Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara Road Test: Review, Information – Sales, Service & Parts

 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara Road Test: . . .

There aren’t many obstacles that slow down a Jeep Wrangler. It can climb impossibly steep slick rock at Moab, bash its way up the Rubicon Trail, plow through mud or make its own trail across the desert.

But then there are those pesky paved roads. Those it doesn’t cotton to.

Enter the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara. Like all Wranglers for 2012, it has an all-new engine and an interior that was completely redesigned just last year. It also offers a new five-speed automatic transmission if you don’t want the standard six-speed manual. Rest assured it can still do all those great things off road, but this time it promises good things on the road, too.

Pentastar to the Rescue
Even traditional Jeepers will admit the previous pushrod 3.8-liter iron-block V6 was a slug. It made adequate torque, critical when trying to climb up the face of a cliff in 4WD Low, but on city streets the Wrangler could barely get out of its own way.

For 2012, the Wrangler has been upgraded with Chrysler’s newest V6. Dubbed the Pentastar, the new 3.6-liter DOHC engine pumps out 285 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. Those are typical numbers for a modern V6 these days, but compared to the old 3.8 they represent an improvement of 83 hp and 23 lb-ft of added torque.

The all-aluminum Pentastar is also some 90 pounds lighter and 3.7 inches shorter than the outgoing 3.8-liter six. And as if that wasn’t enough, it’s more efficient, too, as the Wrangler gets an EPA rating of 16 city/20 highway mpg, a 1-mpg improvement over the previous numbers.

We averaged a less-than-stellar though not completely globally irresponsible 16.7 mpg during our two weeks with the Wrangler. Not terrible for a 4,493-pound vehicle with virtually no aerodynamic efficiency whatsoever.

Five Is Better Than Four
Jeep also replaced the long-outdated four-speed automatic transmission with the A580 five-speed ($1,125) found in the Grand Cherokee. A six-speed manual remains the standard transmission on the Wrangler, as does a low-range transfer case. Off-roaders fear not, as the new five-speed has a lower 1st-gear ratio than the outgoing tranny.

At the test track this combo of more power and an extra gear ratio netted a not-quite-as-underwhelming 0-60-mph time of 8.8 seconds (8.5 seconds with a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip), a full 1.8 seconds quicker than the last four-speed automatic-equipped Wrangler Unlimited we tested. The quarter-mile came and went in 16.4 seconds at 85.1 mph.

Clearly, the Wrangler still won’t set your hair on fire with its breathtaking acceleration. It’s still slower to 60 than a Toyota FJ Cruiser (8.3 seconds) and the Nissan Xterra (7.6 seconds). One new SUV it can leave behind is the 2012 Ford Explorer with the EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder (9.1 seconds). Not exactly much of an off-roader, but still a vehicle that buyers of the four-door Wrangler might consider.

Out on the road, the new engine and tranny offer big improvements in terms of refinement. The engine is smooth, reasonably quiet and has a nice surge of power from 3,700 rpm to 6,400. The automatic offers supple shifts, but it’s not exactly eager to offer them up. We found ourselves dipping into the throttle deeper than we expected to get it to kick down. We’re guessing that Jeep’s goal of improving the Wrangler’s fuel economy no doubt contributed to that.

Handling? Don’t Talk About Handling
Despite its newfound refinement, this is still a Jeep Wrangler. Therefore, on-road handling is not its forte, even with its newly retuned suspension. Between the live axles at both ends and the recirculating-ball type steering system, the Jeep feels far more detached than most modern SUVs. The long-travel suspension allows lots of roll and the nonlinear, slightly overboosted steering provides little in the way of feedback. Fast corners require an extra correction or two because there’s a delay with each steering input.

Any hopes of legitimate numbers were quashed with the first run through our slalom course. The Wrangler’s insanely aggressive electronic stability control system can’t be fully defeated (except in 4WD at less than 35 mph), and it stabs the brakes at the slightest bit of roll angle or tire slide. Hence the pathetic 51.4-mph slalom speed and 0.63g of lateral grip. We didn’t sweat it much, though; it’s a Jeep after all.

