Refined, yet rugged

BY Lesley Wimbush. Feb 26 04:00 am

A funny thing happens when you’re behind the wheel of a Jeep Wrangler. You soon notice every other person you see driving a Jeep will acknowledge you with a wave or a nod, like some road-going form of a fraternity secret handshake.

It isn’t surprising; it takes a special type of person to appreciate a Jeep’s particular form of non-compromise, and that nod lets you know they get it. They know you dropped at least 35 large on a vehicle with abysmal road manners, the worst levels of wind and road noise in the business, and more hard plastic than Wal-mart’s kitchenware department. You didn’t buy your Jeep because you approved of its lousy fuel economy or marginal storage capacity. You bought it because it’s the baddest off-roader to roll off the production line.

The Jeep brethren know you’re not simply existing, a downtrodden drone, inhaling stale exhaust fumes while the rest of the world flies by. They know your life is lived outside of the rat race, just you and your Jeep, tackling with joyous abandon whatever the trail throws at you once the pavement ends.

That’s the prevailing image Jeep owners tend to embrace, regardless of whether they’re veterans of the Rubicon or weekend warriors tackling the cottage trails and boasting of their prowess over a couple of cases of brewskies. Seventy-five years after Jeep’s legendary role in the Second World War as a nearly unstoppable bushwhacker, it’s still going strong as a symbol of unbending character and freedom.

The Jeep I’m driving is a 2016 Wrangler Unlimited Willys 4x4, a special commemorative package paying homage to the original military vehicle of the 1940s, the Willys MB. Based on a Wrangler Sport platform, the Willys edition adds a Trac-Lok limited-slip rear differential, 3.73 gearing, rock rails, glossy black rims with BF Goodrich mud terrain tires and exclusive Willys decals. Of course, the extra two doors on my tester could be considered Jeep’s nod to practicality and compromise.

It’s well equipped to handle just about anything the trail could throw at it, but serious rock crawlers will still opt for the Jeep Rubicon’s locking differentials, 4.10 axle ratio, disconnecting stabilizer bars and 4:1 low range transfer case.

Purists will immediately dismiss me, but I have to admit I was relieved to see this Willys came equipped with the optional five-speed automatic ($1,495) instead of the standard six-speed manual transmission. Anyone who has ever contended with a stiff clutch and tall shifter through three hours of Toronto’s stop-and-go rush-hour traffic can probably empathize.

My ride home was a lot more relaxing, but it still requires all of your attention to drive a Jeep on the highway. Its boxy outline is about as aerodynamic as a washing machine, and it tends to wander without a firm hand on the wheel. The heavy-duty rubber’s aggressive tread thrums on the pavement, but something about driving a Jeep makes you feel compelled to crank the Alpine stereo up high. The removable hard top ($1,150) and a sound-absorbing headliner ($495) help cut down on some of the wind noise. For what it’s worth, that top also makes this the only off-roading convertible on the market.

The interior is a typical Jeep environment, spartan yet comfortable. The flat chunky dash plane and ergonomic simplicity recall its military roots — and just in case you forget, there are many “Easter egg” design cues planted throughout the cabin, from the “since 1941” glovebox plate to the tire-tread rubber matting and seven-bar grille bracket on the rear-view mirror.

The Willys’s base price is $34,495, and my tester rings in at $45,475. For more than $10,000 in options, you’d probably expect a lot of luxury features, right? But this is a Jeep, and its fan base embraces the unconventional; most would perversely reject luxury, as a matter of principle. There’s no navigation system, no heated seats and no rear-view camera. There is, however, a leather-wrapped steering wheel for optimum grip during tricky trail manoeuvres. All of the Jeep’s crucial parts are protected underneath by heavy-duty skid plates. It’s got hill-descent control, tubular side steps, trailer sway control, performance suspension and removable roof, doors and fenders. You don’t buy a Jeep and expect a seat massage.

Heading into the Northumberland woods with Clayton Seams, we had a moment of doubt when the mud tires scrabbled for purchase on the icy road. Not the ideal rubber for an Ontario winter, they nonetheless had enough grip to pull Clayton’s beloved old GMC back to dry land after it became beached on the sheer ice. The 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6, with 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, isn’t exactly a powerhouse, but seems perfectly suitable for its purpose.

Once on the trail, we floundered and fishtailed in doorsill-deep heavy snow, but once in 4-Lo, the Jeep became the unstoppable off-road terminator. Giggling like school kids, we plowed downhill, snow cascading up over the windshield and leaving a plume in our wake as we clambered over terrain we’d never get through on foot. It was absolutely exhilarating, reckless freedom, letting us temporarily forget the stuffy offices we’d left behind.

The Jeep Wrangler Willys isn’t a vehicle we’d recommend if you’re looking for practicality, comfort and fuel economy. But if your life begins where the pavement ends, this is about as good as it gets.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016