As far as iconic car names go Jeep is up there with the best of them.
To many people the brand is synonymous with off-roaders in the same way that Hoover is with vacuum cleaners or Sellotape is with sticky-back plastic.
It can trace its history back to America’s entry into the Second World War. The original Willys-Overland Jeep was developed for the army as a small lightweight four-wheel-drive vehicle but after the war was quickly adapted for civilian use wherever tough, simple vehicles were needed.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Price: £48,365 (£49,640 as tested)
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, four-wheel-drive
Top speed: 99mph
CO2 emissions: 213g/km
11 generations and nearly 80 years later and that small, basic go-anywhere machine has morphed into the JL Wrangler – a much bigger, more consumer-friendly prospect with the creature comforts we all expect. Yet. Jeep insists it hasn’t lost any of the skills that made it so popular in the first place.
To prove it, Jeep sent us out onto the toughest off-road trails in the Lake District to test us and the Wrangler. These were probably the most difficult routes I’ve driven yet the Wrangler breezed through them as if we were out for a relaxing Sunday drive.
It shrugged off absolutely everything, from fender-height puddles and sticky mud to rain-slicked rock crawl sections so steep you couldn’t walk up them. Massive drop offs and rutted trails that stretched the axle travel to its maximum couldn’t unsettle it and nor could loose gravel or exposed wet tree roots.
Over the course of several hours it made everything feel easy, even to a relative novice. Point it in the right direction, apply some gentle throttle and it’ll go anywhere you want.
Even the most road-oriented Sahara models get multi-mode four-wheel-drive management, a lockable low-range transmission and the kind of shocks and tyres you usual don’t see outside of Monster Jam. But for those planning to live in the back of beyond, the Rubicon offers goodies such as bigger tyres, the more advanced Roc-Trac four-wheel-drive system, tougher axles, locking diffs and the ability to disconnect the anti-roll bar for even greater axle articulation. Plus some comically oversized arch extensions and a foot-deep front bumper.
With off-road credentials like that it would be impressive indeed if the Wrangler could match in with on-road manners. Sadly it can’t and there is a clear compromise. It feels squishy and wobbly on even slightly twisting roads and the steering is vague and lifeless. The lightness that helps with off-road manoeuvres remains at road speeds and it feels completely disconnected from the wheels.
It’s not all bad news, though. It is surprisingly quiet inside, especially given that the roof and doors are removable and held in by just a handful of clamps. And both the new petrol and diesel engines, while not going to win any traffic light grands prix are quiet and smooth enough to live with day-to-day.
The interior of the five-door model is big enough for four adults, although it’s not particularly spacious. The three-door is downright cramped in the back and boot space is laughable compared with the acceptable room of the five-door.
Everything inside is chunky and solid feeling – in keeping with the Wrangler’s image – but it’s a bit of a button-fest and possibly not up to the quality you’d expect for more than £40,000. Among the standard equipment highlights are LED headlights, dual-zone climate control and a new 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen that can display everything from the navigation to the gearbox temperature.
There’s no denying that the Wrangler, especially in Rubicon guise, is a phenomenally capable machine that will satisfy all but the hardest of hardcore off-roading nuts’ needs. The problem is that the Suzuki Jimny is similarly capable, not much more compromised on the road and costs half the Jeep’s £45,000 starting price.
But then, people are paying north of £50k for late model Land Rover Defenders so there’s a market for cars with the right heritage, regardless of price.