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Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport

To write a story about the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport, I have to find the proper place to allow the vehicle a small chance to stretch its capable legs. I have to go to a place where the road is made of mud or dirt, not asphalt. A place where traction is earned not given. The problem is that I live in a beach town in Southern California, and the most treacherous part of my commute is caused by light rain on the 405 or a dangerously uncaffeinated crowd attempting to maneuver around the lot in front my local Starbucks. I need to venture inland.

Still, simply driving away from the siren-song provided by the crashing waves of the beach might not be enough to satiate the needs of the Wrangler, nor my desire to push the vehicle. Regardless, it was time to find out.

The journey away from the Broville-ian boardwalk is undertaken primarily on freeways. This is actually a wonderful starting point to get acclimated to this latest Wrangler. I am familiar with prior generations, and the underpowered 2.5-liter-equipped YJs still haunt the dark recesses of my brain. Allow me to back-up for a moment here to explain why. I spent a summer driving in both directions across this great nation of ours. The trip was great, but the one low point was my mode of transportation; a 1995 Jeep Wrangler saddled with the anemic four-cylinder engine. The sad sack of an engine coughed out just 120 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque. This engine was a joke when compared to the still-excellent 4.0-liter straight six that was also available.

Let’s get back to 2012 though, because there are no jokes to be found under the hood of the newest Jeep. Chrysler has fitted the Wrangler with a brand-new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6, which churns out 285 horses and 260 pound-feet of torque. That horsepower figure represents a 40-percent increase over the old minivan-sourced 3.8-liter mill, and it pushes out that increased power while achieving better fuel economy.

Out on the highways of Southern California, the new engine feels excellent. I’m not only keeping up with the fast-moving traffic, I’m passing by it with ease on my way to dustier trails. If you bought a 2011 Wrangler, you should immediately try your hand at insurance fraud so you can upgrade to the newer unit*.

Thoughts of criminal activity aside, the highway has provided a clean exit from the palm-tree laden streets. I make my across the familiar bends of California State Route 74, also known as Ortega Highway. Both the Hotchkis Challenger and Aston Martin Virage have proved excellent companions for CSR 74, as have countless other machines. It’s not the twisty ribbon of tarmac that I’m looking to spend time with today, however, and I find a street sign that says S. Main Divide. This is the road that might just lead me to the promised land.

In fact, it delivers more than promises.

Despite the fact that I’m in Southern California, I soon find myself surrounded by mountains of white stuff. …no, not that white stuff. That’s further north in Hollywood. I’m talking about actual snow, and the ground here is covered by it. Of course, since I just came from the beach, I’m the opposite of prepared for the temperatures, which have plummeted into the low 40s. Thankfully, the interior of the Wrangler is a much nicer environment than the one I can see through the glass.

A Wrangler is always a bit more comfortable than people expect it to be, at least in the front two seats. Since this a larger Unlimited Wrangler, the rear seats are more than ample to keep passengers happy. Keeping everybody in a good mood is the six-speaker audio system that features an optional USB port and Bluetooth connectivity, which means I can play my own music if I’m not feeling the options offered up by the satellite radio. I could, for example, trade Snow for Puddle of Mudd… which would mean I’m musically challenged, of course.

Oddly enough, that’s exactly what I’ve just done… but on the outside.

The snow has given way to a muddy trail, and as I reach a wider opening I’m greeted by a glorious sight; three massive puddles of muddy water. Did this Jeep just giggle? No, it couldn’t of, which means I just did… oops. Regardless, I plant my foot and take off for the nearest puddle with inexperienced abandon. I have no idea how deep it is, and I don’t know what is waiting beneath the brown expanse. Luckily, the Jeep Wrangler has years of experience, which is evident from the “Since 1941” stamped into the passenger-side Oh-Shit grab bar.

Mud flies up and over the windshield, obscuring my view for a brief moment until the wipers push the dirty water aside. I’m through the puddle more quickly than I expected, and on to the next, larger one that looms just feet away. This one is deeper, the Wrangler tilts farther to one side, and my stomach climbs deeper into my throat. Still, this is nothing for this vehicle, and all I’ve done is managed to get it dirty.

That’s all I wanted to do though, is get it dirty.