With 11.9-inch rotors up front and 12.4s at the rear, not to mention its substantial weight, the Wrangler’s 138-foot stop from 60 mph isn’t half bad. We were less impressed with the Wrangler’s mushy pedal, considerable nose dive and noticeable side-to-side squirm that will grab your attention when you’re hard on the binders.

In Its Natural Habitat
You can’t do the Wrangler justice without taking it off-road. So we headed to the desert where we bashed around on rough fire roads, climbed rock-filled ascents and put the Wrangler’s hill descent control to use on a couple of steep downhills. Everything worked as advertised. In fact, it felt almost too easy sometimes.

Through it all its suspension easily soaked up everything we threw at it while the 10.2 inches of ground clearance kept us from touching down on any rocks. The Command-Trac four-wheel-drive system is a snap to use and the addition of the optional Trak-lok limited slip makes it that much more capable, even with the Sahara’s meager on-/off-road tires.

If there’s one downside to the 2012 Jeep Wrangler’s off-road prowess, it’s the difficulty in finding its limits. With most SUVs, it’s easy to predict what they’ll tackle with ease and what’s better left untouched. In the Jeep, you’re tempted to take on just about anything. And with the right driver and a good spotter, you’ll probably make it, too.

The Price of Progress
Although a base two-door Wrangler starts at just $22,845, pricing on our four-door 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara begins at $31,545 (including $800 destination). Yeah, four-door Wranglers with a healthy set of standard features aren’t cheap. With options such as the automatic transmission, navigation system and three-piece body-color hardtop, our Wrangler shot up to a whopping $37,200.

To anyone who hasn’t been in a Wrangler for awhile, that kind of money looks downright ridiculous for a Jeep. But get inside the latest version and it’s not so hard to believe. After a heavy interior redesign last year, the Wrangler now looks like a modern SUV inside. The materials quality has drastically improved, there are modern electronics and the cabin is relatively quiet with the hardtop in place.

It’s nowhere near the refinement you get in something like a Ford Explorer or Dodge Durango, but that’s fine with Jeep. The Wrangler will never be a crossover or even a truly mainstream choice. Even though the level of refinement has been raised yet again, the Wrangler is still authentic. In other words, the Wrangler is right where it was before: perfect for nontraditional SUV buyers and a stretch for typical SUV buyers.

The new engine is a huge improvement, but the 2012 Jeep Wrangler still isn’t the fastest or the most efficient vehicle in its class. It doesn’t have the most features either, or the most comfortable cabin.

What it does have is a combination of modern conveniences and legendary off-road abilities wrapped up in one of the most distinctive shapes on the road today. 

2012 Jeep Wrangler Review

2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon SUV

Though more civilized than ever, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler remains a no-nonsense American icon. Its quirky character and unique off-road abilities continue to hold appeal.

Superior off-road capability; strong engine; surprisingly fun to drive around town; two- and four-door variations; rough-and-tumble image; it’s a convertible.

Sport

  • 3.6L V6 engine
  • Manual transmission
  • Up to 17 cty/21 hwy mpg
  • 4-wheel drive
  • MP3 Player
  • Stability Control
  • Traction Control
  • Bluetooth (Optional)
  • Side/Curtain Airbags (Optional)

Unlimited Sport

  • 3.6L V6 engine
  • Manual transmission
  • Up to 16 cty/21 hwy mpg
  • 4-wheel drive
  • MP3 Player
  • Stability Control
  • Traction Control
  • Bluetooth (Optional)
  • Side/Curtain Airbags (Optional)

Sahara

  • 3.6L V6 engine
  • Manual transmission
  • Up to 17 cty/21 hwy mpg
  • 4-wheel drive
  • MP3 Player
  • Satellite radio
  • Stability Control
  • Traction Control
  • Navigation System (Optional)
  • Bluetooth (Optional)
  • Side/Curtain Airbags (Optional)
  • DVD player (Optional)

 

Jeep Wrangler SUV Sahara
Rubicon
  • 3.6L V6 engine
  • Manual transmission
  • Up to 17 cty/21 hwy mpg
  • 4-wheel drive
  • MP3 Player
  • Satellite radio
  • Stability Control
  • Traction Control
  • Navigation System (Optional)
  • Bluetooth (Optional)
  • Side/Curtain Airbags (Optional)
  • DVD player (Optional)

