were offered, along with an optional automatic transmission. But the basic go-anywhere nature of the Wrangler remained the same. It was and is one of the most capable off-road vehicles ever built - and certainly the most recognizable.

The 2011 Wrangler is only offered with one engine, a 3.8-liter V6 that produces 202 horsepower and 237 foot-pounds of torque. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, while a four-speed automatic is optional. A convertible top is standards on the less expensive models. The more expensive models feature a removable hard top. A four door model - the Wrangler Unlimited - is also available.

Our test 2011 Wrangler came with the Rubicon package, named for the river in northeastern Italy that inspired the term 'Crossing the Rubicon,' which means passing the point of no return. It is intended for serious off-road driving and includes 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler "Maximum Traction/Reinforced" tires, front and rear Dana model 44 axles, a 4:1 low range transfer case and even a front sway bar that be disconnected electronically to allow more front wheel movement over rocky terrain.

Our Wrangler was bright red with large black fenders, big black bumpers and a black top. The look was tough and rugged, a sharp contrast to practically everything else on the road.

Driving the Wrangler Rubicon in the city show the difference between a retro car and the real thing. Most retro cars drive like modern motor vehicles. Even the trail-rated FJ Cruiser feels like a contemporary van on the road. Not the Wranger, though. The suspension is stiff, the beefy tires go wherever they want, the V6 is noisy and slow-revving, and the manual transmission shifts like an old truck.

Despite - or perhaps because - of these drawbacks, the Jeep actually a blast to drive around town. It bounces down the street and wallows through turns. The steering is unpredictable. The long transmission throws make quick shifts impossible. But the engine is torquey and the visibility is great, encouraging a "damn the torpedos, full steam ahead" driving style that makes even short trips entertaining.

Despite the fun, the Wrangler is not designed for day-to-day city driving. It is intended for serious trail work, which is why it excelled at the Mudfest off-road competition sponsored by the Northwest Automotive Press Association in rural Washington late last year. There it easily handled the most severe of the two courses set up for the head-to-head test against off-road vehicles, boldly going where few of its competitors would even venture.

Practically everything about the Wrangler is old fashioned. It starts with a key. The doors have to be slammed shut. The hood is held down with manual latches. The spare tire mounts on the back door, which has to be wide open for the rear window to be raised and lowered. Removing the hard top is a multi-step process that includes unscrewing numerous bolts. Inconvenient? The Wrangler doesn't care.

In truth, Jeep upgraded the Wrangler along with its other vehicles over the years. It's been a long time since you had to get out and manually twist the center of the front hubs to engage the four-wheel-drive system. A simple lever near the gear shift in our test Wranger let us move easily from two-wheel-drive to four-wheel-high and four-wheel-low.

The interior of our Wranger also offers more creature comforts and convenience features than ever before, including power windows, door locks, heated outside mirrors, and a media center with a CD player, SIRRUS satellite radio, MP3 connectivity, a remote USB port and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with built-in audio controls. The durable cloth-covered seats in our test model were comfortable but not very supportive.

Drivers may appreciate the changes, but the days of being able to leave a Wrangler out in the rain with its top down are obviously long over.

Getting in and out of the back seats is also a challenge. Although the front seats pivot forward, the step in and out is a long one. Rear headroom is good, however, thanks to the squared-off top. The four-door version would be better for families, however.

The least expensive Wrangler starts at just over $22,000. The four-door version begins at a little more than $25,000. Our Rubicon-equipped test model was priced at $33,200. All are bargains if you value authenticity.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Wrangler Rubicon 4X4

• Manufacturer: Jeep.

• Class: Compact SUV.

• Layout: Front engine, four-wheel-drive.

• Style: Three-door SUV.

• Engines: 3.8-liter V6 (202 hp, 237 ft-lbs).

• Transmissions: 4-speed automatic; 6-speed manual (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 15/19.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $29,245 ($33,320 as tested).

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