2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4x4: capable SUV with added power

fiat car review

  Capable SUV with creature comforts
Why we’d buy it: Best in class off-road 4x4
Why we wouldn’t: Sturdy construction, offroad features add weight and cost, hurt mileage
Mileage: 16 city, 20 highway (Unlimited/automatic).
Review by David Zatz. (4 - )

What costs over $26,000, has no power seats, can’t outrace a minivan or out-tow a pickup, and holds just five people, yet sells like hotcakes, while purists complain that it’s too well-appointed inside? Only the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

With its removable doors and cloth top (which takes a lot of effort to install or remove), Wrangler has been racking up sales increase after sales increase, thanks to outstanding off-road and bad-weather performance and the ability to strip off roof, doors, and windshield.

The basic look goes back to World War II, but that’s deceptive. Every time Willys, Kaiser, AMC, and Chrysler made the CJ and Wrangler bigger, it’s sold better. The four cylinder engine is long gone, and the weight is double that of the original MA and CJ. It can still conquer trails that leave pretenders stranded, and you can still take off the doors and lower the windshield (after taking off numerous bolts).

With a refreshed interior (2011) and new V6 (2012) and automatic (2012), Wrangler is much quicker and more confident on the highway; Chrysler tuned the 3.6 liter Pentastar engine to sound more 4.0-like than it does in any other vehicle, though it’s still obviously a new-tech motor. It feels more like the old 4.0 than one would expect; roaring at relatively low speeds, the V6 has ample power down low, and builds it quickly.

The 3.6 has taken the Wrangler to a new level of straight-line performance, while delivering better gas mileage. Drivers can reasonably expect another 1-3 miles per gallon, along with a second or two cut from 0-60 times; and you can go all day without pushing the engine over 3,000 rpm, thanks to its tuning and variable cam phasing.

While it shares most of its design with the car and truck Pentastar engines, this one was specially changed for Wrangler duty. The air intake and alternator was moved to allow Wrangler to cross streams; the tuning was changed for better low-rpm performance; the oil pan was changed to deal with steep angles; and the intake is unique. The effort shows; the Wrangler has more pep than the Grand Cherokee, which uses the same automatic.

wrangler unlimited review

The five-speed WA580 automatic can take some credit for both performance and gas mileage. Sourced from Mercedes and imported from Germany instead of Chrysler’s factory in Indiana, the transmission is capable of dealing with SRT levels of power. It shifts firmly and quickly, compared with the looser four-speed it replaced, and has a wider range. The Mercedes automatic tends to feel as though it’s dragging even when it isn’t, and sometimes seems loathe to shift; most drivers have no complaints with the automatic, and it certainly helps to get more from the engine than the older, looser automatic did.

We still strongly recommend the manual transmission, which is more of a personality-fit to the Wrangler, provides a pleasantly mechanical experience, and gets an extra mile per gallon on the highway (Unlimited only; standard Wranglers have the same mileage with manual and automatic).

The Wrangler Sahara is far easier than the off-road-focused Rubicon to drive on city streets and highways, especially now that the aerodynamic buffs have worked their magic (almost invisibly, it is difficult to figure out which Wranglers are 2010s and which are 2012s from the outside.) The ride is not quite car-like, and large bumps or driveway entrances can result in a hefty bounce, but the steering is far easier to deal with, and as long as you don't take the turns at irresponsible speeds, you can pretty much pretend it’s a car or a pickup, something that was harder to do in the 2010 Rubicon. The ride is definitely smoother than in past Wranglers, somewhat bouncy but not hard and jiggly; there’s a lot of smoothing coming from those modern shocks.

Confidence around turns is increased, though intelligent drivers will probably not test road adhesion around sharp turns. The electronic stability control adds a bit of extra cornering capacity, presumably preventing some rollovers.

The turning radius is normally fairly tight, not nearly as tight as the two-door Wranglers, but still in midsized-car territory. Engage the four wheel drive, and the turning radius suddenly widens; that's because it has a mechanical four wheel drive system, as opposed to fluid-coupling all wheel drive. The Wrangler is set up for severe duty and high capability, not creature comforts or on-highway use, though engineers have been gradually increasing its ability to deal with the suburban jungle.


