By Bruce Caldwell
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is a truly unique vehicle. As such it’s not for everyone, but people that understand and love Jeeps are crazy about the Wrangler. The 2012 Wrangler Unlimited does an excellent job of blending traditional super tough, go-anywhere Jeep attributes with modern technologies and conveniences. The Wrangler doesn’t have the level of luxury found in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but it’s a million miles ahead of its 1941 progenitor — the flat fender military Jeep. It’s a true multi-purpose vehicle.
Walkaround: There’s no mistaking the Jeep Wrangler for anything but a Jeep. That’s an important attribute to Jeep loyalists. Other Jeep models carry recognizable styling cues, but none are as overt as the Wrangler. Jeep CJ models and earlier Wranglers have traditionally been two-door vehicles (the non-Unlimited Wrangler is still a two-door), but the four-door Unlimited has greatly improved versatility and still manages to look both handsome and rugged. Our test Rubicon model was a great bright red with a black removable hardtop. The black plastic fender flares are both functional and classic Jeep styling items. The grille/headlight styling is iconic.
Interior: The tan leather interior was the most luxurious Wrangler cockpit we’ve ever encountered. The Wrangler interior was redesigned for 2011. Again, it’s no Grand Cherokee, but it’s downright plush for a rugged Jeep. Most of the switchgear had to be fitted within the dashboard center stack area. That means items like the power window and mirror controls are on the dash instead of the removable doors.
The substantial rollbar is nicely padded, but the large overhead speakers can get in the way of rear seat passengers. We hauled three six-foot-plus adults in the rear seat, but it was a tight fit. Fortunately, it was a short shuttle to the Kingston ferry dock. The rear seating position is very upright, but it’s a veritable limo compared to vintage Jeeps. It’s a fine space for smaller adults and children.
The split folding rear seats make for an expansive rear cargo area. They fold flat, so we were able to haul a couple oversized chairs with lots of room to spare. The side-hinged tailgate and top-hinged rear glass open wide for easy loading. There’s a rear power outlet and a small under floor storage bin.
Under The Hood: A new engine and transmission are big news for the 2012 Jeep Wrangler. The engine is a new 3.6-liter V-6 that produces 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. It replaces the previous 202 horsepower 3.8-liter V-6. The improvement was so noticeable that we thought there was a V-8 under the hood. We had to read the spec sheet to dispel that notion. The optional 5-speed automatic transmission is very smooth (a 6-speed manual transmission is standard). The very useful Hill Descent Control feature is included with the automatic transmission.
The Wrangler Unlimited is only available as a four-wheel-drive model. The slick system includes a low-range (4:1 ratio) gear for serious off-road use. Our Rubicon model also had locking differentials and an electronic front stabilizer bar disconnect feature.
We did some trail driving around Chimacum in Jefferson County with friends that have conquered the actual Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We experimented with the stabilizer disconnect feature, but didn’t try terrain rocky or rugged enough to notice a distinct difference. Our friends agreed that the feature would be beneficial on the extremely rocky Rubicon Trail. The Wrangler easily handled the loose dirt hills and rutted roads we tried.
The Wrangler Unlimited is EPA rated at 16-city/20-highway mpg. We
got 20.5 mpg on a non-stop highway trip from Port Ludlow to Seattle and averaged 17.85 mpg in mixed city/highway driving.
Behind The Wheel: As mentioned previously, the Wrangler Unlimited is an off-road champ. We’ve had occasions to drive other Wranglers on muddy forest trails and never been challenged in any way. The bigger surprise was how civilized the Wrangler was on the highway and around town. We were very pleased with its freeway demeanor. Even with relatively aggressive LT255/75R17 on/off road tires the interior was pleasantly quiet. The longer wheelbase of the Unlimited helps smooth out the highway ride. We’ve done highway time in big-tired CJ-5 Jeeps and thought we were going to get seasick.
The doors fit/finish was very good, which contributed to the low wind noise levels. The outstanding sound system also helped. The supportive front seats and excellent legroom boosted the excellent driving experience. The Wrangler sits up high, which provides a good road view, although getting in and out can be challenging for shorter people.
Whines: Rearward vision is compromised by the rollbars, full-size spare tire and the large rear window mounted wiper motor. The large power side mirrors help alleviate this issue. The rear side windows are only controllable from the dashboard. This is fine for small children, but annoying for adults. We’d rather have the extra space than the oversized Infinity speaker that hogs the right rear corner of the cargo area.
Bottom Line: We thoroughly enjoyed the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. It’s always a blast off-road, but we were most impressed by how pleasant it was for highway and around town driving. Its mountain goat features didn’t compromise daily usefulness. Jeep has managed to infuse the right amount of modern technology, safety, luxury, and convenience without diluting the rugged character and endless fun that define this iconic brand.