x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Road Test: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited has some old-school charm

It may lack finesse but this 4x4 has a lazy appeal that harks back to yesteryear

It doesn't handle particularly well and it's not that powerful but the Unlimited makes every journey feel like a trip to the beach. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
It doesn't handle particularly well and it's not that powerful but the Unlimited makes every journey feel like a trip to the beach. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

If humans were robots, unfeeling, mechanical beings that shuffle through a cold existence of chores and duties as efficiently as statistically possible, then the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited just wouldn't make sense.

Compared with many cars today, it's noisy, not powerful enough, can't handle the corners as well, rides rough and doesn't have as many options and gadgets that are available on other vehicles. Sure, its off-road capabilities are beyond reproach, but other 4x4s offer similar performance on rock and sand, so why would you compromise when it comes to everything else?

But humans are not machines; we feel, we think, we appreciate style and other intangible qualities that just can't be explained by specifications and spreadsheets. And it's for that reason that the Jeep has stood the test of time. First introduced in 1941 as a military vehicle, it's gained not only a legendary status but also a following as rabid as a rock band's. People love it; and after driving one for a few days, I see why.

It's important to note that the famous style of the Jeep is not a fake, retro throwback to the nostalgia of yesteryear. Like Porsche's famed 911 sports car, it's an evolution, not a revolution. It has never pretended to be anything other than one of the most capable off-roaders built, a utility vehicle, and it's that honesty that's part of its appeal. With its boxy shape, flat sides and high, relatively flat bonnet, it still looks like a workhorse. In fact, it actually looks like a toolbox on wheels.

This is the Wrangler Unlimited, the four-door version of the Jeep that was introduced in 2007. The two extra doors not only give the car much more versatility and passenger space but also they make it better proportioned, aesthetically. There is ample head and leg room in the back for up to three passengers and the boot is large. Plus, the longer wheelbase gives it better ride quality than its smaller brother.

Ah, but don't expect a cosseted, luxury feel on the road. While this latest version is light years ahead of past generations of Jeeps when it comes to road manners, it still rides firm, though not uncomfortably so. Its suspension is antiquated by today's standards, with a solid rear axle - it helps off the road but isn't so good on it. Cornering is acceptable but you don't want to be going too fast, lest the rear end starts hopping, even with traction control on. And at motorway speeds, it feels like a car from generations past - the Wrangler tends to wander around the lane and it takes constant attention and steering input to keep it straight. But the funny thing is, I never minded that. Sitting in the cosy cockpit and looking down that bonnet, it feels like you're driving an old vehicle, no matter that you can plug your iPod into the radio.

New for this year is a welcome change: replacing an ageing 202hp V6 is the new 285hp Pentastar V6. That's a whole lot more horsepower, but the Wrangler has never been a powerful car, and it still won't win many traffic-light races. The power is adequate at best on the road though the new five-speed automatic, replacing a four-speed box, helps put the power down smoother. But again, I really didn't mind the lethargic propulsion, especially considering the handling of this tall 4x4.

I felt a bit calmer driving the Wrangler, with my arm lazily out the window and music blasting; I didn't need or want to go fast, and every drive, no matter my real destination, was like I was headed off to the beach.

Stepping inside is almost fun; the doors are light and, of course, can come off if you want true open-air motoring. Straps hang from a roll cage that surrounds the occupants to help you in, and once there you're faced with a dashboard that's so close you can reach everything easily. The quality of the interior is a huge jump forward in style and materials - lots of black plastic in this one, but it's got round, sculpted edges with big climate control knobs and vents that add to its utilitarian nature. The steering wheel is thick and chunky, the seats are comfortable and the stereo system is loud and clear. The only thing notably missing from the cabin is a dead pedal to rest your left foot on.

And if you want true, open-air motoring, you won't find many things out there to rival a Wrangler. In addition to the doors, the hard top can be removed and you can even fold down the windscreen.

The most off-roading I was able to do was throwing it about some loose sand dunes by the beach. Snapping back the lever for the part-time four-wheel drive was enough to get the car rolling over just about anything - easy. There was no problem with traction and I'd love to find out how far the Jeep can be pushed in rougher terrain. It does come with a hill-descent feature, but apart from the high-low transfer case and locking rear differential, that's it - no switches for rock/snow/sand/whatever, like other, fancier 4x4s have. The Jeep doesn't need them.

I'm not sure if the Wrangler's wandering attitude on the highway would get to me after a while but in the four days it was with me I loved it, and it's one of the few cars that I was disappointed to give back. All those foibles of handling and power fall by the wayside when you're sitting up high in it, feeling like you're driving something that has a utilitarian purpose, a blue-collar job. No, it's not perfect for everyone, but the Unlimited has what so many cars today lack: character. And there'll always be room in my garage for that.

Base price Dh134,900 / Dh143,000

Engine 3.6L V6

Five-speed automatic

Power 286hp @ 6,400rpm

Torque 352Nm @ 4,800rpm

Fuel economy, combined