The low-gear four wheel drive is designed for severe use, with a ratio of over 70:1. It comes in handy for severe snow spots, but normal people won't use it on-road.

When we stuck to moderate acceleration, our gas mileage shot up to EPA estimates; instant acceleration was still just a stomp away, along with poor mileage. Gas mileage is poor (16 city, 20 highway with automatic), but that's normal for this kind of vehicle; when the FJ Cruiser was still around, it did no better. Part of the problem is the shape, which hurts highway mileage; most is the weight of all the four wheel drive gear and extra-tough components to deal with shocks and drops. In our test driving, we achieved around 2 mpg more than with the 2010.

cargo area

Jonathan A. Penyack wrote: “There is no storage for windshield hardware (I don't know if anyone would bother dropping the windshield, it's a pain)... the Sunrider aspect of the soft top is more convenient than the Freedom Top panels for having a near convertible experience. It's easy to use ... only removing the soft top completely is a pain.”

Unlike the old Hummer H3 I-5, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited can go uphill quite easily, and can maintain speed even in top gear. The Pentastar does can easily maintain highway speeds at well below 2,000 rpm, can accelerate on the highway without dropping a gear or going up to 3,000, and idles at around 600 rpm, showing off its low-end torque.

The dashboard is modern and clean, with ill-advised bright chrome rings around the gauges and steering wheel (these look good when the top is on, but can catch the sun when the top is off). Wrangler screams for a key-in-the-dash and a dash-mounted headlight knob, but these are not expected any time soon. Gauges are small but clear, with a 100 mph speedometer and 7,000 rpm tachometer (the redline is just over 6,400 rpm), a gas gauge and thermometer. They use standard pointers with a plain, legible typeface and white backlighting.

As with all post-Fiat cars, the interior has been redone and backlighting is more prevalent. The central power window controls are still only marked by two tiny green lights at night. Dome lights are kept in the light/stereo bar above and behind the driver's head, and in another roll bar behind the passengers.

grab handle

On the passenger side of the dashboard, a grab bar is the most distinctive feature (now decorated with the legend “Jeep - Since 1941”), with a capacious glove compartment underneath; passengers may appreciate the lack of impediments to their view out the front or side. Other storage is kept between the seats, in a fairly sizeable console that can easily swallow up a 35mm camera with a long lens or a full sized box of tissues; and small map compartments in the front doors. Rear passengers get fabric map pockets, on the backs of the front seats, and, with the leather package, large back-of-front-seat pockets.

The round vents work on the Wrangler, providing high airflow with minimal noise; the vents rotate around, allowing total blocking of air or easy airflow in any direction. The only problem with them is the cheesy silver plastic coverings, which may have been a design compromise to break up the sea of black; as it is, there are no large uninterrupted surfaces of black. The interior surfaces seem fairly tough and able to deal with wear, and the door grab handles are soft-touch.


Controls are car-conventional, with a headlamp stalk, and a front-and-rear wiper stalk. The door lock switch is black in a sea of black plastic; the locks are also relatively hard to use and non-intuitive, leaving one to wish for the old-fashioned plungers to match the old-fashioned exterior handles. The door handles are much larger than in 2010 and easier to use, as are the locks, which now show red when unlocked. The door treatments are far superior to the 2010 design, with a dull metallic piece breaking up the monotonous black.

gas pedal supportOur main ergonomic complaint, other than hard and relatively non-contoured seats (“park bench covered with leather”), was the gas pedal, which was attached firmly to an angled support; this gave the impression that there was not room for our size-13 shoes. This is not a problem for people with normally sized feet, but it’s an odd design that we hope will be addressed soon, since it only requires a change in the shape of the support.

The trip computer shows average or instant gas mileage, distance to empty, a compass/temperature; and the odometer/trip odometer is on separately on the other side. The control button has been moved to the steering wheel, which also has the cruise control and, on the back, audio controls which make it far easier to operate the otherwise-difficult touchscreen stereo (Chrysler won an award for the easiest to use touch screen; the issue is not their design, but touch screens in general). Digital transmission temperature, antifreeze temperature, oil temperature, and tire pressure readouts would be handy for off-roading.

