Photos by Zerin Dube, Video by Tim Goldmann, Stunt Driving by Mike FrismanisIt should come as no surprise to long time S:S:L readers that the Jeep Wrangler has quickly become one of our favorite vehicles of any type to drive around in. Whether we’re hitting the trails of Texas, or off-roading the middle of the Pacific, there is simple no other vehicle on the road that delivers the feeling of freedom the way the Jeep Wrangler does. With its iconic styling and rugged off-road capabilities, there just isn’t a better feeling cruising with the windows down and top off in a Wrangler. For 2011, Jeep has taken the Wrangler upscale by making several small but significant changes to make the driving experience even better than before. Of course, here at S:S:L we are skeptical of any changes a manufacturer makes to “improve the driving experience” because many times this translates to the edge being taken off for the sake of comfort and luxury. To make sure that Jeep didn’t lose their way by adding all these niceties to the Wrangler, we got our hands on a 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited and headed out to our favorite off-road proving grounds at Creekside Edge Off-Road Park. The Changes The Wrangler Sahara Unlimited is the most upscale Wrangler offered, sitting above the more basic Sport and Sport S models, but just below the hard-core off-roader Rubicon trim in terms of price. At first glance, the most obvious changes to the 2011 Wrangler Sahara Unlimited are the body painted fenders and removable Freedom Top hardtop. From a purely visual standpoint, the 2011 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara looks far more upscale than its predecessor, and can even be mistaken for a Geländewagen to the untrained eye. From a practical standpoint though, more paint means more scratches when off-roading, and we prefer the textured black fenders for getting dirty. All 2011 Jeep Wranglers receive a new interior package as well with a redesigned instrument panel, new storage areas, higher quality materials, a revised center stack and larger rear and side windows to aid in outward visibility. A new steering wheel integrates controls for the media systems as well as Bluetooth and cruise control. Hill Descent Control is also standard on all new 2011 Wranglers, as are additional 12-volt accessory outlets. A 110-volt AC outlet is optional. The interior of our Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara also featured plenty of bright work by way of faux metal finishes on the door panels, grab bar and A/C ducts. Our tester was also fitted with the new optional heated seats. These improvements certainly make the interior of the Wrangler look and feel far more upscale than the outgoing model which was pretty much just a slab of molded and textured plastic. Off-Road We decided to conduct the test of the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sahara with the help of a couple of off-roading friends who were extremely familiar with the terrain of the park, and had the proper equipment to rescue us should things go wrong. We can’t emphasize enough the need for an experienced spotter and a second vehicle for recovery because things can go wrong quickly without proper direction out on the trail. Steve in the black JK Wrangler Sport and Dave with the heavily modified silver JK Wrangler Rubicon volunteered their eyes and vehicles to help us with the test. Truth be told, both these Jeep enthusiasts were looking for any reason to go out and get their Wranglers dirty. We were certainly glad to have them along because the Creekside Edge trails are full of 5’ drop-offs into water, tight turns, trees, ruts, and mud pits that are deceivingly deep. Though the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara doesn’t have the locking Dana diffs or mud-terrain tires like the Rubicon model has, we were still able to keep up with the modified Jeeps in just about every situation we could get into. There were two instances on the trails where the stock Wrangler Sahara’s shortcomings became fairly apparent. The first situation occurred in the mud pit that there simply was no other way around. The All-Terrain tires on the Sahara weren’t happy in the mud and loaded up quickly turning them into slicks with absolutely no bite. After trying to get the Sahara out on its own, we finally hooked up to Dave's Jeep and got a slight tug to get the front wheels onto solid ground. With just two tires on dry dirt, the Sahara was able to easily pull itself out from the mud. In this instance a set of mud-terrain tires would have made this obstacle no problem to tackle even without locking differentials. The only other instance the stock Wrangler Sahara couldn’t keep up with the modified Wranglers was a steep drop off of about 5’ straight down into a water pit. The stock Wrangler Sahara simply didn’t have the ground clearance necessary to even attempt that route on the trails. Dave on the other hand didn’t waste any time demonstrating how easy the obstacle was for a Wrangler with a lift and proper tires. The Verdict When finished covering the trails at Creekside Edge, it became very apparent that the 2011 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara had certainly not lost its core focus as a capable out of the box off-roader despite the additional focus on luxury. While almost perfect, there are a few gripes in the JK Wrangler that still remain, mostly related to powertrain. The 202-horsepower 3.8-liter V6 engine is still as wheezy as it ever was and the archaic four-speed transmission doesn’t do an already anemic engine any favors. We hear that this will be resolved next year when the Wrangler receives the Pentastar V6 and a new six-speed automatic. The only other gripe is a relatively steep base price for the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, which starts at $30,695. Our tester had an additional $5800 worth of options such as the $825 automatic transmission, $1035 Media Center navigation unit, and the $1715 painted hardtop bringing the final price-as-tested of $36,490. While $36k seems like a tough pill to swallow for the still relatively rudimentary Jeep Wrangler, there is simply no other vehicle on the road that provides the open-air go-anywhere enjoyment that the Wrangler offers. The Wrangler remains as capable off-road as ever and is even more fun to drive on-road with the upgraded interior and enhanced creature comforts. We can’t wait see what Jeep has in store for the Wrangler next year. [nggallery id=174]
Tag - Jeep
Ray Wert, the Jalop of Jalops over at www.jalopnik.com, recently wrote a piece about the HEMI brand and the upcoming 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. For those who aren't scrutinizing the JGC's launch on the same level as us know-it-alls, let me catch you up. Essentially, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee will no longer have a 5.7L HEMI engine. Instead, it will have a 5.7L OHV MDS V8 with Variable-valve Timing... and an engine cover emblazoned with enormous, embossed "HEMI" branding.
