Test Drive: 2012 Jeep Wrangler refines 2011 redo

— -- In what's become an unsettling theme, Jeep-parent Chrysler Group was a year late getting the really good stuff into the updated Wrangler.

Happened on the big Chrysler 300 and similar Dodge Charger sedans, too. The 2011s got the looks that made them worth considering. The 2012s have the guts that make them worth buying: a well-tuned eight-speed automatic transmission, wider availability of all-wheel drive, better navi/info system, nicer screen for displaying it.

Thus, the Wrangler. Body and interior got modernization for 2011, but the drivetrain carried over. The 2012 gets Chrysler's modern Pentastar V-6 to replace a cranky old engine, and a five-speed automatic replaces the four-speed.

The big improvements for 2011 shouldn't be dismissed too quickly. They brought the crusty Wrangler nearer today's standards. For instance, bigger tailgate glass and side windows minimize claustrophobia. And mirror defoggers, heated seats, Bluetooth streaming audio to play tunes stored on your phone without plugging it in. All commendable.

Chrysler isn't withholding features on purpose. It's running to get new models into showrooms ASAP to generate revenue, and not everything is ready at once.

So, styling one year, drivetrain the next.

We had the chance to drive 2011 and 2012 Wrangler Unlimiteds (Jeep-speak for four doors) back-to-back.

Accelerating the 2011 is like trying to hurry a sleepy oaf by poking with a dull stick. Can be done, but wretchedly unsatisfying. Steering is slow. Ride is on the bouncy side, even for a Jeep.

The 2012's new drivetrain and the suspension changes that accompany it, however, make the new one a Jeep to savor. Not only can you still do hardcore Jeep things — slam around off-road, take off the doors and the top, fold down the windshield — but now you also can take it home to meet the family.

Though hardly on par with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the latest Wrangler is quick, smooth and refined enough to be an everyday driver for those a bit funky — who don't insist on the relative poshness of a Ford Edge, Chevrolet Equinox or Grand Cherokee.

Warning: Don't bite on a "good deal" on a leftover 2011 Wrangler if the money is anywhere close to a 2012. Day/night.

Some Wrangler compromises still can be annoying, though.

•Doors, windshield. It still matters to Jeep purists that Wrangler's doors can be removed and the windshield folded flat onto the hood. Windshield-down works well in dusty areas because the grit just keeps going, instead of swirling around an upright windshield, collecting on the glass and your face.

But to be demountable, the doors have as little hardware and weight as possible. Thus, power window switches are in the center of the dashboard. And the doors lack detents to hold them partially open, so unless you park facing downhill, expect them to slap back against you as you enter or exit.

Front stereo speakers aren't tucked inconspicuously into windshield pillars. They are in space-alien pods atop the dashboard to get their weight and wiring away from the folding windshield.

On all the test vehicles, the doors needed a good slamming to fully close and avoid the warning light.

•Backup camera. None. It would help avoid kids, tricycles, pets and other short stuff behind the vehicle, and it also could be a help off-road.

If you're "Jeepin'" without the recommended spotter to stand outside and keep you from slipping down that embankment or smacking that rock, the ability to see behind you could prove priceless. Jeep says it's trying to figure out where to mount a rear camera.

On most vehicles, the camera is buried in or under the handle that opens the trunk or the hatchback or, on a pickup, that lowers the tailgate.

The Wrangler's tailgate space is claimed by the full-size spare tire mounted outside to open interior space for people and cargo.

•Rear visibility. Nearly none. Tailgate-mounted spare, a gawky snorkel that rises from the tire mount to house a center stoplight and the bulky rear-wiper mechanism block most of the view out back.

What's left is nearly obliterated by the head restraints on the rear seat. Leaving it folded helps.

But the minute you climb in — annoying because the useless running boards transfer filth onto your pantleg or skirt while providing no helpful step — you understand Wrangler is special. You feel snug, capable, secure.

A big four-wheel-drive lever along the transmission tunnel reminds you Wrangler is chiefly for helping you meet challenges of weather and terrain. Nothing automatic about it. You want 4x4, yank the lever.

Done? Reach down and put it back where you found it.

The good engine, transmission and suspension changes provide a satisfying balance of the raw and the refined that the 2011 lacked.

Now and then, stuck in traffic, you grin, knowing you could jump the median or commandeer the shoulder and be gone.

You resist. Sometimes, just knowing is enough. Driving an escape machine becomes part of the escape.


•What? New drivetrain, suspension modifications for iconic Jeep updated a year ago, except for the improved drivetrain, which wasn't ready then. Unlimited is four-door, five-passenger, four-wheel-drive SUV.

•When? On sale since August.

•Where? Built at Toledo, Ohio.

•How much? Starts at $26,345 to $37,660 with shipping. Two-door Wranglers start at $22,854 to $30,795.

•What makes it go? 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 with six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission replaces 2011's 3.8-liter V-6, six-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Engine rated 285 horsepower (up from 2011's 202), 260 pounds-feet of torque (vs. 237).

•How big? Unchanged from 2011, 2012 Wrangler Unlimited is (and has been for awhile) 173.4 inches long, 73.9 in. wide, 70.8 in. tall on a 116-in. wheelbase. Weighs 4,075 to 4,340 lbs. Turns around in 46.4 ft.

Passenger compartment: 104 cubic ft. Cargo space: 46.4 cu. ft. behind rear seat, 86.8 cu. ft. when rear seat's folded.

Rated to carry 1,000 lbs. of people, cargo, accessories.

•How thirsty? Pentastar V-6 rated 16 miles per gallon in town, 20 (automatic) or 21 (manual) on the highway, 18 combined. Old V-6 was 15/19/16-17.

Trip computer in loaded Sahara-trim test vehicle showed 13.9 mpg (7.19 gallons per 100 miles) in frisky suburban driving.

•Overall: Sooooo much better it's hard to believe.