The climate control, which we slammed in 2010, has been completely replaced by Ryan Nagode’s fine three-knob system, with chrome rings; each knob is a pleasure to turn, easy to figure out, and well marked, with a large integral button for (from left to right) recirculate, a/c, and rear defroster. It remains the best designed system we’ve seen.

Heat blasts out quickly after the engine is started, and quickly gets so hot that even on a cold day it hurts at full strength. Air conditioning is good as well.

The four wheel drive system is activated by a traditional stick-shift, easy to move between RWD and 4x4 high but hard to get into low gear; a 4:1 multiplier is used in low gear, for maximum mobility. Rubicons have the sway bar disconnect (for increased wheel travel at very low speeds) and axle lock buttons bright and visible at the bottom of the stack, next to the hazard flashers; our Sahara had the heated seats, stability control shutoff, A/C outlet, and hill descent control buttons there instead.

hard top

The corporate stereo is used with an optional navigation system and music-holding hard drive in our test vehicle; UConnect (cellphone integration) controls are built into the stereo head unit. Those in the hinterlands may appreciate the optional satellite radio, integrated into the system and providing over a hundred channels of high-quality music and standard-quality talk.

Sound reproduction is better than in 2012, with a pair of tweeters poking out of the dash to provide stereo separation, and the woofers once again in the roll bar; at highway speeds, sound reproduction still is an issue because of the ambient noise, and bass is overemphasized regardless. The sound is balanced for front row seats, and those in the rear may not like what they get as much. Overall, though, sound clarity has been greatly improved.

The navigation system stereo unit has a built in hard drive, which is a convenience, like taking an iPod Classic along with you everywhere; for some people, it can store an entire music collection. This option came with just one physical knob, supplemented now by the steering wheel controls, to avoid distraction; the standard unit also integrates satellite radio.

The new center console unit is designed to accommodate iPods and such; the cushioned top rubber compartment can hold a compact camera or iPod, and the deep compartment, which includes a remote USB port and 12V power port (there’s also a 110V AC port on the outside of the console, protected by a flap and controlled by a switch.) Thanks to small openings, one can either have an iPod connected to the remote port, controlled by the passenger, with the console cover closed; or have the iPod in the top with the cord reaching into the (similarly padded) bottom. The deep part of the console is also big enough for a full sized box of tissues.

Storage includes fabric mesh pockets in the front doors, the glove compartment, a mesh area at the bottom of the center stack, and newly improved cupholders with grabber bumps. There's also the cargo area itself, a decently sized area behind the rear seat; the seats flip and fold easily, creating a fairly huge, mainly flat cargo bay in back (the headrests automatically swing away to help the seats fold without pushing the front seats all the way forward.)

Wrangler doors are designed to be removed by their owners, and while our test car had power locks and windows, it also had simple hinges and fabric stops (to prevent the doors from hitting the fenders), with a plug in the wiring so it can be detached. Taking the doors off not as simple and easy as in the past, but most people never take them off.

cargo bay rubber mat

To get to the cargo bay with the hard top, you have to swing open the rear door (it swings towards the sidewalk, blocking entry from that direction), and flip up the rear window. When the top does not have a rear window, that step is unnecessary.

There are several roof combinations; the most fun and most difficult is the standard fabric, which, despite numerous improvements, is not easy to take off and put back on. Visibility is good with the hardtop, with a smaller than usual pillar blind-spot; the spare tire adds another, albeit small, blind spot. The fabric roof has, ironically, a larger blind spot. Headlights are quite bright; the rear view mirrors are fairly large, but there is no remote adjustment for either one and the glass is stiff and hard to move.

roof half off

Our test Wranglers had the “Freedom” roof, a hardtop with roof sections above the driver and passenger seats that can be removed and stored in two segments. Removing and replacing the front parts takes a couple minutes each, the slowest part being the oddly long screws, whose ends have no “speed helper.” (I suspect some owners will keep the screws in the glove compartment during seasons when it goes on and off a lot). The freedom top sections can be stowed behind the back seats, hanging from the rear headrests, if you stow them in the included, padded bag.

