All good things must come to an end. In the case of the Jeep Wrangler, the latest Freedom Edition special-edition model sends the long-running JK series off ahead of an all-new Wrangler set to arrive Down Under in 2019.
From an introduction in 2006, the current Jeep Wrangler has had a long innings. But as an iconic automotive anachronism, there’s less of a pressing need to keep it at the cutting edge.
Low-key updates over time have given the Wrangler a little extra polish, but make no mistake, it has maintained rugged 4x4 ability as a core value, with creature comforts and modern conveniences pushed down the list of priorities.
Freedom Edition inclusions see the Wrangler Sport equipped with alloy wheels and grille finished in Granite Crystal paint, paired with black grille inserts and headlight rings. Wheel arch flares come body-coloured.
A set of rock rails and a 'premium' soft top are included alongside military-style graphics on the bonnet and front guards, plus green-hued Trail Rated and Oscar Mike badges. Inside, the seats are trimmed in a combination of black McKinley leather, vinyl and cloth with Iron Grey painted interior highlights, and a satin chrome steering wheel garnish.
Nothing too plush on the list, but a few neat details to delight Jeep trainspotters nonetheless. It's not the first time Jeep has applied the Freedom treatment either, and for 2018 the list price for the two-door Freedom Edition is set at $43,990 plus on-road costs.
Although hardcore off-road enthusiasts might prefer a diesel engine, the Freedom ships only with a 3.6-litre petrol V6 engine mated to a five-speed automatic. Outputs are rated at 209kW of power at 6350rpm and 347Nm of torque at 4300rpm.
That's a big and brawny engine, but against the Wrangler's circa 1740kg it has its work cut out for it. Jeep claims you'll see fuel consumption of 11.3L/100km, and after a week spread over urban, rural and off-road driving consumption settled on 13.1L/100km.
As renowned as the Wrangler may be amongst off-road circles, there are plenty of urban buyers who will pick the Freedom Edition for its rough and ready aesthetic over its authentic capability. That’s where two worlds collide.
Not only are the design and execution of the Wrangler over a decade old, whereas more city-centric SUVs have concentrated on becoming more and more car-like, the Wrangler’s body-on-frame construction, rigid axles and steering box all hark back to another era. Fantastic as rugged and reliable off-road hardware, but less ideal in tight city car parks and narrow streets.
The combination of mounting age and a more rugged focus sees the Wrangler struggle in the large-SUV segment it falls into, racking up just over a quarter of the sales of Jeep’s own Grand Cherokee so far this year.
Far from being a mainstream answer to broadly suit the needs of a widest-possible audience, though, the Wrangler is only ever going to appeal to those who particularly seek its charm.
Some of that charm includes an interior that’s not particularly spacious or ergonomically sound, with a massive upright slab of dashboard facing the front seat passengers, tricky to load rear seats, and boot space that’s minimal at best.
The infotainment well and truly belongs in another era. There’s no touchscreen here. In fact, no colour display at all, just an LCD display for the AM/FM radio and CD-player, plus Bluetooth connectivity that’s frustratingly cumbersome to pair.
Contemporary standards like integrated navigation and smartphone mirroring don’t even register on the Wrangler Freedom’s radar. Although, at least satellite stereo controls mounted to the steering wheel join a set of cruise control and trip computer buttons for relative ease of operation.
The accessory hard top, fitted to the car tested here, at least helps somewhat in keeping wind and road noise down in a way the soft roof can’t. That said, don’t expect a library-like atmosphere – you’re closer to the ambience of road, wind and engine noise in the Wrangler than you are in most other modern SUVs.
The front seats, manually adjusted of course, tend to the hard and flat side of the comfort spectrum. You do get a commanding view of the road ahead, but the Wrangler's bulky square shape and wide wheel arches can still make it tricky to pick exactly where each corner of the car lies.
The rear seats are firmer and flatter still – it’s fair to expect occasional use only in the two-door Wrangler – and having to squeeze past the front seats, which only make a token attempt to allow rear access, means you’ll only want to put the most nimble of your friends or family back there.
There’s more manhandling the big bugger about, too. Twitchy steering, long-travel pedals, and a complete absence of high-tech safety features mean the Wrangler requires diligent operator inputs.
With such a short wheelbase, even though the steering is rather slow, every tug at the wheel results in a darty change of direction. An experience that’s amplified at highway speeds. Long-travel suspension means a long recovery after big hits, and while wheel articulation may be a highlight, smaller hits and dips tend to upset the ride easily.
All of which fades into insignificance once made roads turn into chopped-up fire trails strung up and down mountainsides. Agricultural though it may be, the Wrangler handles inhospitable terrain like a pro.
Again, tradition dictates there’s no push-button terrain select, and you’ll even have to wrestle with the low-range lever at times to get the Wrangler in and out of four-wheel drive. But short overhangs, impressive approach, departure and break-over angles, and properly low gearing mean that even without a torquey diesel engine or sophisticated electronics, the Freedom Edition is brawny enough to tackle the rough stuff.
Most promising of all, though, is the JL Wrangler – set to arrive in Australia in 2019 – should continue the tradition of capability and ruggedness. It won’t be as calm, quiet or sophisticated to drive as a more road-biased soft-roader, and nor should it be. It will keep a hose-out interior, removable doors, and a fold-down windscreen, but with a more up-to-date design. Not groundbreakingly different, but evolved.
Before it arrives, though, the Freedom Edition is one of the last chances to pick up the outgoing JK Wrangler, alongside the similarly limited Golden Eagle edition.
From an ownership perspective, Jeep backs the Wrangler with a five-year/100,000km warranty (whichever comes first), five years of capped-price servicing at 12-month/12,000km intervals tallying $2275, and lifetime roadside assist for as long as you keep the car serviced with an authorised Jeep dealer.
It’s peace of mind that’s handy to have, with Jeep suffering a reputation for less-than-stellar reliability. While the Wrangler hasn’t been upheld as a beacon of Jeep's roughest times like the Grand Cherokee, the brand needs to do all it can to convince customers it not only builds a quality product, but also backs it with appropriate after-sales support.
Unfortunately, the Wrangler’s somewhat unique construction with a removable roof (be it hard or soft) sees features like curtain airbags omitted. Similarly, any kind of advanced safety assist, like AEB or lane-keep assist, is also off the cards. A four-star ANCAP rating from 2012 is also a less-than-stellar result.
The new Wrangler will no doubt seek to improve this ranking and adds available tech like blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and a rear-view camera, but still lacks autonomous emergency braking, curtain airbags and the like. Though it may be rugged to the core, there must be some room to allow for these kinds of improvements to filter through, surely?
Despite its popularity amongst inner-city dwellers, urban environments just aren’t the natural playground for the Wrangler. This is a car unashamedly at home away from home. Its staunchly traditional 4x4 construction makes it a less-than-ideal road warrior, but for dirty weekends, the Wrangler remains unmatched.