Owning a Jeep marks you as a steel-edged, fearless and go-anywhere person that only lacks the stipulation of dressing in fatigues and legitimately killing people.
It's a warhorse that has been inbred over generations to become domesticated enough to share your garage with a Hyundai. In 2012, it gets even more civilised to the point where your body no longer aches on the way to work. Yes, Jeep's getting soft. But consider that the advancement from a raw military short wheelbase soft-top to a compliant civilian short wheelbase soft-top has taken 71 years.
The Wrangler grips firmly to its history in more ways that it’s workable simplicity. The passenger's grab handle is embossed with 1941 - the year of the first generic Jeep - designed to fill the soul with tear-jerking memories of the heroes of war, the battles that claimed lives and the heartwrenching fears of the people left at home.
Honestly, you feel like rising in the seat to salute a flag. Any flag. But this isn't about war from an American perspective just as the Volkswagen Beetle doesn't rekindle memories of Germany's battle – this is about the war of car sales and how Jeep's parents, Fiat-Chrysler, aim to rebuild the brand by merging ideas from the US and Europe. Just like 1941.
The Wrangler short wheelbase is pretty much what it has been for decades. There is a longer wheelbase model called Ultimate, of course, but that fights in a different campaign. The shorty is very much a niche model. There's no direct rival that combines its roof-off ability with its ladder chassis and low-range gearbox, its two doors and diesel or petrol versions.
Sure, you could put it up against the Mercedes G-Wagon G350 but that's only a diesel and won't open your wallet until you reach $161,680 - almost five times the Wrangler's price. The Toyota FJ Cruiser is the only real rival but even that lacks the ability of the Jeep to be partially disassembled, creating a new toy by quickly removing the roof, the doors and folding the windscreen flat on the bonnet.
The Land Rover Defender 90 is simply hard work. You have to be a fanatical aficionado of the marque, own a farm and dedicate the 90 to chasing sheep, or have a curious and possibly indictable addiction to lethargic, alloy-clad and Lego-shaped British vehicles.
There's an alleged cult status with Jeep and that plays on the psychology of buyers. Jeep successfully - and in fact irrefutable - claims it's a tough brand and that attracts people who want to be seen as tough. Even men. For $34,000 for the automatic version, it affordably meets this macho image. I think it's well priced and is very good at its job of being a remarkable weekend fun machine in the dirt. But I'd baulk at recommended it for people who just want the image because the Jeep comes with compromises.
It's not as comfortable, as well equipped or possibly - though Jeep is advancing in leaps and bounds - as well built as an Asian SUV. Also, it works better as a hardtop. The standard flappy vinyl will do your head in on the freeway and transmits cold more efficiently than a Kelvinator. So you need to spend an extra $2500 - quite reasonable, actually – for the hardtop (that also comes with the soft top) and pick up sidesteps and six-speaker audio.
It's 1941 but with a choice of colours. Okay, so there's a bit of softening and things are more civilised, the tyre-wheel package is imposing and inside, the dashboard is almost impressive. Despite its short wheelbase status, it will comfortably seat four adults and a little bit of luggage, though this is better suited to a single or a couple, maybe with a dog.
Hard plastic is used in the cabin but it's well designed. Switchgear is generally good but needs familiarisation - the remote audio controls on the underside of the steering wheel are brilliant - while the lack of a left-foot rest is annoying and there's still some effort to climb over the sill to get out of the car.
I will confirm there have been a few changes since 1941. The engine is Chrysler's latest 3.6-litre V6 petrol (a turbo-diesel is optional) and it's damn good. It pumps 209kW/347Nm and though peak power isn't hit until 6350rpm, the V6 is no slouch in its willingness to rev. But it's thirsty. The engine drives the rear wheels through a manual select two-speed transfer case that offers 4WD High and 4WD Low.
There's no diff lock (it's optional) but the drivetrain will electronically control traction. Suspension is ultra-simple live axles front and back which sound crude but actually are very effective. The steering is recirculating ball and while not as taut as the rack and pinion design, is on par with new-age electric-assist systems.
This isn't brilliant but that's the territory of open-top 4WDs. There's two airbags, electronic stability and traction control, and things like a full-size spare wheel and heated side mirrors. Other features are aimed at enhancing its off-road ability, such as rollover
control, hill-start assist and hill descent control. Crash rating? No, it's not tested.
It's better than you think. The hardtop is mandatory for anything but warm weather for aside from retaining cabin warmth, it's reasonably quiet. The engine purrs at idle, responds quickly and gets noisy only towards the fun area in the tacho. It's punchier than the old 3.8-litre and claims to be more economical. Jeep says 11.6 L/100km and I scored 12.8 L/100km.
The auto box is smoother than I remember previous Jeeps. Don't even think of the manual unless you also considered buying a Defender 90. The driver's footwell is cramped (even on the auto) and the lack of a rest for the left foot makes the driver feel untethered - an impression magnified by the seats that are flat and provide little lateral support.
Ride is generally good but the short wheelbase hits road and track undulations and creates unpleasant pitching. That said, handling - once you get used to the tall steering ratio - is good and much better than the now-obsolete front and rear live axle layout suggests. In the dirt it's almost unstoppable, though sand work needs tyres deflated. Hardcore owners would pay about $10,000 for the Rubicon pack that has a disconnect feature for the rollbars and diff locks.
City-based commuters and pretenders are kidding themselves if they think this is a dual-purpose vehicle. But as a weekend warrior, it's almost untouchable. Best as a second car, though.
Jeep Wrangler Sport
Warranty: 3 years/100,000 km roadside assist
Service interval: 12,000km/12 months
Safety rating: n/a
Engine: 3.6-litre V6 petrol 209kW/347Nm
Transmission: 5-spd auto, 2-spd 4WD transfer; part-time 4WD
Body: 4.2m (L); 1.9m (w); 1.9m (h)
Thirst: 11.6 1/100km; 95RON; 263g/km Co2