I didn’t think I was going to find the right spot to let this freshly-powered beast stretch its legs, but I did. I felt so proud of my mud-caked machine, that I left the dirt on for the rest of the week. The 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport is more capable than ever, yet more refined than ever on the inside. It’s certainly no Land Rover, but that’s a fact that Jeep owners wear with pride. Sure, this particular example is on the pricey side with an as-tested cost of $31,325, but the I-Can-Drive-Anywhere factor remains off the charts right from the showroom floor. You don’t have to pay that much either, since a base two-door Wrangler starts at $22,045 ($25,545 for the four door).

There’s a reason that Wrangler owners wave to each other in passing. They know that splashing down a muddy trail, a snow-covered road, or a rutted run can produce ear to ear smiles, and that simple wave is a quick reminder of that feeling.

[Disclosure: Jeep handed me the keys to the 2012 Wrangler, and I drove around in it for a week. The automaker also included a tank of gas, which I used to get the car dirty. I kept it dirty right up until I had to give the Wrangler back. Sorry if I missed a few spots…]

*Note: Don’t attempt insurance fraud. We’re “joking” here**.

**Note: Seriously… don’t do it.

  • LostOnJalopnik

    Is the nifty Burnt Orange color part of the whole we're possibly (definitely) catching fire thing?
    http://www.jeepforum.com/forum/f96/jeeps-catching

  • I do like the burnt oranges, though in Austin, the masses would think I am just another fan.

    • They make them in Kentucky blue and I've seen a few running around Lexington. Good looking trucks but pricey.

  • Scandinavian Flick

    Interesting… Having rented a 2011 2-door while I was visiting San Diego, I had enough to catch the Jeep itch, but I really did leave thinking it needed some serious help under the hood. I had to seriously put the hammer down to keep it at freeway speeds. At the time I chalked it up to being used to driving cars, and being a relative noob to truck-like vehicular objects.

    Still torn on the 4-door models… It was a great marketing move, and they did it as well as they could have. Just still torn on whether I like them or not…

    • jeepjeff

      The "needs moar power" feeling was 100% thanks to the minivan engine. My 4.0 feels pretty effortless for getting highway speeds. It pulls well to 60-65 in 3rd, and dropping to 4th makes it really responsive at highway speeds. In fifth it will happily cruise at 70. I expect the Pentastar in the JK to be as good or better than the 4.0 in my TJ.

      If you do get a JK, get a 2012 2-door. There aren't enough of them around, and the short wheel base gives you a better break over angle. Anything that can be done to the Unlimited to improve break-over can be done to the 2-door, and will give even better performance. It's a no-replacement-for-displacement kind of deal. The 2-door should also be lighter and easier to park.

      The only reason to go for the Unlimited is if you cannot possibly justify buying anything with less cargo/passenger capacity. (Which I tend to dismiss, but I don't have kids.)

      • Scandinavian Flick

        That makes sense. It felt like a lot of trucks that I have driven: It felt like it could drive over anything, but couldn't get out of its own way on the freeway. It also likely didn't help that it was an automatic…

        If/when I do end up getting one, which is reasonably likely in the relatively distant future, (think 5 years-ish) I will definitely be looking at the more used market. The 2012s sure are nice, but a Jeep will be a weekend toy. Definitely less than $10K.

    • I drove a rental unlimited (I think it was in 2010, must have had the early V6) and at first I thought it was quite slow. I thought, well it's a truck, not a sport car, so that's normal.
      Then I looked at the speedometer while accelerating: it was actually going up quite quickly! Being used to sitting very close to the ground in my daily driver, finding myself several feet up in the air completely changed my perception of speed and the truck felt slow even when driving at highway speeds. I had to be very careful on city streets as the Jeep was always going 20MPH faster than I thought it was…
      I'm sure I would have "calibrated" myself after a while, but I only had the Jeep for a couple of days…

      • jeepjeff

        Yes, being up higher makes it look like you're going slower than if you were seated down lower. I drive like a granny in my wife's car now. I'm calibrated for my Jeep, so I tend to accelerate until it looks like I'm going fast enough were I in my Wrangler, this ends up being 5mph under in the city (I'm better on the highway, because I have more traffic around me to match). It also doesn't help that the Jeep has a much better power-to-mass and waaay more low end torque. My normal solution to this problem is to never drive my wife's car if I can get away with it.

  • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

    This color will likely sell well in the Austin, TX, area.

  • From the beach to snow in one drive…awesome….

    and with all due respect, this is a muddy Jeep

    <img src="http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7179/6948200046_19dbc26542.jpg&quot; width="400" height="300" alt="muddyjeep">

  • pj134

    I don't think FIAT could have picked a better color palette to give the jeep, besides the fact that it is missing a military green now.

    <img src="http://www.blogcdn.com/www.autoblog.com/media/2006/04/Fiat-W190-Bulldozer-resized.jpg&quot; width=500>
    (Jeff's might have been Crush instead of Dozer but my point stands)

    • Am I the only one who could use a Dozer review, once in a while? Jeff, do you anyone at Caterpillar?

      • pj134

        I could probably find a skid steer or something. On that note, I should try to get in on work trucks/van reviewing. That would be entertaining.

  • If I could justify it, I'd buy a new Unlimited Rubicon and own it forever.

    Unfortunately, the $37,000 price is a bit of an obstacle. Namely, the idea of what an additional $20,000 put into my Wagoneer would get me.

    • Scandinavian Flick

      I keep wondering how much money would I have to make to be able to justifiably afford a new vehicle to beat the ever loving shit out of…

      It would have to be quite a bit. I would thoroughly run a Jeep through the proverbial wringer on the way to hell and back.

      • The problem with the "I just want a beater" ownership model is it forces the wheeler/beater to be an extra vehicle to the fleet. One that takes up space and time and dollars but doesn't get used 95% of the time.

        My 2000 Wrangler for sale was a little over $30k to build when new ($25k + upgrades), but it worked great as a daily driver and super-capable trail vehicle. Probably why we kept it in the family for 12 years.

        Funny thing is, the more capable your off-roading vehicle is, the less abuse it ends up taking. You just drive up/over stuff, rather than taking a running start or some kind of ridiculous line to make up for some deficiency.

        • Scandinavian Flick

          You make some good points. I guess my take on it is, I don't want to worry about snapping something crucial while wheeling, then having to worry about the fact that I just broke my DD…

          I have a serious problem with narrowing down my fleet. An all-purpose vehicle is not my thing. I buy specialists. I could never take an off-roader up in the hills to carve corners. A corner carver would never get past mildly medium sized gravel.

          The best I can do is make my off-roader fulfill my convertible craving by buying a Jeep…

          • Yeah, the "I just broke my daily driver" problem is a tough one. I've come to the conclusion that most "hardcore" stuff where you're likely to break isn't really worth doing, at least not all that often.

            The example of a nice/expensive Wrangler is more like as a 2nd or 3rd car, and maybe doing duty as the in-town runabout (which it's very good at, btw).

            • Scandinavian Flick

              I can understand that. A few friends of mine go out to Hollister Hills SVRA, and I went out there with them a couple times. As much fun as it is, once you've proved you can do it, it kinda negates the need to keep trying. Also, like you mentioned in the last post, once you have it built properly, it's easy and not that hard on the truck. My friend's lifted 4 Runner climbs the ladder with as much ease as any other truck would climb a gradual hill when the rear diff is locked…

              I did love the Wrangler as an around towner. It was nice to just leave the top down, lock a couple things in the center console, and walk away. That thing was such child-like fun for a grownup.

  • Excellent write up Jeff! And pretty pictures too (finally got that vomit cleaned off from the Infinity review)

    I love the idea of driving with the top/doors off. I've driven my cousin's Jeep on 31's and the 4 cyl is even more anemic.
    Unfortunately, I don't know if a JEEP at $30+K is in the cards for me. That's more than my truck cost and I get more utility but less interior room, less fuel economy and less door-less driving. BUT I GET MORE UTILITY.

    sorry. had to convince myself the Jeep isn't a practical purchase.

    • Jeep + $400 craigslist trailer FTW.

      <img src="http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3140/3109105252_bf7cab9a77.jpg&quot; width="500" height="334" alt="Jeep and Trailer (1)">

      You could, of course, get a trailer made from a truck bed that would actually fit 4×8' stuff.

