Traverse City Record-Eagle


October 14, 2012

Jeep swaps comfort for thrill

Too many of today's cars feel exactly the same.

If you're looking at a new crossover vehicle or mid-size sedan, nearly every one is a slightly different flavor of vanilla. They've all got good brakes, good steering and a good suspension. They're all quiet and relatively smooth riding.

Differences between them are so subtle, it's easy to accuse the auto manufacturers of playing a giant, expensive game of copycat.

Then you drive a Jeep Wrangler and realize just how different a vehicle can be.

The Wrangler is an anachronism, the kind of car that has all but died off as buyers focus on comfort and fuel economy — two things the Wrangler simply doesn't exist to do.

But thank God it's still around.

This is the original Jeep, the one with roots dating back to World War II, and you can feel it all the time. It's like driving a tent on roller skates. There's simply nothing else like it, as anyone who's driven a Jeep knows.

It's become even more of a loner now that the Hummer brand has disappeared, leaving it virtually deserted as the only affordable vehicle that's engineered specifically for off-road driving. Other cars may have boxy bodies and all-wheel drive, but a 4x4 Jeep is the real thing — the one vehicle that's actually meant to spend all day pounding the trails, not just looking the part.

That means it comes with tradeoffs, of course, as it sacrifices comfort at the altar of off-road performance. It's bouncy and rough riding, and also one of the noisiest vehicles at highway speed.

At the same time, it's come a long way in terms of livability in just a few short years. It's still largely a toy, something designed for fun on the weekends — and making you smile throughout the week — but it's also quieter and more modern than it used to be.

The 2013 Wrangler, for instance, comes with thicker, premium cloth material for the soft top that does a better job sealing out wind and road noise. It also comes with new, more comfortable seats and an easy-lift mechanism for helping remove the top.

At its core, though, the Wrangler stays true to the Jeep mission — off-road performance. It's all about tow hooks and roll bars, torque and traction, and it's an absolute blast to drive off the pavement.

To get similar performance in a different car, you've got to pay a whole lot more. Only a few vehicles come close to matching what the Wrangler can do, albeit more luxuriously, including the Range Rover ($83,500), Toyota Land Cruiser ($78,255) and Mercedes-Benz G-Class ($113,000).

Who would actually want to take those expensive cars onto trails, though? You'd have to be both crazy and wealthy to do it.

For those of us who are only slightly crazy and not wealthy, the Jeep Wrangler exists to whet our off-road appetite.

It starts at $22,195 with two doors, or $25,695 for the four-door Wrangler Unlimited.

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