It's no secret that I'm a zombie enthusiast--it's right there at the top of my Twitter profile. So, I tend to see things a bit differently. When tossed the keys to a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4x4, many would see a low-tech dinosaur, some would see a vehicle that has been only incrementally updated every year of its 71-year existence, and still others would see the ultimate weekender vehicle for frat boys, bros, and outdoorsy junior execs. A strong contingency of true-blue off-roading fans would see years of history, tradition, and a simple purity in a world where cars get more complex by the minute. I, on the other hand, saw the ultimate vehicle for keeping myself un-undead when society falls.
Think about it. The Wrangler is rugged. It can traverse almost any type of terrain, but it's still small enough to creep through some fairly tight spots. The simple chassis and power train are easy enough to modify and maintain. And while it's far from being the thriftiest vehicle that we've tested, it's definitely more economical than many of the larger trucks that boast off-roading cred--which is a good thing, because you'll probably be scavenging your own fuel after the zombie apocalypse.
Design: Looks like a brick, flies like one too
The Wrangler shows the "two-box" design language at its most simplistic. It looks that way for two reasons.
It's designed to be simple and rugged. The doors are held on by little more than a pair of simple hinges and a visible wire harness. The forward portion of what Jeep embarrassingly calls the Freedom Top roof pops off with two hand screws and a handful of toggles--great for a bit of extra sun, ventilation, or gaining the high ground when zombie-shooting! If you'd like, two adults can take off the entire hardtop to reveal a functional roll cage with the removal of just under a dozen bolts and a half hour's time.
Short overhangs give the Wrangler Rubicon unbelievably steep approach and departure angles and the massive ground clearance keeps the Jeep from high-centering over all but the most extreme terrain. Integrated rails on the underside of the vehicle keep drivers from damaging the body if the chassis does come into contact with obstructions, and metal skid plates protect the vehicle's underbelly from damage.
Things get really interesting when you start customizing the Jeep Wrangler's body. With the hardtop removed, you can install one of two different soft tops: the Sunrider, which offers full coverage, or the Bikini, for a more open-air setup. The full metal doors, with their power locks and power windows, can be removed in a few minutes for even more openness or replaced with half-doors with manual locks and windows. There's an assortment of off-road bumpers, winches, auxiliary lights, and more robust spare-tire mounts. No other vehicle that I've ever driven is as configurable as the Wrangler.
To my mind, however, the most obvious reason the Jeep Wrangler looks the way it does is because Jeep Wrangler enthusiasts want it to. There's no real off-roading advantage to the Wrangler's vertical windshield or squared-off edges. There's really nothing keeping the Wrangler from adopting a modern aesthetic a la the Range Rover Evoque, but without these rugged elements (the upright grille, the round lights that ape the sealed beam units of old, the chunky wide fenders) the vehicle wouldn't look like a Wrangler.
Consequently, many of the same design elements that are pros when off-road become cons for daily driving on-road. Jeep's promotional materials refer to the Wrangler as "refined" and "aerodynamic," but it's only either of those things in comparison with, well, older Jeep Wranglers.
The high ride height means that drivers under 6 feet tall will need a running start and a hop to reach the driver's seat without the optional side step and Mopar Grab Handle (both of which are available at extra cost). The knobby tires and pliable suspension make the vehicle a noisy, bouncy mess on city streets. The boxy aerodynamic profile makes the Wrangler feel squirmy and unstable at highway speeds. A good crosswind at 50-plus mph is a truly terrifying thing, and I could almost feel the Jeep's body rotating and rocking about as I traversed the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on a windy day.
I should also note that the Wrangler has a second row of seats, but it only really seats two people. The back seat is nigh-impossible to get into thanks to a smallish door opening and front-row seats that don't really articulate very much. Perhaps it's an easier task with the Freedom Top removed, but I doubt it. Thankfully, that rear row does fold and flip forward to increase the rear storage area, which is accessible through the rear, side-hinged hatch.
Performance: A power train that keeps it simple, stupid
The Jeep Wrangler's power train features everything you need and nothing that you don't for off-roading, but while it's basically a low-tech extravaganza, there are a few high-tech touches.
The Wrangler lacks the advanced terrain management profiles of, for example, the Land Rover LR4 or Ford Explorer, but that doesn't make it any less capable. The Wrangler just does things the old-fashioned way: with a torque-y engine, a simple 4x4 transfer system with user-selectable 2WD, and 4WD low-high ratios, and big knobby tires.
Under the Wrangler's hood, which is held in place by a pair of rubber latches and flips back to rest on the windshield, is the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine. This grunty mill outputs 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. When combined with the flexible power train, which we'll discuss shortly, this engine offer lots of low-end grunt. It's also pretty loud, but only relative to, for example, a Toyota Camry. Frankly, a bit of noise is par for the course when you're talking about a rough-and-tumble vehicle like the Wrangler. Most importantly, the engine feels bulletproof--and it needs to be because the Wrangler Rubicon can find itself pretty far from your local auto parts store.
Power leaves the engine by way of either a six-speed manual transmission or, as in our tester, a five-speed automatic gearbox before being split between the front and rear axles via a center transfer case. The automatic provided smooth shifts and was generally unobtrusive.