Unlimited Sport RHD

  • 3.6L V6 engine
  • Automatic transmission
  • Up to 16 cty/20 hwy mpg
  • 4-wheel drive
  • MP3 Player
  • Stability Control
  • Traction Control

 

Unlimited Sahara

  • 3.6L V6 engine
  • Manual transmission
  • Up to 16 cty/21 hwy mpg
  • 4-wheel drive
  • MP3 Player
  • Satellite radio
  • Stability Control
  • Traction Control
  • Navigation System (Optional)
  • Bluetooth (Optional)
  • Side/Curtain Airbags (Optional)
  • DVD player (Optional)

Unlimited Rubicon

  • 3.6L V6 engine
  • Manual transmission
  • Up to 16 cty/21 hwy mpg
  • 4-wheel drive
  • MP3 Player
  • Satellite radio
  • Stability Control
  • Traction Control
  • Navigation System (Optional)
  • Bluetooth (Optional)
  • Side/Curtain Airbags (Optional)
  • DVD player (Optional)

 

Rarely does a car reviewed have as many pros and cons as the 2012 Jeep Wrangler. Most vehicles have a lot of one and not much of the other. The Wrangler, on the other hand, has a wealth of extremes. It has old-school solid axles at both ends and standard crank windows. It’s incredibly noisy and rough-riding. The soft top is a puzzle to operate and is basically a big “break in!” sign to potential thieves. Indeed, measured against virtually any other new SUV, the Wrangler is in many ways, well, terrible.

And yet the Jeep Wrangler not only remains appealing but remains one of the best-selling SUVs in the country as well. Part of the reason why is because some of those foibles are actually indicative of an incredibly honest, back-to-basics off-roader. Of course, the Wrangler also looks pretty cool and can dive headlong into places where few other vehicles would dare dip their toes. Plus, what other new car allows you to remove not only the roof, but the doors and windshield as well? The answer is none.

Of course, some of the Wrangler’s issues can’t be brushed off as simply “quaint.” The soft top’s issues are real, as are long braking distances and limited secured storage. But there is finally good news for what lies under the hood. Gone is the agricultural and gutless old V6, and in its place Chrysler’s new “Pentastar” 285-hp V6. Smooth, robust and reasonably efficient, this engine radically transforms the Wrangler. Boasting a whopping 83 more horses than the outgoing engine, the new V6 is more than a second quicker from zero to 60 mph. A newly available five-speed automatic improves power delivery and efficiency as well.

Whether you get a basic two-door Wrangler with crank windows and a soft top or a high-dollar four-door Wrangler Unlimited Sahara with heated leather seats and a hardtop, this iconic Jeep is without question a unique vehicle. However, we highly recommend taking it on a lengthy test-drive and paying attention to the above issues to see if you could really deal with them on a day-to-day basis. It’s not uncommon for folks to be taken in by the Wrangler’s cool factor only to quickly realize after purchase that a compact crossover or a more livable off-roader like the Nissan Xterra or Toyota FJ Cruiserwould’ve been a wiser choice.

If you know what you’re getting into, however, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler is a wonderful way to not only get back to basics, but nature as well.

Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options

The 2012 Jeep Wrangler is a convertible SUV available in two-door Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited versions. Each comes in Sport, Sahara and Rubicon trims.

The Sport comes sparsely equipped with 16-inch steel wheels, front and rear tow hooks, foglamps, a removable soft top, crank windows, manual locks and mirrors, cruise control, a tilt-only steering wheel, a height-adjustable driver seat, and a six-speaker sound system with an auxiliary audio jack, CD player and steering wheel controls. The Unlimited gets a bigger gas tank, four doors, more backseat and trunk space, air-conditioning and a 60/40 split-folding rear seat. The Power Convenience Group adds heated power mirrors, power locks and windows, and keyless entry. Air-conditioning (two-door), satellite radio, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and 17-inch alloy wheels are also optional.

