Taming America's sport utility vehicles and turning them into new-day minivans for mainstream buyers took a toll on most classic SUVs. But the iconic Jeep Wrangler escaped the trend.
Today the Wrangler -- with a new, more powerful engine and a five-speed automatic transmission added for 2012 -- stands out in the wilderness and the marketplace.
The Wrangler is the only mass-produced SUV with removable doors. The roof, which can be soft-top or hardtop, can come off, too, for close-to-nature travel. And the 2012 Wrangler comes only with four-wheel drive. No two-wheel drive is offered.
With a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,845, the 2012 Wrangler arguably packs the most off-road SUV capability for the price. The starting price is for a base, 2012 Wrangler Sport 4X4 with a 285-horsepower V-6 engine and six-speed manual transmission.
In comparison, Hyundai's lowest-priced SUV, the Tucson, has a starting retail price of $23,845 for a more on-road-inclined, all-wheel-drive model that has a 165-horsepower four-cylinder engine. All-wheel-drive Tucsons come only with automatic transmissions. The 2012 Toyota FJ Cruiser starts at $27,930 with a 260-horsepower V-6, four-wheel drive and manual transmission.
Time was when the jaunty ride of a Jeep was part of the unique experience of these vehicles, when people expected and even relished the ride as a memorable treat not to be missed.
Too many auto critics spending too much time in today's soft-riding SUVs have led to complaints about the Wrangler's ride, which, because of the vehicle's short wheelbase of 95.4 inches, can feel a bit choppy, especially over highway segments with prominent concrete expansion cracks. There can be a tippy sensation, too, in turns because of the vehicle's high center of gravity.
But anyone who dislikes a numbing ride and who believes in really piloting an SUV, rather than merely going along for an insulated, sublime ride, will find the Wrangler a satisfying experience.
While a six-speed manual still is the base Wrangler transmission, Jeep officials upgraded the automatic for 2012. It's now the five-speed from the Grand Cherokee and makes more efficient use of engine power and gasoline. Fuel mileage is increased, officially, to 17 miles per gallon in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway from last year's 15 and 19 miles per gallon, respectively.
During the test, I averaged just 16 mpg in combined city/highway travel.
2012 Jeep Wrangler
Base price: (including destination charge): $22,845
EPA rating: 17 mpg city driving, 21 mpg highway
Engine: 3.6 liter, 285-horsepower V-6
Transmission: six-speed manual, five-speed automatic
Final word: Jeep Wrangler still offers a jaunty experience on the road -- or off.