2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport 4 x 4 road test: Rough, ready and . . . refined?

2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport 4 x 4

2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport 4 x 4

The Jeep has been called a lot of things since its days as a World War II go-fer — tough, rugged, versatile, fun, etc. — but more than 70 years later the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport and its more upscale Wrangler brethren may  have earned a new one — refined.

No, not refined as in a Chrysler 300 luxury sedan; refined as in compared to what it used to be.

Jeep lovers will be immediately familiar with the iconic Jeep design and the stiff, boulder-bashing suspension, but they might be surprised at the smoothness of an all-new powertrain pilfered from the Jeep Grand Cherokee sport-utility vehicle.

Jeep Wrangler instrument pane

Jeep Wrangler instrument panel

The aging 3.8-liter V-6 engine, 202-horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque, has finally been put out to pasture, replaced by a smooth, 3.6-liter V-6 powerplant that generates 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. That’s an increase of 40 percent in the power department and a 10 percent improvement in torque.

At the same time, an optional ($1,125) five-speed automatic shifter with hill-descent control replaces the aging  — dare we say ancient — four-speed transmission. Jeep traditionalists need not worry. A six-speed manual remains the standard transmission.

While acceleration numbers may be of small interest to a Jeep lover, let’s get it on the record that the entry-level 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport with automatic transmission that I  tested can lope from a stop to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, an improvement of 25 percent over the 2011 model.

More important is the improvement in fuel efficiency. The EPA estimates of 17 mpg city/21 mpg highway for the 2012 model beat the 2011 Jeep in both categories by 2 mpg. For the record, I averaged about 18 mpg in urban and suburban driving conditions.

Wrangler Sport rear seat

Wrangler Sport rear seat

But we’re talking about refinement here, and there’s more to the upgraded Jeep than a smooth new powertrain,

Carrying over from  2011 is an upgraded interior featuring durable cloth seats and the availability of comfort and convenience accessories to match numerous upscale cars.

So, has the 2012 Wrangler lost a bit of the iconic Jeep mojo? Is it more suitable for surfer dudes than it is for serious off-roaders? No way!

Ready to serve the brush beaters, rock hoppers and stream forders are Jeep’s Command Trac, shift-on-the fly, part-time four-wheel-drive system with 2WD high, 4WD high and 4WD low modes; body-on-frame design; front and rear five-link suspension system; live front and rear axles; approximately 9 inches of ground clearance; and fuel tank and transfer case skid plates.

An optional limited-slip differential provides extra grip through sand, mud and snow.

Combine that with an approach angle of  44.6 degrees, breakover angle of 25.5 degrees and a departure angle of 40.6 degrees, and you are set to go just about anywhere.