The message is clear. Jeep (or Chrysler Jeep, to be politically correct) has entered the UK market with a mission. A major advertising campaign is hardly likely to have escaped the notice of anyone who has opened up a quality daily’s weekend colour supplement in recent weeks, though the focus of media attention has been the Cherokee, offered as a cut-price carrotto potential Range Rover customers (MOTOR SPORT intends to test one later in the year).
There is a more rudimentary alternative within the range, however – the Jeep Wrangler. Redolent of the original Jeep that spawned the off-road movement over 50 years ago, it starts the range rolling at £12,495, for the 2.5-litre four-cylinder tested here, though two more potent four-litre 4.0 in-line sixes will be available shortly. The most expensive of these, the Wrangler Limited, will retail at £14,395, including leather seats and alloy wheels:
Bovine trim is fine for those who will never tackle anything steeper than the kerb outside the local wine bar; if you’re going to tap the Wrangler’s full potential, however, the easywipe plastic perches of the base model are just fine. They are surprisingly accommodating on long motorway journeys, too, where the biggest threat to comfort comes from wind noise.
Of the many adjectives applicable to a Jeep (rugged, utilitarian, adaptable and corking good fun spring to mind), aerodynamic is not one of them. The Wrangler has more or less the same Cd as Wembley Stadium. Ease the throttle on a motorway and the effect is similar to applying the brake. It will cruise along quite happily at an indicated 80-85 mph (Jeep claims that 94 is attainable), but at those speeds you can not hold a conversation without raising your voice, nor does the stereo system (in this case an extractable Panasonic radio/cassette) make a great deal of sense. It’s simply one of those compromises that you have to accept with a vehicle of this nature. It climbs trees and it keeps pace with motorway traffic. It doesn’t pretend that it will do so with the panache of a Range Rover.
One of the penalties of having to force its way through such combative air molecules can be gauged from the fuel consumption: over a mixture of urban and motorway routes (mainly the latter), the Wrangler returned a fraction under 17mpg. The fact that it runs on cheaper, 95 RON unleaded is small consolation.
Viewed as a road vehicle, it is reasonably well equipped, with comprehensive instrumentation (although a clock would be welcome).
To the left of the gear lever nestles a shorter, stubby selection knob, which switches the Wrangler from rear to four-wheel drive via a transfer case. This can be done on the move, if required. In anything but the most gruesome road conditions, two-wheel drive is perfectly adequate. For grappling with muddy, log strewn one-in-fours, there is a third set of ratios, offering real bite. A Trac-Loc rear differential, with 60 per cent lockability, is fitted as standard, and will allow you to proceed even if a rear wheel is whirring vainly in thin air. From brief experience of scrambling up and down steep, uneven grassy banks, the Wrangler’s off-road poise is commendable. It passed this particular test almost scornfully.
While the featherlight steering is fine for such terrestrial gyrobatics, it is the least satisfactory element of the Jeep’s road manners. When heading in a dead straight line, you can adjust the wheel by a couple of centimetres in either direction without the Jeep altering its course. On first acquaintance, the tendency is thus to exaggerate steering input. In fact, once the message finally percolates to the front wheels, it all becomes quite predictable. It just takes a little getting used to.
The test Jeep’s hard-top is removable, though this is not the work of a moment. A soft-top is available as an option. Either way, the standard roll-cage looks reassuring; hewn in similar fashion to the Forth Road Bridge, it’s the sort of thing usually found only in racing saloons.
Verdict? The Jeep Wrangler is an efficient and versatile companion, at a realistic price. Those who choose it hoping to score street credibility points may not appreciate the occasional cacophony within, but that’s just part and parcel of life with something that serves far greater purpose than a mere fashion item.