There aren’t many old-school off-roaders still on sale in Europe. Off-roaders built chiefly to tame mountains have been shunted out of favour, replaced with more car-like crossovers with about as much off-road fortitude as a blancmange. But, standing proud even this side of the Atlantic, Jeep is alive and kicking.
The new-for-2018 Wrangler, closest living relative of the original 1941 Willys Jeep, is one of the only trad-style SUVs left. Big, bold – especially as a four-door Rubicon in stunning Hellayella Clear Coat – and purposeful, it’ll smack you across the chops if you call it a faux-by-four. If it were a movie character it’d be Rambo-era Stallone: old-school, manly in a late 20th century sort of way and plastered with evidence of what it’s really capable of. Don’t push it, it says.
Climb in – and if you have short legs it really is a climb – and things get very 2019, very fast. A leather interior beautifully accented with contrasting stitching welcomes your grateful buttocks. The seat back is firm but agreeably so, the shape fitting snugly and comfortably beneath my shoulder blades. Pity that there’s absolutely nowhere long-term comfortable to put your left foot.
Up ahead, the instrument cluster is a mix of a high-res multi-function digital colour display with red and white on black analogue dials, the latter of which are peppered with the usual dashboard lights. To the left, in a rubberised surround, is an 8.4-inch media interface screen that punches way above its weight thanks to using a roughly 4:3 size ratio instead of the popular uber-widescreen options elsewhere. It seems massive and the high-res readout is as clear as a bell. A full-colour, app-laden, touch-screen bell. Ahem.
There’s an inescapable amount of yellow metal on show inside the Wrangler, but that’s fine. It’s a proper off-roader with heritage to live up to, and we don’t want things getting too lifestyle in here, do we? Overall the cabin delivers a really satisfying mix of old and new, except for one surprising omission: the rear door catches are fully exposed, and anyone with curious young children knows exactly where their fingers would be when you shut the door. That said, Americans would sue Jeep’s eyeballs out of its head if that was actually a thing, so we can only assume it isn’t.
Beyond the chunky dashboard and classic shallow but steep windscreen it’s aaaall bonnet. Hellayella comes to the fore again, contrasting with the dark grey vents and windscreen washer nozzles to create a foreground that would never, ever get old. We love it. That high, flat, oh-so-visible bonnet affords a little help when it comes to placing the car on the road, too.
You’ll be grateful for it. The Wrangler does not have exceptional steering in the conventional sense. On the road it’s slow, vague in its accuracy and devoid of any meaningful feedback. Getting on the power at turn-in anchors the rear end and the front feels more precise as a result, but under most circumstances you’re better to sit back and take it easy. After all, there’s full-rim wheel heating to enjoy.
The engine is much more impressive. Though the Pentastar V6 is now down to 268bhp versus the 281bhp quoted at its launch in late 2017, it’s a willing and brilliantly linear choice. Where most current turbocharged cars have been mapped to offer you at least 80 per cent of the engine’s torque at less than 25 per cent throttle, in the Wrangler your acceleration is linked directly to how hard your right boot is pressing the pedal. There’s rich torque on tap through the midrange and it really takes off after 4000rpm, repeatedly leaving a briskly-piloted R56 Mini Cooper S in its wake between 30 and 70mph – until each subsequent roundabout, anyway. A slick eight-speed automatic gearbox helps make the Wrangler’s progress seamless.
On your earlier trot to the driver’s door, which, like the rest is still hinged externally so they’re easier to remove, you’ll have had time to take in the vast 255/75 R17 tyres from BF Goodrich. These Mud Terrain beasts have only one thing in mind: traction off-road. We’ll quickly skip past the obvious reality that these aggressively blocked mud-pluggers are noisy on the black stuff. The whine builds from low speeds until it’s intrusive at 40-50mph, but at 70mph it’s ultimately swallowed into the wind noise chopping around the car’s blunt upper quarter.
Now, then. You don’t expect us to source a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and not get it mucky, do you? No? Good, because we did. And my, does it impress. Flipping the transfer case lever to the automatic four-wheel drive setting is all you’d ever typically need to do, but I did need to drop to low-range for steep climbs. The Rubicon has front and rear locking differentials, but I just didn’t need them.
We found a handy set of well-rutted hill-climbs in deepest, darkest Wales. Despite a surface so loose that falling over was a genuine possibility every time I struggled out of the cabin on a 30ish degree incline to take photos, the Rubicon just gripped and climbed. The steepest section this cowardly writer dared tackle was about 36 degrees according to a borrowed inclinometer. The Wrangler just laughed at me and told me to come back when I grow a pair.
Let’s get a few things straight. The petrol Wrangler is not frugal. General biffery will net you miles per UK gallon in the low 20s. It’s also not as solid inside as you’d like; after just 6500 miles or so this example has a mystery trim rattle bad enough that, were it mine, I’d take it back to a Jeep dealer.
But, fixable rattles aside, if I could afford to run it this is the one off-roader that I’d pick as a daily. Its flaws on Tarmac are easily outweighed by the fact that it feels so different in a charismatic way, and by the knowledge that I could take it green-laning (legal off-roading on designated trails) every weekend and have an absolute blast. I love the driving position (except the aforementioned footwell space issue), the engine, the cabin, the technology, the ethos, the way it looks, and most of all I love the way it shrugs off everything from speed bumps to loose inclines I couldn’t even walk up.
There may not be many cars like this any more, but I now have a serious soft spot for the Wrangler. Inside just one week it showed me another way to daily; a deeply glorious way to mix work and pleasure. I’ll take one in this exact spec, please: if anybody wants me, I’ll be in the hills.