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Only a Jeep can perform poorly and thrive.
If you based your assessment of the new Jeep Wrangler on the careful analysis at Consumer Reports, you’d conclude it’s a dog. The Wrangler’s overall score in the CR ratings is 34 out of 100, the second lowest in the mid-sized SUV category (after another Jeep model). The top-rated Toyota Highlander soars far above, with a score of 85.
CR dings the Wrangler for a long list of automotive sins, including mushy handling, weak braking, boisterous wind noise and awkward cabin access. “The Wrangler’s on-road behavior is still not on par with that of a modern SUV,” CR concludes.
Jeep buyers don’t care. In fact, Jeep may be the lone automotive brand for which coarseness and counter-trendiness are virtues. Jeep, of course, epitomizes rugged individualism, the self-myth of survival amid existential dangers. Most Jeep owners never drive off-road, but they appreciate knowing they can if the apocalypse strikes. Enduring a few vehicular incivilities matters not when your choice of vehicle tells other drivers: “I can go places you can’t.”
During our test drive, Pras Subramanian and I noticed all the deficiencies of the new Wrangler, fully designed for 2018. It lumbers and isn’t especially pleasant to drive on residential roads or highways. The seats are spongy. You have to shout over the wind noise at highway speeds.
Whatever. We loved the Wrangler anyway. “It’s like a gadget,” Pras astutely observed. You can fully remove the doors and the entire box above the beltline, for instance, and fold down the windshield, using a set of tools that comes with the vehicle. That’s as topless as you can get in a car. Pras and I didn’t, because all we did was drive around in the suburbs, but if I took the Wrangler to the beach for a few days, you bet I’d let it all hang out. There are even drain plugs for emptying water if it rains while you’re topless, or you need to hose out the floors.
The Wrangler redesign has left all the totemic styling cues intact, such as the familiar waterfall grill and the round headlamps. But it has modernized the cabin, with improved interior materials (addressing a noisy gripe against prior models) and parent Fiat Chrysler’s Uconnect touch screen, one of the best on the mass market. Take nothing for granted, however. Air conditioning isn’t a standard feature on the base model, for instance, because … ruffian Jeepers love to sweat? Ummm ….
Jeep is possibly the strongest brand in the automotive business, and a huge source of Fiat Chrysler’s profitability. Ford is hoping to cash in on Jeep’s cachet by reintroducing the Bronco as a similar, go-anywhere ruggedmobile. Toyota and others routinely roll out Jeeplike off-roaders. But copycats come and go, and they’re not Jeeps. And who cares if the noise dampening is better or the window switches better located.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman