By Derek Price
The word “icon” gets used far too frequently in the car world, but few vehicles deserve the term as much as this one, the Jeep Wrangler.
With roots dating back to World War II, this is the Jeep whose ancestors helped topple Hitler. It’s the Jeep that everyone thinks of when you say “Jeep,” despite the brand taking on a wide-ranging global lineup that sells everything from efficient, compact runabouts to huge, family-friendly luxury machines.
Yet to some, the Wrangler will always be the one true Jeep. As purists see it, the rest are just hangers-on, an entourage for the real star of the show.
That’s why this moment marks an important point in Jeep history, a time when — as has been widely reported — an all-new version of the Wrangler is about to be unveiled with all sorts of rumored changes, including the possibility of aluminum parts to improve its gas mileage. Seeing how many vehicles are following that same path, even venerable Ford pickups, that would be no surprise.
But it’s also a perfect opportunity for Jeep to screw things up.
The Wrangler’s greatest appeal is that it sticks to its roots better than any other vehicle. It’s built around one mission — off-road adventure — so thoroughly that it pushes all other priorities to the back burner. And that makes it amazing.
I just spent a week driving the current generation Wrangler in its twilight years. The future one may be far better. Not knowing that, though, I spent most of the week feeling nostalgic and hopeful for one of the most unique, interesting, and laser-beam-focused vehicles for sale today.
Yes, you can tell the Wrangler is reaching the end of its lifespan in several ways. Its 16-mpg city rating feels like a time capsule from 15 years ago. Its on-road noise levels and handling, while far better than they used to be, still lag behind what most vehicles consider acceptable in 2016.
Still, it’s a Jeep. No, it’s the Jeep. And the fact that it’s built so different, looks so different and drives so different from everything else on the road — warts and all — makes it all the more lovable in my mind.
It’s the one vehicle that I don’t have to hunt for subtle differences that set it apart because, by God, it beats you over the head with them.
It’s a Kleenex box with a canvas top when everything else I drive is just a car.
The 2016 Wrangler I tested was perhaps the most iconic version of the icon, a Hard Rock Edition that comes with rock rails for brutal off-road driving and a loud, nine-speaker Alpine stereo with a subwoofer to make beats thump over the wind noise when you’re flying down the highway with the wind in your hair. It’s way too much fun.
One change from the classic Wrangler, though, is my tester’s Unlimited layout with four doors and a roomy back seat. It’s one nod to practicality in a vehicle that seems otherwise built with no such thoughts, other than the practical aspects of off-roading like easily replaceable body panels and floor mats that you can hose off when they inevitably get filthy.
That kind of practicality it does brilliantly.
Sure, the next-generation Wrangler might be extremely cool. Knowing Jeep’s track record, and how much their whole brand image depends on this one vehicle, I’d expect it to be.
But at the same time, I’m a realist. The next Wrangler will probably be built to meet Obama-era gas mileage mandates, be quieter, more refined and more — dare I say it — sterilized to match a world that expects it to fit in as safe, polite and politically correct.
The Wrangler has never been polite. Good manners don’t beat Hitler. And buyers who love the Wrangler as it is and was — a loud, brash, boxy beast of a machine — may want to pounce on a 2016 or 2017 model before it changes sometime soon.
At a Glance
What was tested?
2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 4×4 ($36,995). Options: Rubicon Hard Rock Edition ($4,800), five-speed automatic transmission ($1,350), 4.10 axle ratio ($695), 6.5-inch touchscreen radio ($1,195), remote start system ($495). Price as tested (including $925 destination charge): $46,525
Wheelbase: 95.4 in.
Length: 164.3 in.
Width: 73.7 in.
Height: 72.5 in.
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 (285 hp, 260 ft. lbs.)
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel Economy: 16 city, 20 highway
Why buy it?
It’s one of the few vehicles built for real adventures. Its timeless Jeep style and feel are still intact after generations of making people smile.