The Wrangler is a car whose off-road capability rather dominates its driving experience. On tarmac, those big, heavy axles amplify the effect of imperfect surfaces and cause the Wrangler to shimmy over the road. It’s never downright uncomfortable, but it feels a little uncontrolled and you have to make constant steering inputs just to keep the car going in a straight line. The chunky tyres also generate plenty of road roar, which adds to the wind noise generated by the Wrangler’s boxy body – something especially noticeable in canvas-roofed variants.
There’s a choice of two engines: a 197bhp 2.2-litre diesel or a 268bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol, both of which come with a standard eight-speed automatic gearbox. The diesel has a reasonable amount of punch, getting the Wrangler up to motorway speeds without too much fuss, although the much lighter two-door version unsurprisingly feels a lot sprightlier than the four-door model. Thankfully, it's a lot quieter than the previous 2.8-litre diesel, although it still sounds gravelly even while cruising and transmits more than a few vibrations through the controls. We’ve no real complaints about the eight-speed automatic gearbox, though. Whether you’re creeping up the side of a mountain or trying to overtake on the motorway, it’s almost always in the right gear and shifts smoothly.
The 2.0-litre, turbocharged petrol engine, though, is an unhappy match for the Wrangler or its gearbox. It’s quiet and smooth, but, while power is plentiful – 0-62mph officially takes a mere 7.2 seconds – it’s delivered rather abruptly. Through a combination of lag while the turbocharger kicks in and a pause before the automatic gearbox responds, it’s not the easiest car to drive smoothly if you want to get a move on.
Unless faster straight-line acceleration is all-important to you, the diesel is a far more logical engine for the Wrangler. And, if much of your driving is on winding country roads, you’ll find that much of the petrol’s extra power goes to waste anyway. Turn the steering wheel and there's a noticeable pause before the car starts to change direction, and you find yourself sawing at the wheel due to the slack deliberately built into the system.
Even moderate cornering speed is enough to overwhelm the grip reserves of the car’s chunky tyres – especially on the off-road-biased rubber fitted to Rubicon models – and has the traction control system intervening by cutting engine power, particularly with the more powerful petrol engine. By the time the system is happy that traction has been restored, you may already be approaching the next corner. The Wrangler is not a car you’ll want to drive quickly; trust us, we tried and won’t be doing it again.
Steer off the blacktop and on to squelchier surfaces and you’ll find the Wrangler far more at home, and the diesel’s superior low-down pulling power will be appreciated when transitioning between motorway and mountain, too. For this, you use the second centre-console lever: it takes you from two to four-wheel drive and switches between the different four-wheel drive modes. It’s a good deal stiffer to move than the gear lever, but this feels in keeping with the Wrangler’s tough underpinnings. Indeed, unlike the majority of SUVs that you see on the road today, the Wrangler has been designed to take on the very worst that Mother Nature can throw at it. Every model gets low-range gearing, long-travel suspension and vast amounts of ground clearance.
Once you select four-wheel drive, you can lock the centre differential so the front and rear axles get equal amounts of power at all times, while the low-range gearbox gives you finer control at low speeds and multiplies the engine’s torque for steep slopes.
The Rubicon goes even further to maximise its all-terrain potential. As well as chunkier tyres, you get locking front and rear differentials to give even more traction on slippery surfaces, as well as detachable ‘sway bars’ (anti-roll bars to those who speak English) that allow even more suspension travel. Put simply, there are few off-road cars that are quite as capable straight out of the showroom.