Gareth Butterfield takes the mighty Jeep Wrangler Rubicon for a test drive
UNTIL fairly recently, the Land Rover Defender was one of the last mainstream cars on sale that looked pretty much the same as it did when its original version was launched.
Sure, a few cars have had retro reboots over the years, but this side of a Morgan sports car there weren’t many cars that gripped quite as tightly to their roots than the old Landy.
But while the Defender has now morphed into something almost unrecognisable, there’s still one car that flies the flag for originality – and it’s this weird and wonderful Jeep Wrangler.
You can trace its pedigree back to the Willys Jeep, which was immortalised thanks to its role in World War Two and the basic layout has barely changed.
I’d never driven a Wrangler until now, so when the nice people at Jeep offered me one to test, I steered clear of the relatively limp-wristed road-focused versions and opted for the Rubicon – the full-fat, oh-so American beefy version.
And it’s awesome. Awesome in every sense of the word in fact. Its size, first of all, is something that hits you. The Rubicon’s tyres are massive 33-inch affairs that appear to be able to crush small cars, should you one day feel so inclined.
The front bumper is also bordering on offensive. You could actually play a fairly successful game of Subbuteo on the thing, it’s that big. Is all this necessary? Not even slightly. But it does rather add to the charm.
It might seem a silly thing to say, but the Wrangler, at least in its bonkers Rubicon spec, oozes personality. There’s little nods here and there to its heritage – look closely and you’ll see little “touches” that remind you of its roots.
It’s also a convertible – if you and a few mates are strong enough you could unbolt the roof section and lift it off. You could even drop the windscreen if you fancied it.
If you don’t feel ready for such a big commitment there’s two large panels that at least open up the cockpit section to the elements.
I know what you’re thinking, these huge tyres and intimidating stance must make it a nightmare to drive on the road. But it’s really not that bad.
This, the latest version now has a ladder-frame chassis and everything’s been made lighter, quieter, stiffer and suppler. There’s even an eight-speed gear box to play with, if you choose the automatic version. Oh, and there’s a “sway bar”, but I’ve no idea what that does.
Of course, it does have its limitations in the urban sprawl. Parking it, for example, is no mean feat – despite good visibility. And during my time with it I longed to find a sand dune to go and drive up and down, but it turns out they’re in short supply in the rural Peak District.
But that’s the great thing about the new Wrangler, although it clearly can perform miracles on rough terrain, it almost performs a miracle on the road, too.
Ignoring its size and the impracticalities that brings, it’s a surprisingly civilised thing to live with. You’ll reap the rewards of its large footprint when you want to lug a load, but a driver and passengers could quite happily taken on a long journey without feeling shaken to bits, or deafened by rattles and wind noises.
Don’t lget me wrong, you’re not going to replace your Renault Koleos with a Jeep Wrangler any time soon, but you wouldn’t buy a Renault Koleos if a Jeep Wrangler was your cup of tea. It suits a particular sort of person, I guess. Just who that sort of person is, and whether I ever want to meet them on a dark night I’m not sure, but I guarantee they’d be more interesting.
If nothing else, it’s a marvellous break from the norm. It can be far more civilised than you might expect, especially if you opt for a more sober version with a few more luxuries and, importantly, smaller tyres, yet it always feels ready for a bit of fun. Oh, and you can also get a three-door version. Which will be far easier to park.
Truth be told, the Wrangler is blatant overkill. It’s a proper sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut sort of thing. But it’s so loveable and so fun that it really doesn’t matter. If you’re the sort of person that couldn’t give two hoots what the world thinks of your choice of wheels, or if you genuinely do have some sand dunes at the end of your high street, go out and buy one. I’d salute you for it.