Scott takes the Jeep Wrangler Blackhawk for a trip down Victoria's surf coast...
I was very excited at the prospect of borrowing a Jeep Wrangler for the weekend, especially as I already had plans to go down to the coast and visit some friends for an early morning surf.
I should tell you right now, I’m not a particularly good surfer. I really just do it because I like the image and deep down I’m a bit of a show off. And if I’m honest, it’s probably the Jeep image and the opportunity to show off that had me so excited, rather than any burning desire to go four-wheel driving.
While I am getting confessions out of the way, I should also admit right up front that for the remainder of this review I will be spending 99 per cent of my time on bitumen roads. I know, I know, it’s a cardinal sin. So I’m hoping the confession may rid me of some guilt. You see, taking a Jeep Wrangler for a test drive on a city road or a freeway is a bit like taking Ian Thorpe for a test swim in a bath tub.
So while I clearly did not exploit the famous off-roader's off-road benefits, I definitely exploited another of its key features, its 'show off' factor. And believe me, this is definitely the kind of car you will want to show off. In fact, if I was to own one, I would seriously consider signing myself up as an Uber driver, just to spend my weekends driving other people around. It’s incredible fun and the reaction you get when you roll up in one of these is priceless.
I felt a similar way when I picked up the Jeep Wrangler Blackhawk from the Melbourne CarAdvice office for the first time on Saturday morning.
A limited edition model based on the four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Overland, the Blackhawk is a truly menacing sight up close. The iconic seven-slot grill, unnecessarily large front bumper and the whole military look and feel combine to create a very imposing vehicle.
Adding unique badging and decals, along with as 18-inch black-painted alloy wheels, with the Blackhawk – as the name suggests – you can take Henry Ford’s advice and select any colour you want, as long as it’s black.
With a massive 233mm of ground clearance, even the first experience of climbing in makes you feel like you are doing something a little out of the ordinary.
Once in the driver's seat, I start the normal routine: adjust the seat, adjust the mirrors, sync the phone, tune the radio to Triple J etc. I even test out the standard satellite navigation.
Far from leading edge technology, it's all pretty functional and straight forward with no real challenges or surprises. There is one exception, however: the windows. How the hell do I put the windows down? I search for the buttons somewhere on the doors, nope. In the centre console perhaps? Nope. On the steering wheel? Nope, wrong again. Eventually I find them disguised as what looks more like an air vent just below the display unit.
To assure myself I was not entirely stupid, I later tried this trick on several passengers, challenging them to close their windows. The longest it took someone to find the button was a full seven minutes, but even the sharpest of my passengers took a good 90 seconds to figure it out. Obviously not an issue once you know where it is, it does provide short form entertainment each time you get a new passenger (note for future Wrangler-owning Uber drivers).
Anyway, I digress. The roof is already off when I pick up the car. So with the windows down and adjustments made, I'm good to go.
I set off across the Westgate Bridge and down the Princess Highway in the direction of Torquay. Halfway there and the clouds ahead are starting to look ominous. Do I stop now and put the roof on, or keep going? I’m in a Jeep. I’m feeling brave. So I push on.
A few spots start to appear on the windscreen but I can barely feel them on my head and I have been assured it is no problem for the Jeep to get a little wet on the inside. In fact, it is designed to be hosed out. The pull-out carpets and drain holes in the floor are further proof of the theory. So other than my personal desire to stay dry, there is actually nothing to worry about... yet.
Fortunately the rain clears and I carry on until arriving at my friend’s place in Torquay. I pull in to the drive and honk the horn. This is the kind of car that can make a big entrance. They were not expecting to see a black army truck in their driveway and it's great to see their reaction.
“Let’s go for a spin,” I tell them. The three of us jump in (roof still off) and head in to town under the guise of ‘checking out the surf’ but in truth we were checking out the main street and hoping to be checked out ourselves.
We pass two other Wranglers en route and on both occasions receive a friendly nod and a wave. "That's unusual," I think to myself. Clearly I was now part of some secret Jeep owner sect. I’ve not had that before and I must say, I liked it. The next Jeep we pass is a Cherokee. I try to take the initiative and send out the wave. No response…. It appears this particular club is for Wrangler drivers only.
Five minutes into our joy ride and once again the sky is starting to look very dark, so we decide to head back home. As we arrive back at base camp, it really starts bucketing with the rain coming in at right angles. My mate Nick bravely offers to help me try and negotiate the soft top roof process for the first time. I had previously seen James and Dave perform the task in an entertaining Wrangler roof demonstration. However, with hindsight, I probably should have practiced it at least once before attempting it myself in pelting rain.
