There aren't many cars like the Jeep Wrangler these days. I don't just mean that it doesn't have many direct competitors, I mean there aren't many cars that are afford this kind of progressive, sympathetic development the Wrangler/CJ (Civilian Jeep) has been given, since the original military Jeep was created in 1941.
What's close to it? The Mercedes-Benz G-Class? Ford Mustang? Porsche 911? These are cars that are sufficiently authentic that they still look like they should and don't upset the locals, yet are modern enough underneath to keep setting new standards.
Modern? Well, modern-ish. This is the latest-generation Jeep Wrangler, replacing one that has been on sale for the last ten years, and has, like that one and every other proper Jeep before it, a separate chassis and body. There are live axles front and rear, although not strictly just for tradition's sake, located by five-link suspension and coil springs.
It's a bit more efficient than it has ever been, and more slippery than it has ever been, although given you could make an authentic recreation out of Lego without having to resort to some of those fancy new bricks, these things are relative. There's a 2.2-litre diesel engine, a 2.0 turbo and, as of 2020, there'll even be a plug-in hybrid. So, yeah, the good ol' Jeep's fit enough for the next decade.
The latest Wrangler, model derivative JL, the fourth official Wrangler model name since 1986, but preceded by rather a lot of generations of CJ, is a touch bigger than the old one, though is not, by American standards, by any means a big car: in the 4.3m long 2dr form you see here it's about the length of a Ford Focus but, at 1.9m, a fair degree wider.
This time there's more aluminium in the body and the whole caboodle is up to 90kg lighter than it was before, tipping the scales at 2086kg with the 200hp, 2.2 diesel we've tested, which drives through an eight-speed auto.
There are three stepping off points: the basic Sport, the more refined (again, perhaps relative) Sahara model, and then the Rubicon, the full rufty-tufty, go-anywhere version which has not just chunky BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres, but a 4:1 rather than 2.7:1 crawl-ratio via the transfer 'box and uprated axles with differentials that lock at the touch of a button. You can disconnect the anti-roll bars with a button prod, too, to liberate more axle articulation. Whichever model you have, though, Wranglers "stay stock for about five minutes", according to Jeep's people.
Because it's the coolest and, I suspect, the best variant, the two-door Rubicon is where PH spent most of its time; although we had a quick steer in a Sahara on the road, too, on its more road-compliant tyres.
So let's deal with what it can do as a regular car first, in case you were thinking about swapping out of a compact crossover for one.
In short: you probably don't want to do that. Things are much better than before, to the extent that the Wrangler is, dynamically, as competent a road car as a decent double-cab pick-up, I'd say. Only it's smaller, obviously, and you don't have to put a few bags of sand in the boot to sort the ride, which is all of apiece, knobbly, but gently soft. The 2.2 diesel's relatively restrained, and the auto 'box shifts lazily but smoothly. It's quite relaxing, even though the 3.7 turns lock-to-lock steering is pretty indecisive from straight. It's a quicker rack than that number suggests, because the turning circle (10.4m) is tight.
But the car's no huge fan of crosswinds, cabin insulation through the soft-top is moderate, and although the interior is genuinely much nicer than in most pick-ups, with a big touchscreen in the middle, really quite decent material feel elsewhere, it's not, say, a Range Rover Evoque convertible.
But then it ain't meant to be. A Range Rover Evoque - in fact, I suspect nothing from the present Land Rover stable - will do what the Wrangler, even without deviating from stock, will do off-road.
The angles and stats suggest that's how it'll be. The old Wrangler two-door had impressive numbers: approach angle of 42 degrees, break over angle of 25.8 degrees and departure of 32. The new car betters them all: 44 degrees at the front, 27.8 degree breakover and 37 degrees on the way out. Ground clearance is 277mm, and it can wade through 760mm of water.
In practice, those numbers mean you seldom worry about the kind of terrain you're about to attack. Along running-speed dirt tracks and potholes the ride - with the sway bar disconnected - is amazingly good, rolling along with lovely control a bit like an Ariel Nomad. And in low-speed stuff, across big rocks, through mud-pools, over moguls, this Wrangler would have, I'm fairly confident, no factory-fresh equal. Over on HMS Autocar we did a big off-road mega-test last year and a four-door Wrangler walked it, even in conditions which we chose so that they didn't hand the success to its tyres. This one is the two-door, and is markedly better again. And it's now quite nice inside and drives on asphalt acceptably, too.
The Wrangler is now a reasonable amount of money - Jeep won't know UK prices until nearer the September/October on sale date, but continental prices start at €44k, so a Rubicon like this will be nudging towards £50k - but you can feel the depth of ability and the integrity. So whatever the next Land Rover Defender becomes - yeah, I know, I had to mention it eventually - it'll have to be good to give the Wrangler a hard time.
SPECIFICATION - JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON
Engine: 2,143cc 4cyls in line
Transmission: 8-spd automatic
Power (hp): 197@3500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@2000rpm
Top speed: 99mph