2011 Jeep Wrangler Sahara

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Glorified beach buggy or off-road icon? You decide.

THE PASSENGER-SIDE grab bar on Jeep’s 2012 Wrangler Sahara is embossed “Since 1941.” If your grasp of history stops at last year’s Superbowl, know that this refers to Jeep’s debut as a small, nimble scout car for the US Army in the Second World War.

The first Jeep proved so tough and useful that in 1945, after the war’s end, a civilian version appeared. This was the humble progenitor of today’s SUVs, including such then-unimaginable vehicles as the Range Rover, the Humvee and Mercedes-Benz’s G550, which this blocky, upright four-door Wrangler somewhat resembles.

Any such resemblance goes away on the road. If you have driven a deluxe modern sport-ute you might think that the Wrangler hasn’t evolved since 1941, but of course you’d be wrong.

This Unlimited model boasts seat heaters and satnav (something Allied soldiers struggling across Europe would have deeply appreciated), a “media center,” adjustable leather seats, air-conditioning, power windows and door locks, cup holders, anti-lock disk brakes and more, including a nicely updated interior.

Under the hood is a 285-horsepower 6-cylinder engine, which drives either two or all four wheels through a 5-speed automatic or a 6-speed manual transmission.

Sprouting from the floor next to the shifter is a second lever, which may be unfamiliar to today’s SUV crowd: a manual 4-wheel-drive selector that offers both high and low gear ranges.

This is no wussy front-wheel/all-wheel system controlled by sensors and a computer, but true, hardcore 4×4 drive. Along with good ground clearance and what appears to be plenty of suspension travel at all four corners, the Wrangler Sahara even offers hill-descent and anti-skid control, not to mention self-locking hubs at the front wheels. This Jeep is surely even more competent off-road than its hardy WWII ancestor.

That said, there are some bits that make me wince. The drivetrain and suspension and the slab-sided steel-box body, even the rear-mounted spare wheel and the external hood latches, are genuinely rugged, but why does such a dirt-and-rock crawler have a bogus plastic skid plate under the engine?

Some will point out that a proper steel plate is available for those who really do venture into the boondocks; others will sneer about “traditional Detroit cost-cutting.” Otherwise, though, the overall quality seems to be high.

This top-of-the-range, four-door Sahara wagon is much better-behaved on the road than any of its predecessors, but this is faint praise. It easily cruises at 75 or better and sets new Wrangler standards for comfort and quiet—but only on smooth, straight pavement.

At anything approaching highway speeds the suspension skitters uncontrollably over bumps, and the best thing to be said about the steering and brakes is that, yes, there is some. Fuel economy varies from the middle to the upper teens.

Wranglers have never offered the blend of dirt and pavement manners found in today’s Land Rovers or Jeep Grand Cherokees.

True, at $37,000 the Sahara Unlimited is far less costly than either of those vehicles—but Toyota’s comparably priced and equally ruff-tuff FJ Cruiser also offers excellent on- and off-road comportment.

So it can be done. Evidently, however, it’s unnecessary as Wranglers continue to sell well, possibly as symbols of manliness in a world gone soft and lazy. Even before you lift the doors off their external hinges and pop the roof panel, the Jeep is an automotive icon as instantly recognizable as any Porsche.

This Wrangler may have even more off-road chops than its big brother, the Grand Cherokee, but it can boast almost none of that machine’s on-road dynamic excellence or comforts. It is, however, a far more honest vehicle than Jeep’s Patriot and Compass models, which do disservice to a great name.

Still, at the end of the day even the upmarket Sahara Unlimited package makes the Wrangler little more than a very well-equipped and entertaining four-season beach buggy.