By Derek Price
Kobe Bryant just retired from playing basketball, prompting all kinds of retrospectives about his famous marathon workout sessions that can start hours before dawn.
His work ethic made him one of the best players in the history of the NBA, some say.
But you know what people don’t say? That he was a gifted painter, an award-winning scientist or a sensation at playing tennis.
The guy did one thing — basketball — and did it well. He was no renaissance man.
There’s something to be said for laser-beam focus, and few vehicles are more focused on a singular core mission than the Jeep Wrangler. It’s the Black Mamba of off-roading.
Sometimes I like to criticize the Wrangler for its obvious weaknesses. It’s noisy and bumpy on the highway. It burns too much gas. It doesn’t come with Bluetooth (how prehistoric is that?)
But that’s also like saying Babe Ruth sucked at ice hockey.
The Wrangler puts on a jaw-dropping show of talent on the trails, which is all that matters to its mission. Its all-wheel-drive prowess makes it feel invincible climbing rock inclines or splashing through streams.
I spent a week driving a four-door version of the Wrangler called the Unlimited, and it makes a lot of nods toward practicality. The cabin is far quieter than it used to be — although still one of the noisiest you can buy today — and its dash feels much more modern than it did just a few years ago.
Its ingenious Dual Top option lets you switch between a hard-surface top, a soft cloth top or everyone’s favorite way to drive a Jeep: with the top wide open to the wind. The hard top and four-door layout make it surprisingly good at family-car duty, although its 16-mpg city rating make it an expensive alternative to a Honda Civic or Ford Focus at the fuel pump.
But again, that’s not what it’s built for.
A 3.6-liter V6 feels like a good fit, delivering enough low-end grunt to get the heavy Jeep moving at stoplights while also being easy to modulate with the throttle when you need to do rock climbing in 4WD-low. It sounds smoother and more refined than I expected from Jeep’s most rugged vehicle, too.
A remote engine starter and 28-gigabyte storage capacity for songs were pleasant surprises on the option list, although the Bluetooth phone connection remains a weird omission in 2016. I suppose where most Jeep drivers go, there’s not cell phone coverage anyway.
Jeep has always loved cranking out special editions, and this year it adds another: the Black Bear Edition that adds extra content inside and out — including a “heritage ‘Wrangler’ hood decal,” 17-inch wheels with black spokes and special trim on the inside. It commemorates Black Bear Pass, a popular trail at the annual Jeep Jamboree in Colorado.
The Sahara model gets some refinements as well. A body-color bumper and snazzier 18-inch wheels are among the design changes that make it look sharp on the outside, and olive green leather seats are optional on the inside.
Pricing starts at $23,895 for the two-door Wrangler and $27,695 for the four-door Wrangler Unlimited. My Wrangler Unlimited Sahara tester with around $10,000 in options rang up at $43,845.
At a Glance
What was tested?
2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara ($33,295). Options: Leather seats ($1,350), connectivity group ($595), dual top group ($2,185), supplemental front side airbags ($495), automatic transmission ($1,350), Trac-Loc rear axle ($395), air conditioning ($395), body color Freedom Top ($1,100), navigation radio system ($1,195), remote start system ($495). Price as tested (including $995 destination charge): $43,845
Wheelbase: 116 in.
Length: 184.9 in.
Width: 73.7 in.
Height: 72.6 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 (285 hp, 260 lb.-ft.)
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
EPA Mileage: 16 city, 20 highway
2016 Jeep Wrangler
Why buy it?
It’s incredibly focused on its core mission of off-road driving. With an optional hard top on the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, it’s easier to live with in day-to-day driving on pavement, too.