Unlike the windows there was definitely no hidden button to magically make the roof go on. This would be more akin to pitching a tent – with foldable frames, metal latches, zips and velcro. And, much like pitching a tent, it is made easier with two people but more difficult by gale force winds and pouring rain.
Between the two of us we manage to get the roof neatly fitted, zipped and velcro’d on in what feels like about five minutes, but in reality is probably far less time. By this stage we are both thoroughly drenched and so is the car's interior – providing a good chance to test the waterproof theory...
With a quick high five to celebrate our achievement, we then head inside to dry off and have a cup of tea.
When thinking who this car would appeal to, the camping analogy works well. If you enjoy camping and don't mind getting wet, then you are probably going to enjoy the Wrangler. If the thought of pitching a tent in the rain makes you want to stab yourself in the eye, then you might well experience the same emotions with this vehicle.
The rain stops and we decide it is time to go for a surf. This means loading up the Wrangler with all the respective gear and therefore taking the famous CarAdvice surfboard challenge – a test previously seen performed on a range of small convertibles with just the one standard sized surfboard. Obviously the Jeep needed a bit more of a challenge though. Could we fit three adults, two standard surfboards and one larger Malibu? The answer - Absolutely!
We lower one half of the back seat and leave the larger board poked down the centre between the driver and front seat passenger, but we get there without any interfering with movement or rear visibility. Even all three passengers are perfectly comfortable for the short drive to the beach.
With the recent experience of getting the roof on still fresh in our minds, and the likelihood of more rain quite high, we decide to go roof on for now. The other influencing factor is security. While the soft-top is far from burglar proof, with surfing requiring us to leave the majority of our stuff in the car, the decision is made to go top on rather than tempt fate with the top off.
We head down to Point Impossible – a not-so-secret (and not-so-impossible) point break close to Torquay – which, conveniently, is accessed via a dirt road, presenting my first, and what turned out to be last, opportunity to take the Jeep off the tarmac.
It’s quite a while since I have surfed and I am definitely out of shape, so it was a short session. Then back to the car to gracefully attempt to remove our wetsuits and get changed without tripping over or flashing a bit too much white flesh in the process. Where you would normally be concerned about getting sand and wet people into your car, with the Wrangler you almost encourage it. It’s the kind of car you want to get dirty.
We all pile back in to warm up a little, crank the stereo and head off to find something for lunch. With the weather still lousy, I decide to head back to Melbourne that same afternoon.
The next day I wake up to a beautiful sunny Melbourne day and can't wait to get the roof off again and head out for a drive. Removing the soft-top roof is a very simple process, compared with putting it on anyway. Even on my first attempt it didn't take more than 30 seconds to figure out and it’s an easy one-person job.
The roof is off and the sun is shining, but I don’t want to be ‘Scott no mates’ driving around solo in his blacked-out Jeep, so I quickly phone up a couple of friends and convince them to join me for a Sunday drive down Melbourne's iconic Beach Road to St. Kilda. If the lure of the Wrangler Blackhawk wasn’t enough, I sweeten the deal with the promise of ice-creams if everyone behaves.
As much fun as I had in the Jeep, I should probably tell you a bit more about the driving experience.
Firstly, fuel consumption: I averaged 13.7L/100km over my weekend with the Blackhawk but as mentioned, I was mainly driving around town or on freeways.
The Wrangler was surprisingly good for a simple Sunday city cruiser too. Sitting up so high you really feel like the king of the road and you also get a great view.
Parking was not the issue I thought it may have been, aided in no small part by the standard reversing camera. It was relatively easy to negotiate the big beast in to standard sized parking spots and parallel parking proved reasonably easy. On the negative side, there are quite a few blind spots and the indicator feels like it is going to snap off in your hand each time you use it – annoyingly I also had it often trigger the high beams in the process. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised how well it managed around town.
It does feel like a bit of a waste to be driving a car like this on city roads, however. It really belongs in the wild. But with the time available, it was easier to pop out for a quick ice-cream than to set off for any hardcore off-road action. That will have to wait until next time...
There's no doubt the Jeep Wrangler is a hit with the general public and my friends dug its purpose-built styling and adventurous attitude. We managed to turn a few heads and get a wave from fellow Wrangler drivers. We also ended up getting our ice-creams but while Mr Whippy disappointed – they weren't great – the Wrangler definitely did not. It provided us with loads of fun and a couple of great days out.
As I look now at my pink thighs and t-shirt marks on my arms, I am reminded of a Baz Luhrmann song from the 90s (Everybody's Free To Wear Sunscreen). It’s good life advice and, especially for potential Jeep owners with a pasty complexion like myself, ladies and gentlemen, if you're Jeeping it, don’t forget the sunscreen!