Ill-fated mergers, overzealous venture capitalists, multi-billion dollar buy-outs, job loses false dawns and now tragedy. There’s a thumpingly good book to be written here on the fortunes of Daimler Chrysler, the once-crippled, teetering-on-the-edge-of-the-abyss conglomerate, that’s been revived under the auspices of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) but now must deal with the untimely passing of its master in chief, Sergio Marchionne. The mechanics of this unlikely organisation don’t go unnoticed if you’re a guest at one of their events, mind you. Here we are in the breathtaking Styrian Mountains in Austria, and all the Camp Jeep support staff aren’t speaking Austrian or German even, but Italian with requisite hand gestures – while Jeep product presentations are delivered with the sort of ’Murican, ‘these-here-folks’ pragmatism only a Big Three career exec from Detroit could muster. I’m genuinely excited to see what sort of vehicle this melting pot will actually deliver.
My take on this corporate industry minutia is rather different to most. I believe product is king. If you produce a good car, success will always follow and currently the crown jewel in the FCA union is Jeep. A fact reiterated by the appointment of Mike Manley to succeed the late Sergio Marchionne. After all, Manley is a Jeep man through and through, having headed up the company since 2009. That can only bode well as, in a wet field just outside of Spielberg, I clap eyes on the new Jeep Wrangler for the first time. Offered in two different trim levels, Sahara and Rubicon, when it arrives later this year, each is available as a two-door or four-door, with open air freedom just a touch of a button away with the optional Sky power roof. The Sahara is more for ‘urban Jeepers’, Manley says, while the Rubicon we’ll be driving at is specifically tuned for off-road trails, with Rock-Trac 4×4 featuring Tru-loc front and rear lockers and electronic sway-bar disconnect. There’s also a 4:1 low-range ratio, Dana 44 trailing arm axles front and rear, and Quadra-Coil off-road suspension with heavy duty shocks for ultimate trail crushability.
But more about the mud and guts stuff later, because as we discover on a short jaunt on road from the hotel, this is undoubtedly the most refined Wrangler ever. On the bitumen it’s smooth and isolated, even on chunky, BFGoodrich Mud Terrain rubber. The whole structure feels stiff and there’s very little of that rear end bobbing and weaving synonymous with live rear axles. The old cars’ weak link – its’ geriatric auto ’box – has now had the gaping holes in its ratios plugged with a new eight-speed automatic, no doubt accounting for the claimed 15% improvement in fuel economy and emissions. Propulsion wise, there’s a new-for-Wrangler 2.0-litre turbo petrol making 202 kW/400 Nm (essentially the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Stelvio motor) and a 2.2-litre turbodiesel producing 149 kW/450 Nm, both mated to the same eight-speeder. We’re driving the latter exclusively at Camp Jeep; unfortunately at this stage South Africa is only getting the Middle East- and Africa-spec 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol, the 212 kW/347 Nm naturally aspirated motor. It should have no lack of grunt and a thrummy exhaust note to boot, but might ultimately lack low-down torque.
Why Jeep is overlooking the new motors in SA – a bizarre turn of events considering FCA offers them in the Alfa Romeo – one cannot deny this new Wrangler does come from pure Jeep stock. Even a non-Jeep diehard like myself can pick out the authenticity immediately. Exterior clip corners on the doors, a trapezoidal face with signature seven-slat grille, separate bumpers you can sit on while you sip your double espresso (don’t forget that Italian influence) and the exposed spare tyre. Those macho square wheel arches are not just for show, they’re designed to allow adequate wheel travel when the sway bars are disconnected and legend has it they got their distinct shape when a US soldier back in WW2, welded two sheets of hand-formed metal onto the bodywork of his military Jeep after being showered with mud and stones from the uncovered rear wheels. There you go, form following function: from its military heritage to its active core of enthusiasts, Jeep designers dare not alter the Wrangler DNA too radically, and that’s why there have been only deliberate but very cautious design inputs to it in 2018. Mostly to the interior…
Like the over-molded interior trim, a vast improvement over the old one. The horizontal dash accents and wide use of space, chunky grab handles everywhere and steering wheel with the Y-spoke motif of the original Willy’s Jeep make it feel instantly familiar. Soft, tactile surfaces are offset with oversized toggles and buttons; it’s a superb place to be: comfortable yet empowering, safe yet welcoming. It’s practical too, with 50-litres storage in the centre console, and a space between the seats that can hold multiple smart phones. Advanced technology like a new Uconnect system featuring Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a top-spec 8.4-inch touchscreens with pinch-and-zoom capability completes the offering. For the first time there’s blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic detection and a reverse camera. Smart and tough, I guess you could say.
As I quickly find out, fully immersing oneself in Jeep culture is what Camp Jeep is all about. Held annually all across the world, it’s most regularly held in the Sierra Nevada, home of the famed Rubicon trail after which the Wrangler is named and famously ‘trail rated’, but this time we happen to be in Austria. The last time I was here I was driving a Mercedes-Benz G-Class – built and developed just up the road in Graz. We took it up Mount Schockl, had a schnitzel, and then drove like absolute mad men back down. Austria is, after all, the birthplace of German 4x4s, so bringing all the world’s most ardent Jeepers here is significant, quite a statement of intent from FCA in fact. Amongst the lattice work of off-road trails crisscrossed over this mountain, the Rubicon gets its own special trail that goes all the way to the top, and is signposted as such so those in Saharas don’t take a wrong turn and end up in the mogul field that can only be navigated with sway bars disconnected. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the Wrangler’s off-road tech.
Before the going really gets rough and muddy, I select neutral, hit the low range button, pop it back into gear, and twist the selector into the Mud/Sand setting. This is superhero mode, and nothing, absolutely nothing, phases it from here on out. Traction control is deactivated so the engine can spin freely and maintain momentum, and you get a real-time transfer-case display in the instrument binnacle showing you with pin-point accuracy where exactly your torque is going. Knowing the hardware is unbeatable, allows you to enjoy the various obstacles on the trail as the Rubicon proves its competence: approach angle 36.4 degrees, up a mountain – check. Departure angle 30.8 degrees, down a mountain – check. Water-fording depth 760mm through a mud bath, yeah, we tested that all right. Thanks goodness for that WW2 privates’ recommendation of those square wheel arches, otherwise the whole of Spielberg would be covered in mud right now. Finally there’s a terrifying plunge down an impossibly steep and slippery mud-covered drop, to take you back to Camp Jeep, in which to test the variable hill descent control. From the driver’s seat, with nothing but seatbelts holding me in place, I can attest it works perfectly.
As does the entire Jeep Wrangler package, with its unique, Made-in-the-USA, character that screams – rugged, free, and authentic. It’s a vastly more complete product than the car it replaces, that much was immediately evident just driving it on road, but it’s ultimately here, in a muddy Austrian field, where it can be judged a success. Consider its mission statement: Mercedes-Benz G-Class off-road capability with new-world refinement and improved on road competence… all at a fraction of the cost. A critical factor for the Wrangler will be its price when it eventually arrives in SA at the end of the year, and the timeline on those new engines. If it gets that right, the new Jeep Wrangler will continue to hold its proud, seven-slat grille high.
In a nutshell
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Rugged and adventurous, with tech and comfort to match
A new, efficient diesel can’t come soon enough
Engine: 3 606 cc, 6-cylinder, petrol
Power: 212 kW @ 6 400 rpm, 347 Nm @ 4100 rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 8.1 sec, top speed 180 km/h
Tyres: 17-inch, 255/75 – BFGoodrich Mud Terrain
Economy: 11.5 l/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
CO2 emissions: 252 g/km