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Jeep is the highlight of Fiat Chrysler's portfolio, with record sales helping to make up for the Italian-American conglomerate's slow growth in other sectors. The reason why is simple: people love Jeeps.
From the Fiat-based, compact Renegade to the 707-horsepower Grand Cherokee Hellcat, the Jeep brand offers a sense style, personality and ruggedness that fits perfectly with the current SUV-obsessed market.
But the cornerstone of that success is the Wrangler. The Wrangler — and its fanatical owners — helped create the culture of adventure, personalization and durability that define the Jeep brand. It sells in massive numbers and with great margins, with two-door, four-door and soon pickup-truck variants in a slew of trims.
It's far from perfect, but a week with the Wrangler will convince you why people get so crazy for these things. It may be rough around the edges, but the Wrangler is cooler and more charming than any other SUV on sale.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Wranglers are the cheap, simple machines they used to be. But our loaded Rubicon tester came to $56,765, nearly $30,000 more than the $27,945 starting price of a basic Wrangler. That number was pretty daunting, but Jeep added a lot to justify the price.
First off, our tester had the new "eTorque" engine, which is a mild-hybrid setup. It has a 48-volt battery system and a smaller, turbocharged motor that provides 270 horsepower while delivering better fuel economy. The difference is mostly apparent in city driving, where the V-6 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon delivers 18 miles per gallon while the eTorque is good for 22 mpg.
Our tester was also an "Unlimited" edition, which is the four-door model. It also has a three-piece hard top, with panels that can be removed to create a sunroof effect.
When the weather gets warm, you can take off the entire top, remove the doors and even fold the windshield down with the included tool kit. In the summer, it's hard to imagine a better vehicle to pack with friends and gear.
Should your travels take you off-road, that's where the Rubicon trim shines. Our tester had big steel bumpers with increased clearance, massive all-terrain tires and skid plates covering your delicate undercarriage should you find yourself making unintentional contact with rocks on the trail.
It's got a traditional four-wheel drive system with a low-range gearbox for better climbing, an electronically disconnecting sway bar that allows more articulation and locking differentials that allow you to keep moving even if one or more of your wheels are off the ground. Should all of that equipment not be enough, the Jeep has four auxiliary switches that you can wire things like trail lights to. It's already the most capable vehicle you can get for the price, but it's built for further customization and modification.
If the trail is muddier than expected or the weather changes while the top is down, rest assured that the interior is water resistant. You can hose if off later and commute to work. It has leather seats, an industry-leading infotainment system, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and a premium audio system.
Perhaps more importantly, the new Wrangler is a massive improvement in daily life compared with the previous generation. The old Wrangler dated back to 2006, with an unrefined experience to match. The new Wrangler rides extremely well for an off-roader, with less bounciness and more predictable steering and handling.
Still, it's far from a luxury car. Even with the hardtop, the Wrangler is loud on the highway. While the ride is good for an off-roader, it can't match a crossover or family sedan.
In fact, if you don't plan to take it off road, we can't see why you'd get a Wrangler as a family vehicle. It's less spacious, less efficient, less safe, less refined and more expensive than crossovers like the Honda CR-V or even Jeep's own Cherokee.
On that efficiency front, we'd also like to note that while the Wrangler supposedly gets 22 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway, we averaged about 18 mpg over the week. So, families and long-distance commuters with a tight gas budget probably shouldn't buy Wranglers.
However, if you're mainly looking for a fun car for adventures, the Wrangler is hard to beat. The problem, in that case, is the price: $56,765 is a lot of money. No matter how much equipment you add, the Wrangler doesn't offer anything like a luxury car experience.
Much like the Miata from last week, the Wrangler is best when you embrace its simplicity.
Hardcore off-roaders should spring for the Rubicon, but few buyers will find the basic Wrangler lacking in capability. Our goal is to get four doors, the amenities you need to get by and none of the expensive fluff.
The Sport trim doesn't come with air conditioning, which we consider a necessity. So we'd start with a four-door Wrangler Sport S. We'd stick with the manual transmission, as the automatic is costly at $2,000. Skip the 2.0-liter eTorque engine, as we didn't find it particularly efficient or advantageous. You also don't need a hardtop, as the soft top is easier to remove, cheaper and — to our eyes — better looking. It'll be loud, but so is the hardtop.
The only extra upgrade we'd get is the $995 technology package, which brings that class-leading infotainment, satellite radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. With that box checked and destination fees included, our Wrangler comes to $37,135.
We've never reviewed a vehicle that made people smile quite as often as the Wrangler. Other Wrangler drivers smiled and did the "Jeep Wave," passengers gleamed when the windows were down and the roof panels were out and gas station bystanders smiled as they complimented the color.
It was also fun to pilot, with commanding seating position and the confidence that you really could take it anywhere. It's not a perfect family vehicle nor a luxury car, but option it right and you can get the coolest SUV on sale for $37,135.
Driving Experience: 3.5
Price as tested: $56,765
*Ratings out of 5.