The hardtop provides a measure of sound insulation. Wind and other-car noise is obviously far higher with the fabric (or no) roof.

removable top

Removing the entire hardtop is time consuming, and you need a place to store it; most people will only do it once a year, to switch over to winter driving, if they have a soft top (in the past the hardtop option included the soft top; buyers can, we believe, now choose either the hard top alone, or the hard top with the soft top. Our test car came with just the hard top).

With the full hardtop on, Wrangler looks something like the now-dead Hummer H3, and it feels surprisingly like a conventional SUV. That said, there’s no point in paying this much for a conventional SUV; if you aren’t going to run roofless, or drive in particularly nasty conditions, you’d be happier with a Liberty, Patriot, or Grand Cherokee.

Front and rear wipers are the traditional tiny size, which (along with the still-nearly-flat windshield), helps the blades to last a long time without losing effectiveness, and increases their ability to deal with snow and ice. The rear window has a defroster with a heating element underneath the wiper blade. Sun visors carry over from 2010; they work with the hard roof, don't get in the way when you take off the Freedom Top roof segments, and slide on their mounts for extra reach.

The rear seats have plenty of room for kids and the LATCH loops are right in the open. Once inside, the seat belt - mounted a good distance behind the rear seat - may be hard to get on (even for adults), and tends to go into "lock mode" easily. That said, getting into the rear seats is easy for adults, with wide-opening doors. Leg room is fine, but the Wrangler is narrower than most cars and trucks because wider vehicles can’t make it past as many obstacles on trails. That means it's easy to park and there's plenty of space on the side when you’re in a parking lot, even if there isn't a lot of elbow room — not that it’s tight.

The hood has an unusual external-latch system; there's no hood lock, you just undo the two hinges and the safety catch and it's open.

Jeep Wranglers are made in Toledo, Ohio, their traditional home; the automatic transmission is German, the engine is made in the U.S., and 71% of the content is from the U.S. and Canada.

The list price for the upper-level Sahara model, which we tested, is $31,545, including destination charge; that includes the V6 and a six-speed manual. (So does the base Wrangler Unlimited Sport 4x4, which lists at $26,445.) The off-road gear includes shift-on-the-fly 4x4, Dana 44 rear axle, Dana 30 front axle, skid plates, fog lamps, and two hooks (two up front, one in back). Safety bits include stability control, four-wheel ABS disc brakes, electronic roll prevention, hill start assist, alarm, SentryKey theft deterrent, tire pressure monitor, and power heated mirrors.

rear view

For luxury, there’s cruise, power mirrors, 115-volt AC outlet, air conditioning, CD stereo with 368 watts and 7 speakers, audio input jack, satellite radio, power windows and locks, steering wheel mounted audio controls, leather steering wheel wrap, thermometer and compass, tilt-wheel, height adjustable driver’s seat, tinted windows, side steps, and front and rear dome lamps.

Our test car balanced the scales at $37,200. The automatic alone put $1,125 onto the bill, and we’d have paid to have it taken back out again. The most expensive piece was the hard top, at $1,715; it includes a rear window defroster and wiper/washer, and apparently no longer comes with the soft-top as well. Then the Media Center 430N upgrade (bringing a hard drive stereo, navigation, and travel) added $1,035, the heated leather seats tacked on $900, the trip computer/voice command/cellphone control/remote USB port was another $385, and remote started added $200. Another off-road component — a limited slip rear differential — was responsible for $295, and there you have it, a $37,200 list price. We suggest forgoing the leather; the cloth is tough and wears well.

The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is more streetable than before, with power from idle to redline, decent cornering, a cushioned ride, and a hard shell that provides most of the creature comforts of a regular SUV (and defeats one of the points of having a Wrangler). The Unlimited doesn’t cut back on the off-road capabilities that make the series unique, at least not when compared with the prior generation; going from two doors to four, and adding length, does impose some limits. It still has far more “personality” than most, if not all, competitors.

Just get it with a stick-shift...that’s the way a Jeep should be.