It's okay if you're confused, but it boils down to this: Jeep will no longer feature the HEMI branding within its vehicle lineup. The same engine will be branded as a HEMI in other Chrysler Group LLC products (as Jeep Brand Marketing Head Honcho Jim Morrison put it, they'll be leaving it to "the Dodge and truck guys"), but not in a Jeep.
But why? Mr. Wert proposes that this is green-washing--an effort by Chrysler to minimize the enthusiast value of their vehicles in front of an ever-more-environmentally-focused media. It's not a poor argument. Just look around at the rest of the industry. Ford's twin-turbo, 350+ horsepower V6 monster is dubbed "EcoBoost," for crying out loud. If that's not green marketing, I don't know what is. But in the context of Chrysler, I think Wert's assessment, while not unreasonable, isn't quite on the mark.
When I attended the 2011 JGC launch event in D.C., the real theme that jumped out at me was luxury. Morrison made it a point to use that word and other terms that evoked the idea as often as grammatically feasible, even setting aside product information momentarily to emphatically remind everybody that Jeep essentially invented the premium SUV with the Wagoneer in the 1960s (before the Range Rover was even a blip on the Brits' radar) and brought about the modern incarnation of it with the original Grand Cherokee in 1992.
So how, as a brand marketing manager, could Morrison possibly reconcile that theme with the branding that put Jon Reep on our T.V. screens, screaming, "That thing got a HEMI?" at us for the better part of two years? Obviously, he didn't want to.
And when you look at Chrysler Group as a whole, the divorcing of brands makes more sense. One of the primary goals of the Fiat-Chrysler merger is to differentiate the various brands under the corporate umbrella and play to their strengths. Dodge is the sporty brand. Ram is the truck brand. Chrysler is the luxury brand. And Jeep is the 4x4 brand. Can there be some spill-over? Of course. There have been no announced plans to curtail future SRT development, and with unconfirmed shots of 2012 Grand Cherokee SRT-8 models rolling around, it's clear that the HEMI (Ahem... MDS V8 with Variable-valve Timing) itself isn't going to leave the lineup any time soon.
The homogenization of brand identities has been a disaster for domestic car manufacturers (see Pontiac, Mercury and Saturn). Chrysler was well on its way down this particular road too. Chrysler and Dodge were essentially indistinguishable, and Jeep and Dodge also had heavy overlap in product, if not necessarily in mission.
Remember, marketing isn't simply how a company presents itself to its audience; it's also how a company defines that audience. If your branding is muddled and mired, your brand strategy will follow suit.
And just who is Jeep targeting with the Grand Cherokee? Here's what they had to say about it in their press kit:
"Jeep Grand Cherokee buyers are 55 percent male and 45 percent female. They are affluent and educated with active, outdoor lifestyles and interests and have an income of $95,000. Nearly half have children. More than 60 percent have a college degree and 80 percent are professionals."
Not exactly the sort of people to be chasing a car-carrier down a dirt road in a rustbucket Challenger.
Let's face it. At the end of the day, the last thing a Chrysler Group brand manager wants to hear from his marketing team is, "**** it, let's just tell 'em we have HEMIs. Everybody likes HEMIs!" In fact, I bet Jim Morrison hates HEMIs. I'm certain that if he had his way, every one of those engine covers would be sanded down and painted matte black as part of the initial dealer prep, if not removed entirely. Every time he sets eyes on it, I bet it reminds him of every column inch spent discussing the merits of Jeep's HEMI-free brand strategy instead of their new (and very cool) Selec-Terrain system or the leather-wrapped dash available as an option on Overland models.
So is green-washing involved? Maybe a little, but I don't think that's the focus here. While Morrison did place great emphasis on the Pentastar V6's 23mpg highway rating, the story wasn't just about mileage and emissions. The story was about evolving the premium/luxury SUV segment and demonstrating Chrysler's new corporate image.
And once this HEMI din subsides, I think they have a great shot at doing just that.