Smooth, powerful Pentastar V6 boosts appeal of iconic off-roader
by: CHRYSLER MOTORS The Pentaster V6 engine and interior may be new, but the 2012 Wrangler still looks and drives like a Jeep.

There are many reasons why Chrysler went bankrupt when the economy tanked. For starters, many of its models were out of date compared those competitors who weathered the tough economic times better. Chrysler was also unable to bring new cars to market quickly, leaving the company without any real economy cars when gas prices peaked.

But for the last decade, Chrysler also lacked a decent V6 engine. As gas prices climbed, virtually every other manufacturer was able to offer consumers a newly-designed V6 that produced more power than some earlier V8s but got better gas mileage.

This year, Chrysler can finally say, me too. Saved by its partnership with Fiat, the company now offers a new all-aluminum 3.6-liter V6 in most 2012 models. It is a vast improvement over the previous cast iron 3.8-liter one. Dubbed the Pentastar V6, it is more powerful, quieter, and gets better mileage - 12 to 15 percent better, according to the compared, depending on the application.

Our first long-term exposure to the Pentastar V6 was in the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4X4. This might not have been the best choice, since the rugged little SUV is not built for speed, quiet, or maximum fuel economy. But compared to the same model we tested in May with the previous engine, most improvements were immediately obvious.

In our previous review, we said the engine was noisy and slow-revving. With only 202 ponies on tap, it was also underpowered, although the six-speed manual transmission helped compensate for that.

In contrast, the Pentastar V6 is quiet and winds up quickly. And with a respectable 285 horsepower, it no longer needs a heavy foot to keep up with traffic or climb a steep hill.

As for mileage, well, let's just say that shouldn't be your number one reason for buying a Wrangler. The 2012 model is only rated at 16 mpg in town and 21 mpg on the highway. Still, that's an improvement over the 15/19 in last year's model.

Of course, no one buys a Wrangler for the mileage. They buy for the good old-fashioned four-wheel-drive experience. The last remaining direct descendant of the legendary Jeeps of World War II, the Wrangler retains the boxy styling and go-anywhere engineering of its ancestors. It comes in soft top or removable hard top version for open air driving in good weather.

The Rubicon version we tested has special features for the most serious off-road driving, including front sway bars that can detached from inside the cab to increase ground clearance even more.

The Pentastar engine should make that kind of driving easier, not only because it is more powerful, but also because it delivers that power smoother. But it is in day-to-day driving that the difference will be more apparent. Not only is it quieter, but the additional power reduces the need to shift as much in around town driving.

This is not the only creature comfort upgrade in the Wrangler in recent years. The interior was redesigned last year with a new dash layouts and better materials. The hard plastic looks much better, and our test model had an attractive two-tone color scheme. It also came with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and heated front leather seats, something unheard of in earlier models. And the stereo now includes jacks for audio devices.

All these options aren't cheap, of course. The base Wrangler starts at around $22,000. Ours was $35,630, with much of the increase going for the heavy-duty Rubicon package, power windows and doors locks, and a media center that included a navigation system.

The Wrangler is also available in a four-door version that is much more suitable for families, considering the hard-to-reach back seats and small cargo space in the two-door version.

But the good news is, even the base Wrangler now comes standard with the Pentastar V6, which makes it an even better buy than before.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model: 2012 Wrangler Rubicon 4X4.

• Manufacturer: Jeep.

• Class: Sport utility vehicle.

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

• Style: Two-door, swing-out rear gate with lifting window.

• Engines: 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 (285 hp, 260 ft-lbs).

• Transmission: Five-speed automatic; six-speed manual (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 22/27; 14/23 (as tested).

• Prices: Starting around $22,045 ($35,630 as tested).

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