By Terry Box, The Dallas Morning News
February 18, 2012
As soon as my liver and spleen regain their former shapes, I will feel the need to tweet, little birds.
"Was bouncing down r-r-road in @Jeep, dudes. Totally, totally awesome."
At long last, the mud-slinging, disc-pounding Jeep Wrangler has gone a tad modern and a tiny, tiny bit soft.
And in honor of its new semi-civility, let me hop into the 21st century for a minute or two and fritter away time with Twitter — or is that Twitter away with fritter? I'm not sure.
After two decades of puzzling over the rough-and-ready Wrangler, and why in blazes anyone over 30 would buy one, I'm finally starting to get it.
Thanks to refinements last year and the addition of a real engine this year, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler no longer seems just a mountain goat artifact for rock heads, off-road libertarians and Gen Y Zippies.
While I still wouldn't recommend one to my mother, almost anyone with a reasonably healthy back can live with a new Wrangler — and I wouldn't have said that two years ago.
Before my silver Wrangler Sahara showed up at the Daily Planet recently, I had decided to at least respect its immense off-road capabilities.
Then I found that it's actually kind of likable. For the first time in my experience with them, Wranglers finally have enough power to merge comfortably, and even sound and feel reasonably good doing it.
Still as square and upright as a master sergeant, the Wrangler could have been cut whole from a block of steel — in 90-degree angles.
My chief complaint with previous Wranglers is they were one-note songs, excelling in off-road antics but a real pain in daily driving.
With extremely short overhangs, bulletproof four-wheel drive and enormous ground clearance, the Wrangler can scale most anything short of a skyscraper.
But for 2012, the cigar-chomping rock buster gets a little polish.
If you've seen any old war movies, you know the Wrangler's familiar seven-slot grille, round headlamps and square fenders.
But its appearance is helped considerably by a body-colored removable hardtop introduced last year and fine-looking 18-inch wheels wearing 255/70 semi off-road tires.
Look inside the $32,000 Wrangler, and you'll be even more surprised.
Pleated, medium-brown leather seats provide some sturdy support without seeming too plush. Like everything on the vehicle, the black dash is, of course, square.
But look: It is a little sculpted and drops down onto a lower dash in brown that matches the seats. Likewise, the door panels on mine were black plastic up high, complemented by medium-brown inserts.
Although the back seat had decent leg- and headroom, it is a real struggle in the Wrangler's tight old-school interior to get there — even for those of us who apparently inspired a certain Randy Newman song.
But the real news with the Wrangler for 2012 is its 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which replaces last year's lump of a V-6, the old iron-block 3.8-liter motor with a paltry 202 horsepower.
The all-aluminum 3.6 cranks out 285 healthy horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, a 40 percent increase in power.
Though the new engine doesn't pin you to the seat under acceleration, it is a breather that likes to wind, stretching out above 3,000 rpm.
When tied to a six-speed manual like mine was, the new engine can propel the 3,900-pound Wrangler to 60 in a quick 6.7 seconds, according to Motor Trend — a shocking 2 to 3 seconds faster than last year's model, Jeep says.
And it's more economical too — 17 mpg in the city, 21 on the highway.
Of course, most people would rather eat boiled cabbage than stir a six-speed. But the do-it-yourself transmission in the Jeep is smooth, with long throws and positive engagement, and works in fine harmony with a tight, civilized clutch.
As you might expect, cutting corners and running weekend gymkhanas are not Wrangler strengths. But its slow, highly boosted steering provides pretty good road feel and tracks clean and straight.
Moreover, for a stiffly sprung vehicle taller than most stepladders, the Wrangler actually felt OK in moderate-speed corners, leaning some but turning into curves with reasonable authority.
Still, you can expect only so much from a tall, short-wheelbase, heavy-duty vehicle designed to be a jut-jawed off-road warrior.
Let's just say the Wrangler is fidgety at best on paved surfaces and that's the price you pay for driving one — besides the nearly $32,000 window sticker on mine.
While the ride is slightly improved, the Wrangler still transmits every wave in the road through its cabin, crashing hard over real potholes.
Nonetheless, it cruised pretty effortlessly at 80, actually feeling a little smoother as the speed increased. Just tell Officer Ticketright that you're trying to preserve your back and internal organs. I'm sure he'll understand.
We geezers can laugh if we like.
But the bare-knuckled Wrangler has been a big part of Jeep's highly impressive 44 percent increase in sales this year.
Who says we're becoming a nation of distracted softies — or at least softies?
Did I just bounce past my exit?
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