In July of this year, Jeep had its best sales month ever in the U.S., with 14,355 Wranglers leaving dealer lots. And those, we must remember, were vehicles fitted with a rather old-school 3.8-liter V-8, a pushrod iron-block engine that gets the job done but fails to make the 4000--lb. Wrangler feel even remotely quick.
Now, that has changed; Jeep is fitting the new 2012 Wrangler with the 60-degree 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, a 4-cam aluminum-block engine that puts out 285 bhp at 6400 rpm and 260 lb.-ft. of torque at 4800 rpm on regular 87-octane unleaded. That compares favorably to the old 3.8, which puts out only 202 bhp at 5200 rpm and 237 lb.-ft. of torque at 4000 rpm. What's more, the new Pentastar V-6, which has variable timing on the intake and exhaust cams, weighs 90 lb. less than the outgoing 3.8.
To make the Pentastar suitable for a Wrangler, Jeep engineers fitted it with a new 2-piece intake manifold with runners tuned to broaden the torque curve, a goal also reached with help from a new exhaust manifold that has significantly improved scavenging. Also, the alternator has been moved to a higher location, to let the Wrangler maintain its impressive 30-in. fording capability, and a new oilpan was created to make room for the front axle.
The base transmission for the 2012 Jeep Wrangler is a 6-speed manual; a more popular choice historically is the automatic, with a new A580 5-speed replacing last year's 4-speed box. First gear is lower in the new automatic, which allows for a better low-range crawl ratio on the remarkably capable Rubicon models with their stronger axles, locking differentials and cockpit-disconnectable front anti-roll bars.
So, how does the new Wrangler feel on the road? Within moments, you'll feel that the new 3.6 is a much more refined engine, much quieter than the 3.8 and able to power the Jeep up to highway speeds without working hard. The throttle pedal has a light feel, with good tip-in response. The Wrangler is also amazingly quiet inside, thanks in part to a large underhood engine cover and some extra NVH work that was carried out during the handsome 2011 interior redesign. The seating position is good, the view out that flat front windscreen is excellent, and the suspension tuning manages to be comfortable without being wallowy, a good thing in a high-riding vehicle with gobs of suspension travel.
Off road, the Wrangler is as capable as ever. With electronic diffs locked and the transfer case in low range, the Rubicon model I drove up a rocky, rutted hill in the Tillamook National Forest barely broke a sweat. The coil springs allowed for excellent articulation of the front and rear live axles, and the 3.6's throttle map gave me precise control of the patches—even when the right front and left rear tires were the only tires actually touching the ground!
All told, the new 2012 Jeep Wrangler is an impressive vehicle, an icon that's as capable as ever but much easier to live with on a daily basis, thanks to the added refinement of the new engine and the 2011 interior upgrade. It's reasonably quick (Jeep says it hits 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, a 25-percent improvement over the 2011 model) and, perhaps more important, the EPA fuel economy has improved by as much as 2 mpg (city and highway) in certain models. That would place the new Wrangler in the vicinity of 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway, although final EPA figures are not available at this time.
And with regard to vehicle availability, the new Toledo-built 2012 Wrangler are arriving at Jeep dealers right now, still offered in 2-door and 4-door Unlimited form, the latter version now making up a whopping 60 percent of Wrangler volume. Three basic models continue, priced almost identically to last year—the Sport ($22,045), Sahara ($27,970) and Rubicon ($29,995). The Rubicon, of note, can be ordered with a body-color hardtop and fenders for the first time.