The Jeep Wrangler is undoubtedly an American legend. In fact, it couldn’t be more American its utilitarian face was carved into the side of Mount Rushmore. A descendant of the Willys MB Jeep that transported American and Allied soldiers during World War II, it’s the archetypal off-roader that has been a cult classic for years now. To find out whether I see in it what the multitude of Jeep fanatics do, I spent some time living with the on-road-specialised 2023 Unlimited Overland model you see here.
The Overland sits in the middle of the Wrangler ‘Unlimited’ range – which is code for long-wheelbase five-door models – between the entry-level Night Eagle and trail-crushing Rubicon model, and it aims to bridge the gap between the two. It comes priced at a not inconsiderable $86,950 before on-road costs, $5500 more than the Night Eagle and $3500 less than the Rubicon. If you’re after a short-wheelbase three-door Wrangler, the Rubicon is your only option at $83,950.
Based on a comprehensive study (with a sample size of three female participants) conducted by yours truly, the Wrangler is a certified chick magnet. Political correctness be damned – women love the Wrangler’s utilitarian style. My partner didn’t bat an eyelid when I picked her up in a sporty, lurid orange Toyota GT86, yet immediately upon seeing the Wrangler she declared that it was her dream car without a moment’s hesitation. She didn’t even balk when I informed her it cost about the same as the average Australian annual income.
To visually differentiate it from the base model, the Overland benefits from a hard spare wheel cover and body-coloured fenders and roof. It also receives 18-inch alloy wheels shod in highway-terrain rubber which looks too small and wimpish for the Wrangler’s ginormous fenders. It brings to mind images of my insecure 16-year-old self wearing XL-sized T-shirts to hide my skinny frame.
Seat yourself inside the Wrangler and you are greeted by a swathe of wonderfully tactile rubber buttons and dials. It may not be the most glamorous interior but it feels robust and rugged, almost as if you could just hose out to clean it. Handily, you actually can – the Wrangler features one-way drain valves in the floor to allow you to clean out any muck with water straight from the hose pipe.
Tech-conscious readers can rest assured knowing there’s a brilliantly responsive 8.4-inch infotainment display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto included as standard.
Headroom and legroom are aplenty, although some taller folk may find that the letterbox windscreen is mounted a little too low. Boot space starts at a whopping 898 litres and can be extended to 2050 litres with the rear seats folded down.
The first twenty minutes behind the wheel of a Jeep Wrangler are, quite frankly, frustrating. The cramped footwell lacks a footrest, the wind noise is insufferable, and the front tyres sniff out every single imperfection in the road. This means you are constantly having to correct the disconcertingly light steering to ensure the car stays in a straight line. It’s like trying to drive a bloodhound.
But then when you open the optional ‘Sky-One-Touch’ electric roof and feel the sun in your face and the breeze through your hair, the Wrangler starts to make more sense.
Despite the aforementioned pitfalls, driving a Jeep Wrangler is therapy. After a stressful day at work, I routinely opened the roof, turned on the seat and steering wheel heaters, played some John Mayer on the superb nine-speaker Alpine audio system, and all my worries simply melted away.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly that makes the Wrangler so enjoyable. It has a character, a personality that is so utterly endearing that it’s hard not to fall for it. Before driving one, I often chastised the Jeep community for purchasing such an objectively compromised vehicle. I had missed the point. This is a car to make memories in. Cruising along the coast, wind in your hair, sun pouring in the cabin, there is simply nothing like it. Throw in the fact that you can remove the doors and roof, and you have just about the perfect vehicle for cross-country adventure.
Ride quality is notable. Jeep hasn’t hamstrung the Overland with stiff suspension in a bid to make it handle better, with comfort being prioritised instead – a wise choice since the Overland is delightfully compliant when pottering around town. That’s despite it using solid front and rear axles, too. Jeep should also be commended for the Wrangler’s brakes which feel great underfoot and have ample bite for the daily commute.
The 3.6-litre petrol V6, however, is a clear underperformer. The ‘Pentastar’ may be powerful with 209kW on tap, but with a mere 347Nm only fully accessible higher in the rev range, it’s left feeling less torquey than my electric toothbrush. Tipping the scales at a hefty 1900kg, you have to get the engine screaming to manage an overtaking manoeuvre on a country road. The eight-speed automatic transmission takes a frustratingly long time to downshift when quickly called upon, too. It’s a crying shame Australia misses out on the turbo four-pot and plug-in hybrid variants other markets receive.
Although it somewhat demands to be pushed at times, you won’t want to have too much of a lead foot driving the Wrangler as it’s more than partial to a drop of unleaded fuel. After 750km of testing, I saw a return of 13L/100km which with current fuel prices could hit your hip pocket hard. Driving more sensibly, though, I managed to match the official claim of 9.7L/100km during some stretches.
I didn’t come close to pushing the Overland to its limits off-road during my time with it, although it scrambled up some relatively steep rocky and muddy inclines I pitted it against with absolute ease. Regardless, serious off-roaders may wish to upgrade to the Rubicon model which features off-road-specific suspension and tyres, a front swaybar disconnect, locking front and rear differentials, and heavy-duty axles. However, all Wrangler variants come with skid plates and bars to help protect crucial components like the fuel tank, transfer case, and transmission oil pan.
For those thinking about a Wrangler as a family car, do keep in mind that it was only awarded a three-star ANCAP safety rating in 2019, and there are only four airbags with none for rear seat occupants. Of course, the trade-off here is that many of the key characteristics that make it a proper Jeep would be missing if it were less old-school in its design. Plus, it does have some safety features, including blind-spot monitoring, autonomous emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors, and forward collision warning.
Every Jeep comes with a five-year/100,000km factory warranty. Service intervals are set every 12 months/12,000km with the first five services capped at a cost of $399 each.
Considering that the Unlimited Overland cost just $62,950 when this seventh-generation JL model launched in 2018, the largely similar 2023 model costing a whopping $24,000 more than that after a series of price hikes is a hard pill to swallow. There’s also a facelifted model due right around the corner.
Yet despite the now astronomical price tag, I don’t actually mind it. When it comes to the Wrangler, Jeep isn’t selling a form of transportation – it’s selling an adventure. For all its foibles, the 2023 Jeep Wrangler is an absolute joy to drive. No car I have tested over the past three years has made me feel the way the loveable Jeep did. It’s hard to put a price on that.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Jeep Australia for nine days with a full tank of fuel. All other fuel costs were covered by the author.