      • 2012 Wrangler 3500lb towing capacity vs 6300lbs in my F150

        The JEEP is fantastic but I love my truck's capability.

        • True, if you did regular towing of big things, it'd be an issue.

          The stupid thing is, that low rating is completely artificial. They could easily bump the Unlimited to about 5k, and more like 6-7k with a little work.

          • I hope to own a boat someday to tow and they run around 4500lbs in weight.

            And it's not power up the hills I worry about, it's the trailer pushing the JEEP down the hills.

    • Maymar

      As pointed out, you're looking at 22-25k for a base Wrangler, which is still an impressive unit in its own right.

  • Jeff, on the highway, does the new Jeep still dart halfway into the next lane if you stop actively, consciously correcting with the wheel for a moment? The most modern Jeep I've driven was a '92 YJ, which made me seasick after about 10 miles.

    …and I don't even get seasick at sea.

    • On highway manners were just fine. No darting, pulling, or ducking. It's doesn't ride like its Grand Cherokee stablemate, but it doesn't run like Jeeps of old either.

  • Van_Sarockin

    So, it's a new Cherokee? Sounds alright. At least it isn't priced astronomically.

    • jeepjeff

      The Unlimited is Body-on-Frame rather than a unibody like the old Cherokee. Also, no version of the Unlimited comes with a fixed top. The Liberty is much closer to the Cherokee than the Wrangler Unlimited, IMO.

      • Construction-wise, you're right, but intent-wise I'd say this is pretty much the "real" Cherokee replacement. With the nice interior and a body-colored top, you're basically in typical midsize SUV territory.

        It's actually surprisingly close to the size of my Wagoneer.

        • jeepjeff

          Now that you say that, yes, they are quite close in size.

  • sport_wagon

    That is a GREAT looking Jeep. I love the color, especially. Available with proper manual transmission? If not, that's still okay. It's that awesome. If for some reason I ever need an expedition vehicle, I'm going for one of these. In orange. With a winch and all kinds of bad-assery bolted to the outside like Jerry cans and spare tires and shovels and axes and lights and stuff.

    • jeepjeff

      You can get a 6-speed manual. There's a split amongst off-roaders wrt to whether manual or auto is better, so the Wrangler ends up having one of the higher MT sales rates (which makes it a good candidate for finding a stick in the used market).

      • Maymar

        As I recall, the standard Wrangler has a much higher take rate on the stick than the Unlimited. but it's definitely available either way.

  • jeepjeff

    Ok, so, I don't care about the 3.8L, I'll never own one. If I did buy a 2007-2011 JK, I'd have a Hemi ready to drop in it (and be on the more-money-than-sense plan). The real question is: how does that 3.6L Pentastar stack up against my 4.0? The numbers are there, and it gets much better mileage. But how about that seat-of-the-pants feel?

    • It'll never sound the same, that's for sure.

      Look at power-to-weight…which I'm too lazy to look up right now, so I'll guess:
      TJ = ~3600lbs, 190hp
      JK (unlimited) = 4200lbs, 290hp

      19 Vs 14.5…definitely leans towards the new one. Of course, I can't speak for torque in the 1500-2500 range, which is crucial for crawling and overall feel. Of course, you can just get lower gears to solve that problem.

  • Marto

    I test drove an 07 Wrangler for a week once. Without reservation, it was the worst new "car" I have ever driven. Off-road it was amazing though. And the reason I was test driving it for the road is that is where most of them seem to spend their whole lives. This is why I am so glad to hear that the 2012 fixes some of its on-road worries.

  • texanidiot25

    *Puts Jeep through 2 dirt puddles, looks at the tiny bit of dirt, and calls it done*

    Strangely representative of what most Wrangler owners do..

  • Jeanne Armstrong

    This jeep is so cool and it's perfect for a rough ride. Just make sure you get a timely car detailing in Perth for this to maintain its beauty.

  • Jon Lundberg

    Jeff: Sorry about being quite late at this but what I would like to know is …. As a prime driver on the LA Freeways, how do you feel this particular test vehicle would function for you as a principle driver that remains off-road capable? I am a serious "intender" who'd like to know your opinion of its real world functionality in such a discipline (minus gas mileage of course).