What exactly does it take to become an automotive icon? Are strong sales and exceptional driving dynamics key to becoming regarded as something more than just another car?
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 with 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual or five-speed automatic.
Fuel Economy: 16 mpg city, 20 mpg highway, 18 mpg combined.
Pricing: $27,695 to start. $33,000 as tested.
Whatever that secret sauce is, there is no doubt that the Jeep Wrangler is lathered in it.
This body-on-frame SUV is entering its ninth year on the market in its current form and is due for a full redesign very soon. Vehicles often experience a dip in sales when they are near the end of their lifecycle, but not the Wrangler, which set an all-time sales record in 2015, moving 202,702 units in the U.S.
So what is it that makes this old dog so special? We’re testing a 2016 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler Edition to find out. And we may have had a little fun in the process.
What Makes a Willys So Special?
The Willys Wheeler is based on the humble Wrangler Sport, but it gets all of the important off-road upgrades anyone leaving the pavement would want, including rock rails, a limited-slip differential, a beefier 3.73 rear-end axle ratio, heavy duty rubber floor mats and BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain off-road tires.
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Our tester was an Unlimited model, which means you get four doors and a decent sized backseat that offers 37.2 inches of legroom.
A blacked-out grille and special decals give this special edition unique looks that harken back to the days of the classic military Jeeps, and the green paint finish certainly helps as well. But as it comes in base form, the Wrangler is already totally unique looking. There is simply nothing else that looks like it on the road today.
Across the board, the Wrangler is powered by a 3.6-liter V6 with 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Though the torque numbers on paper don’t seem too robust, the 3.73 rear end helps to put the power to the ground early in the rev range, allowing this Jeep to pull you up and over obstacles when the pavement ends. That low end also helps to get the Wrangler moving off the line in a hurry on road, while passing and merging onto freeways is not an issue. A coarse, rumbly exhaust note emits from the back of the Jeep, making the already tough Wrangler sound even more rugged.
Fuel economy is not at all the Wrangler’s strong suit, and Jeep has already promised that diesel and hybrid versions of its off-roader are coming in the future. For now, we have to make due with 16 mpg city, 20 on the highway and 18 combined with an automatic transmission. The diesel/hybrid can’t come soon enough.
Getting Behind the Wheel
After driving the Wrangler for only a few minutes on the road, it is not at all clear why it is so loved. Rather than even try to cut through the wind, the Wrangler plows through it with its square face and upright windshield, making it a real task just to keep it inside the lines.
There are no other new vehicles that like to wander around the road like the Jeep does, and driving it on a windy day requires more steering than most cars use for autocross. The loose steering means that your arms are working overtime, with big inputs needed just to keep the car straight. That, combined with a cushy suspension that has you rolling through the corners and nose diving on braking, all make for a rather bad combination for anything driving on pavement.
The big BFG mud terrains tires didn’t help either, sending a noisy drone into the cabin of the already noisy Wrangler.
So why would anyone purchase a vehicle that is so terrible to drive? It’s the same reason why someone will spend all of their money on an engagement ring, or thousands of dollars on vet bills: love. This Wrangler appeals purely to emotion, and if you’re the right kind of person (and, apparently, there are a lot of them), that emotional response far outweighs your rational decision making process.
My own love for this vehicle was quickly cemented the moment the pavement ended.
There are few things about the Jeep that make it excellent for off-roading. First you have the ridiculous 42.2-degree approach angle and 32.5-degree departure angle, which are the best in the business. A tall seating position, short nose and the large fender flares make it easy to place your wheels and, despite the size of this Unlimited four-door Jeep, it always felt small enough to fit through tight spots. A full 10 inches of ground clearance certainly helps as well.
The loose steering that seems hilariously bad on road starts to make perfect sense when crashing over rocks and through ruts; the wheel stays firmly in your hands with no wrestling required.
It’s out here that the popularity of the Wrangler starts to make sense. Crashing through the bush with no civilization in sight, you have to trust your vehicle, and that feeling is what bonds people to the Wrangler. It’s a trustworthy toy when you want it, and it can still get you to work when you need it.
It’s so much fun on the trails, and its purpose-built characteristics make off-roading easy and intuitive, so it’s hard not to fall in love with it. In fact, a few hours of snowy, muddy off-roading, and I was sold on this Jeep, convincing myself that I could easily live with its terrible on-road driving characteristics just to occasionally get the chance to escape into the bush.
The Wrangler’s one true competitor, the Toyota FJ Cruiser, left the market this year, so those shopping for something like this really only have one option. Pricing for the Wrangler Unlimited Willys Wheels that we tested sits right at $33,000, a decent value considering that there is really no other vehicle that offers what this Wrangler does.
The Verdict: 2016 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler Review
The Wrangler is definitely an automotive icon. Just about everyone knows what a Jeep is and has some vague idea of the vehicle’s history. It is part of pop culture.
But as a vehicle, it is the Wrangler’s terrible, unapologetic on-road manners and outstanding, purpose-built off-road capability that makes it so lovable. Combined with its unique, tough style, it’s not hard to see why the Wrangler has been such a success.
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