By G. CHAMBERS WILLIAMS III McClatchy Newspapers
Going out for some serious four-wheeling becomes even more fun with the 2012 Jeep Wrangler, which now has an all-new, more-powerful and more-efficient engine.
The new Pentastar 3.6-liter, which has 285 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque, replaces last year's 3.8-liter V-6, which had just 202 horsepower.
It's the only engine offered in either Wrangler version - the traditional two-door model, or the family-oriented four-door Unlimited.
It's the same engine that comes in the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as a variety of other 2012 Chrysler products, including the Dodge and Chrysler minivans, Dodge Charger sedan, Dodge Durango crossover, and Chrysler 300 sedan.
For the Wrangler two-door, EPA fuel-economy ratings are now 17 mpg city/21 highway when connected to either the standard six-speed manual gearbox or the optional, new five-speed automatic, replacing last year's four-speed.
With the Unlimited, EPA ratings are 16/21 with the manual and 16/20 with the automatic. That's up from 15/19 for the 2011 models (manual and automatic).
Jeep says the five-passenger Unlimited, introduced for 2007, already has become the best-selling Wrangler model, most likely because it's a credible family vehicle.
The two-door Wrangler, with a four-passenger capacity, has never been very practical for most people to use as their everyday vehicle, particularly those with a family.
Even with the Wrangler's last complete makeover, also for model year 2007, the two-door still has room only for four people. But the front seats got 4.6 inches more hip room and 5.1 inches more shoulder room in the redesign. The rear seat was given 3.9 inches of additional shoulder room, 1.6 inches more hip room, and an inch more legroom.
The cargo space behind the rear seat of the two-door is just 17.1 cubic feet, but that expands significantly with the rear seatback folded forward if the back seat isn't needed for passengers.
With the four-door model, though, you can put three people in the back seat, and there is plenty of cargo space behind it - 46.4 cubic feet.
The four-door has a 116-inch-wheelbase versus 95.4 inches for the standard-length Wrangler, and it's 20.6 inches longer.
Even with all of the changes - including the quietest cabin ever in a Jeep - the Wrangler still has the off-road abilities that have made this the preferred vehicle of serious four-wheel-drive enthusiasts.
For 2012, there is even a truck version of the Wrangler available, in a roundabout way. Jeep's Mopar parts-and-accessories division is offering a $5,499 kit to transform the four-door model into a pickup. This model was on display at last fall's State Fair of Texas Auto Show in Dallas, which is where I first saw it.
Chrysler has no plans to make a pickup version of the Wrangler on the already over-burdened assembly line in Toledo, Ohio. But Jeep fans who have been clamoring for the return of a Jeep truck can easily turn their Unlimited models into one, using the Mopar JK8 kit available through Jeep dealerships.
The company says "skilled do-it-yourselfers" should be able to install the kit, but dealership service departments can do it, as well - for an additional charge, of course. The cost will vary by dealership.
The kit "takes cues from the popular Jeep Scrambler CJ-8 from the 1980s," Mopar said, and major components include a 44-by-50-inch steel bed, inner and outer bed sides constructed from stamped sheet metal, sport-bar extensions, Freedom Panel assemblies, a removable fiberglass hard top with a sliding rear window, two fixed side windows and a fiberglass bulkhead. It's all shipped in a wooden crate, with instructions included.
As with other Wrangler models, the top of the JK8 pickup's cab can be removed - along with the doors - for open-air motoring, on or off the road.
For 2012, the Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited are available in three trim levels - base Sport, midlevel Sahara and top-of-the-line Rubicon, the ultimate off-road-equipped model.
Base prices range from $22,045 to $29,995 for the two-door models, and $25,545 to $33,570 for the Unlimited, plus freight.
Three skid plates are included underneath to protect the fuel tank, transfer case and automatic transmission oil pan from rocks and logs.
All Wranglers got a complete interior redesign last year. The fanciest models are available with carpeting, leather upholstery and even an in-dash navigation system. Power windows, mirrors and door locks are available as well.
A soft top is standard, but a hard top is available on all models, and is now offered in the same color as the rest of the body on the Sahara model. The windshield can be folded down on all Wranglers, as well.
With the new engine, the Wrangler can go from zero to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, up from 11.4 seconds for the 2011 model. There is a lower first-gear ratio for the automatic transmission for slower off-road crawling.
Two four-wheel-drive systems are available: the base Command Trac system, and the advanced Rock Trac, which is standard on Rubicon models. Both provide part-time four-wheel drive, and have two-speed transfer cases for low-range off-road driving.
All Wrangler models come with electronic stability control with roll mitigation, and optional safety features include trailer-sway control, hill-start assist and traction control.
Now also available on the Wrangler is Chrysler's Uconnect system, which includes voice recognition, Bluetooth streaming audio, navigation and satellite radio.
My tester, the 2012 Wrangler Sport, had a base price of $22,045 and was priced at $27,415.
It came with options including the Sport Package, which brought 17-inch alloy wheels, chrome and leather shifter, leather steering wheel, and Goodyear on/off road tires.
The tester also had the five-speed automatic, with manual-shift buttons on the steering wheel. It also came with Hill Descent Control.
Towing capacity is 3,500 pounds for the Unlimited, and 2,000 pounds for the two-door Wrangler. A towing package was not included on my vehicle.
Nine exterior colors are offered, and wheel choices include 16-, 17-, and 18-inch versions.
G. Chambers Williams III has been an automotive columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1994. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2012 JEEP WRANGLER:
The package: Compact, two- or four-door, four-wheel-drive, four- or five-passenger specialty sport utility vehicle.
Highlights: The continuation of the civilian version of the World War II military vehicles, this is the most-refined Wrangler model yet. For 2012, it comes with a new, more-powerful and more-efficient V-6 engine.
Negatives: Can get quite pricey, especially when compared with larger, more practical SUVs. Yet there is still nothing quite like it.
On the Road rating: 9.2 (out of a possible 10).
Base price: $22,045
Price as tested: $27,415
All prices exclude destination charges.