Review: 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport

To write a story about the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport, I have to find the proper place to allow the vehicle a small chance to stretch its capable legs. I have to go to a place where the road is made of mud or dirt, not asphalt. A place where traction is earned not given. The problem is that I live in a beach town in Southern California, and the most treacherous part of my commute is caused by light rain on the 405 or a dangerously uncaffeinated crowd attempting to maneuver around the lot in front my local Starbucks. I need to venture inland.

Still, simply driving away from the siren-song provided by the crashing waves of the beach might not be enough to satiate the needs of the Wrangler, nor my desire to push the vehicle. Regardless, it was time to find out.

The journey away from the Broville-ian boardwalk is undertaken primarily on freeways. This is actually a wonderful starting point to get acclimated to this latest Wrangler. I am familiar with prior generations, and the underpowered 2.5-liter-equipped YJs still haunt the dark recesses of my brain. Allow me to back-up for a moment here to explain why. I spent a summer driving in both directions across this great nation of ours. The trip was great, but the one low point was my mode of transportation; a 1995 Jeep Wrangler saddled with the anemic four-cylinder engine. The sad sack of an engine coughed out just 120 horsepower and 139 pound-feet of torque. This engine was a joke when compared to the still-excellent 4.0-liter straight six that was also available.

Let’s get back to 2012 though, because there are no jokes to be found under the hood of the newest Jeep. Chrysler has fitted the Wrangler with a brand-new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6, which churns out 285 horses and 260 pound-feet of torque. That horsepower figure represents a 40-percent increase over the old minivan-sourced 3.8-liter mill, and it pushes out that increased power while achieving better fuel economy.

Out on the highways of Southern California, the new engine feels excellent. I’m not only keeping up with the fast-moving traffic, I’m passing by it with ease on my way to dustier trails. If you bought a 2011 Wrangler, you should immediately try your hand at insurance fraud so you can upgrade to the newer unit*.

Thoughts of criminal activity aside, the highway has provided a clean exit from the palm-tree laden streets. I make my across the familiar bends of California State Route 74, also known as Ortega Highway. Both the Hotchkis Challenger and Aston Martin Virage have proved excellent companions for CSR 74, as have countless other machines. It’s not the twisty ribbon of tarmac that I’m looking to spend time with today, however, and I find a street sign that says S. Main Divide. This is the road that might just lead me to the promised land.

In fact, it delivers more than promises.

Despite the fact that I’m in Southern California, I soon find myself surrounded by mountains of white stuff. …no, not that white stuff. That’s further north in Hollywood. I’m talking about actual snow, and the ground here is covered by it. Of course, since I just came from the beach, I’m the opposite of prepared for the temperatures, which have plummeted into the low 40s. Thankfully, the interior of the Wrangler is a much nicer environment than the one I can see through the glass.

A Wrangler is always a bit more comfortable than people expect it to be, at least in the front two seats. Since this a larger Unlimited Wrangler, the rear seats are more than ample to keep passengers happy. Keeping everybody in a good mood is the six-speaker audio system that features an optional USB port and Bluetooth connectivity, which means I can play my own music if I’m not feeling the options offered up by the satellite radio. I could, for example, trade Snow for Puddle of Mudd… which would mean I’m musically challenged, of course.

Oddly enough, that’s exactly what I’ve just done… but on the outside.

The snow has given way to a muddy trail, and as I reach a wider opening I’m greeted by a glorious sight; three massive puddles of muddy water. Did this Jeep just giggle? No, it couldn’t of, which means I just did… oops. Regardless, I plant my foot and take off for the nearest puddle with inexperienced abandon. I have no idea how deep it is, and I don’t know what is waiting beneath the brown expanse. Luckily, the Jeep Wrangler has years of experience, which is evident from the “Since 1941” stamped into the passenger-side Oh-Shit grab bar.

Mud flies up and over the windshield, obscuring my view for a brief moment until the wipers push the dirty water aside. I’m through the puddle more quickly than I expected, and on to the next, larger one that looms just feet away. This one is deeper, the Wrangler tilts farther to one side, and my stomach climbs deeper into my throat. Still, this is nothing for this vehicle, and all I’ve done is managed to get it dirty.

That’s all I wanted to do though, is get it dirty.

I didn’t think I was going to find the right spot to let this freshly-powered beast stretch its legs, but I did. I felt so proud of my mud-caked machine, that I left the dirt on for the rest of the week. The 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport is more capable than ever, yet more refined than ever on the inside. It’s certainly no Land Rover, but that’s a fact that Jeep owners wear with pride. Sure, this particular example is on the pricey side with an as-tested cost of $31,325, but the I-Can-Drive-Anywhere factor remains off the charts right from the showroom floor. You don’t have to pay that much either, since a base two-door Wrangler starts at $22,045 ($25,545 for the four door).

There’s a reason that Wrangler owners wave to each other in passing. They know that splashing down a muddy trail, a snow-covered road, or a rutted run can produce ear to ear smiles, and that simple wave is a quick reminder of that feeling.

[Disclosure: Jeep handed me the keys to the 2012 Wrangler, and I drove around in it for a week. The automaker also included a tank of gas, which I used to get the car dirty. I kept it dirty right up until I had to give the Wrangler back. Sorry if I missed a few spots…]

*Note: Don’t attempt insurance fraud. We’re “joking” here**.

**Note: Seriously… don’t do it.

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