The Wrangler name has only been with us since 1987, but of course the spirit of the car was born in World War Two, with the Willys-Overland contract to provide the US military with off-roading vehicles. Its go-anywhere nature combined with the fact it was relatively easy to fix made it popular enough that after the war, a civilian version emerged, the CJ-2A.
The rest is a well-trod story, right up until 1986 when the Wrangler badge appeared. With a lower ride height and reduced body roll, the Wrangler was very much born with Tarmac in mind. While creature comforts remain at a minimum today, compared with any other SUV you care to mention, it has come on in leaps and bounds since the first version was launched, with better door seals, a smoother ride, a lighter body, more technology and refined off-roading ability.
On paper, the Jeep Wrangler doesn’t tick any of the normal motoring journalist boxes: it feels underpowered, wobbly, gruff and lacking in up-to-date technology. But it is an exercise in the importance of design, because it oozes charm with its fun, all-American rugged lines. There are huge exposed door hinges, a shallow dashboard, squared-off wheel arches, and a roof that comes away entirely after you unclip the chunky roof hinges inside.
With the roof off, there’s an exposed roll cage for the kids to hang off as you thunder down to the beach with your surf board. It’s that sort of car: unapologetically folksy, and one of the true and few design icons on our roads today. Have it in bright yellow, or matt black, or maybe orange: they all look great.
At first glance the Wrangler seems expensive, but the standard equipment list is strong: our Wrangler Overland had front and rear parking sensors, a reversing camera, blind-spot monitoring, cruise control, heated front seats, heated door mirrors, tyre-pressure monitoring and dual-zone air-conditioning. And that great removable hard top, which can either be removed in stages, with just the two panels above the front passengers unclipped, or the whole thing.
Hmmm, like the vast majority of owners, we didn’t take the Wrangler on any serious off-roading sections, just through some fields. It does of course have full-time four-wheel-drive, and a decent departure and approach angle. In true rugged mode, there’s a second lever for the low-ratio lock, and a FCA 2.2-litre Multijet diesel engine mated to an eight-speed automatic, developing 200 horsepower and 450Nm (333lb ft) of torque.
The official figures say 0-62mph is in 9.6 seconds. It felt slower, to be honest, perhaps because of the agricultural, breathless accompaniment from the engine and the steering ratio for those huge chunky wheels. But who cares? You’d look rather strange trying to drive a Wrangler like a Golf GTI: this is a car for bimbling over sand dunes, no wanting it down the A3. We felt entirely relaxed, and had a big smile on our face the entire time.
What a shock to love this car quite as much as we did. Who knew you could get so much pleasure from something so heavy (2.5 tonnes) with a four-cylinder diesel engine in it? We genuinely want to buy one now. And then disappear to California with it for a life in Monterey.
It has stumped us like no other car: we shouldn’t like anything about the Wrangler, but we love it all. Maybe it’s an existential thing encompassing the American Dream; maybe we just like anything that keeps the children quiet. Who knows. We’re stumped. But my goodness, we miss it already.