The Sahara adds the above optional items plus 18-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded suspension, under-hood insulation, side steps, automatic headlamps, body-colored fender flares and a six-speaker Infinity sound system.

The Rubicon is not the most abundantly equipped trim level, per se, but rather the trim that boasts the most robust off-road credentials. It adds on top of the base Sport equipment special 17-inch wheels, 32-inch tires, heavy-duty axles and transfer case, electronic front and rear locking differentials, a disconnecting front sway bar, rock rails, air-conditioning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and satellite radio. The Power Convenience Group is optional on the two-door, but standard on the Unlimited.

The following packages are available on all trims. The Connectivity Group adds Bluetooth, an iPod/USB audio interface, an upgraded trip computer and a leather-wrapped wheel on the Sport. A multi-piece removable hardtop with a rear defroster and wiper is optional with or without the standard soft top remaining. It comes standard in textured black, but can be had in body color on the Sahara and Rubicon.

Optional on the Sport and two-door Rubicon are a limited-slip differential and half doors that include plastic side windows. The Sahara and Rubicon can be equipped with leather upholstery and heated front seats, automatic climate control and a navigation system that includes a touchscreen interface, digital music storage and real-time traffic.

Powertrains and Performance

The 2012 Jeep Wrangler comes standard with a 3.6-liter V6 that produces 285 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque. Four-wheel drive is also standard and includes high- and low-range transfer case gears, though the Rubicon features an upgraded transfer case with extra-low gearing. A six-speed manual transmission with hill-start assist is standard, while a five-speed automatic is optional.

In Edmunds performance testing, a manual-equipped, two-door Wrangler went from zero to 60 mph in a surprisingly quick 7.1 seconds. A much heavier automatic-equipped Wrangler Unlimited did it in 8.8 seconds. EPA-estimated fuel economy for the two-door is 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined regardless of transmission. The Unlimited is 16/20/18 with the automatic and 16/21 with the manual.

Safety

The 2012 Jeep Wrangler comes standard with antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, and hill start assist. Front side airbags are optional. In Edmunds brake testing, both two- and four-door Wranglers came to a stop from 60 mph in about 140 feet.

It should be noted that the Wrangler’s doors do not provide the same level of protection as regular doors do in a side crash. As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it didn’t fare well in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s side crash test. Without side airbags, the two-door Wrangler earned the worst rating of “Poor,” while the Unlimited got the second-worst “Marginal.” However, the Wrangler did get the best possible rating of “Good” in the frontal-offset test.

Interior Design and Special Features

Despite the increase in available niceties over the years, the Jeep Wrangler is still a vehicle meant to drive through dust, dirt and muck and then be easily cleaned afterward. Interior materials and switchgear were dramatically improved last year, and the design now has a rounder, more organic look.

The two-door’s backseat can host only two passengers and suffers from limited leg- and foot room. If that isn’t sufficient, the Unlimited has room for three and its extra set of doors makes for easier access. The four-door also offers 86 cubic feet of cargo space when the second-row seats are folded, which is quite substantial.

With any Wrangler’s soft top, however, storing cargo inside can be a risky situation since only the meager glovebox and center console can be locked. The soft top is also complicated to raise and lower, and requires you to store its bulky plastic windows somewhere inside the cabin (which is tough in the two-door). The optional hardtop, which features removable T-top-style panels over the front seats, is a smart solution for those who don’t intend to routinely go completely al fresco.

Driving Impressions

The 2012 Jeep Wrangler is pretty much unstoppable in off-road situations, especially in Rubicon guise, thanks to its specialized hardware. The Wrangler Unlimited four-door isn’t as maneuverable on tight trails as the much shorter two-door model, but its roomier interior means you can carry more gear. It also feels more stable around corners and on the highway. Nonetheless, all Wranglers suffer from tippy handling, a rough ride and steering that is kindly described as nebulous. Road and wind noise are also excessive.

The Wrangler also used to be described as slow, but no longer. It won’t be winning any drag races, but the new V6 is a thoroughly modern engine that can actually get the heavy Wrangler moving briskly. The standard six-speed manual features precise but long throws and an easily modulated clutch. The automatic is now a much more modern five-speed unit that further aids power delivery and fuel economy.

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