The newest rendition of the legendary Jeep looks more Chuck Norris than ever. After 77 years it is back to the roots for the American icon. GQ ed Dieter Losskarn got down and dirty with the newest Wrangler on some muddy Austrian mountain tracks.
He helped Tom Hanks saving Private Ryan during D-Day, enabled Inglourious Basterds like Brad Pitt to catch some nazis and transported George C. Scott as General Patton through all major WW2 theaters. But the Jeep isn’t just a supporting Hollywood actor, he helped the Allies to win the actual war. The vehicle was used as a go-anywhere ambulance with a stretcher strapped across the bonnet or the sides, parachuted out of aeroplanes and driven through ice, snow, mud, dust storms and desert sand.
Born in 1941, when the US army was searching for a reliable, agile and light vehicle, which could go anywhere and was unbreakable. Several American car manufacturers designed protoypes. Willys-Overland got the tender, beating the huge Ford company and other smaller ones to it. But Willys didn’t have the capacities to mass-produce enough units, so Ford had to help out. More than 650 000 almost identical vehicles were produced during the war, both Willys MB and Ford GPWs. The name ‘Jeep’ derived most likely from the military abbreviation of ‘GP’, general purpose. Another source could be the, at the time, popular Popeye cartoon character of ‘Eugene the Jeep’.
As soon as the war was over in 1945 Willys-Overland envisioned that this amazing car, the grand-daddy of 4x4s as we know them, could enjoy a huge post-battle success. They copyrighted the Jeep trademark and with a few modifications, mainly bigger headlights popping out of their characteristic recesses, spare wheel at the right rear side to make a foldable tailgate possible and some fresher colors than green, olive and beige, the Jeep CJ2A was born. CJ standing for Civilian Jeep.
When Lucky Strike-smoking and Fräulein-searching American GIs in their Jeeps, with the windshields folded down, were still liberating Italy, France and finally Germany, not even in their wildest nightmares would they have imagined that their beloved war hero could one day be owned by the French (Renault), the Germans (Daimler-Chrysler) or the Italians (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, FCA). Latter are the current owners of the Jeep brand – and they managed to not only retain the inherited, rugged Jeep genes, they brought the icon back to the roots. The newest, fourth-generation Wrangler is the most exciting one ever. The perfect way to celebrate Jeep’s 77th birthday.
The compared to the Sahara model even tougher Rubicon reminds me a lot of one of the best Jeeps ever, the 1980s CJ5 Laredo with its chrome grille. Muscular, rugged, strong and with an unshakable and confident attitude. I did once buy one of those in Texas and took it over some of the roughest and toughest 4×4 tracks in the Southwestern United States. Now I am reliving those glorious moments in a 2019 orange two-door Rubicon on some muddy mountain tracks in Austria. With the trusted 3.6-l V6 from the previous model nothing can stop the Jeep. And when the going gets tough, you just shift from two- to four-wheel drive, add low-gear, front- or rear diff lock or push the button of the electronic sway bar disconnect to allow lots of additional wheel travel. For this the Rubicon features Rock Trac, a more serious off-road package,than the Sahara’s Command Trac.
Back at the base camp in Spielberg, Austria I have a closer look at the Wrangler. At first glance it looks like the outgoing model. That’s what the Jeep guys actually wanted to achieve. But it is an all-new car. The trapezoidal grille is an homage to CJ times. And it is slightly bend backwards in the upper part to allow for better airflow. In another heritage move, the Wrangler is still the only new car in the world with a folding-down windshield. Quite an engineering feat to make this possible in a modern vehicle. And it is easily done with the cool, little tool set, located in the upper part of the middle console lid.
And some more very good news for fresh air enthusiasts: the Wrangler can now be stripped down completely in 14 minutes. With the previous model you were busy for the good part of a day. The side windows slide out of the soft top, which folds back with the use of one hand. The doors come off with the above-mentioned tools. And they are now easy to transport as there are cut-outs below the armrests. So with the window rolled down you carry the light aluminium piece like a brief case.
Other roof options are the hardtop and the retractable fabric power soft top.
The two headlights are not only larger, they now feature an attractive LED circle.
And to really show their confidence there is no more Jeep badge in front anymore. The grille is our logo, Jeep officials state cooly. But on the side the embossed Jeep logos are back, just like on the old CJ models.
Jeep engineers also added some driver’s assist programs, such as the blind-spot monitor. It found its place in the tail lights. The reason why those are sticking out slightly on both sides. The third brake light above the rear-mounted spare-wheel is adjustable, as most Jeep owners will fit bigger tyres later. There is even a back-up camera in the centre of the spare wheel for parking and rear cross traffic alerts.
But the real revolution happened inside, where the new Wrangler beats all its predecessors. There is a large touch screen with Uconnect now, like in other proper SUVs. The one in the Wrangler even features a drag & drop function, similar to a smartphone. On start-up the face of a wartime Jeep appears briefly on the display, morphing into the new Wrangler. One of many playful gimmicks paying homage to the heritage and making this new car so instantly likable. Tiny Willys Jeep logos are to be found all over the car, from windshield and wheels to the top of the gear shifter. And what happens when you happen to drive the Jeep through a mud hole with the windscreen down? Don’t worry, everything inside has been waterproofed by rubberizing the surfaces. You can just hose down the dash.
And while the outgoing Wrangler was just a compromised truck on road, a fact that hard-core Wrangler fans didn’t mind, the new one is so much better on tar. Almost like a car, definitely SUV-like. Smooth, stable and easy to control. Especially in the Sahara model. The Rubicon’s big rubbers give it a bit more of a Jeep wobble, which makes it even more attractive.
So here you have it, the fourth-generation Wrangler is a dramatic improvement to its predecessor. It enjoys stylish coolness without compromise. The new Jeep is Italo-American now. Still tough. But sophisticated tough. More Al Pacino than Chuck Norris.
77 years of Jeep
Willys Jeep MA/MB (Ford GPW)
The grand-daddy of all 4x4s, a true war time hero and now a very sought after collectible classic car.
In 1945 the first Civilian Jeep was the CJ2A, followed by many more, with one of the best being the CJ5 Laredo of the 1980s. Willys-Overland sold to Kaiser in 1953, which was purchased by AMC (American Motor Corporation) in 1970. In the 1980s Renault bought a large share of AMC and in 1987 the Chrysler Corp. took over the Jeep brand. In 1998 Chrysler merged with Daimler to create Daimler-Chrysler. And since 2014 Chrysler and the Jeep brand is Italian, as part of FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles).
Introduced for the 1987 model year, the Wrangler YJ was the successor to the CJ. And it shocked the fan base with its square headlights, the first time ever that something horrible like this happened to a Jeep. With the second generation TJ in 1997 the round headlights returned, but overall the car lacked the muscular stance of its predecessors. The proper Chuck Norris look returned with the third Wrangler instalment, the JK, in 2007. And it came with another surprise: The first ever four-door Wrangler, the Unlimited, was introduced. It worked. And it is still available in the newest generation Wrangler, the JL.
Jeep Wrangler Sahara/Rubicon
Engine: 3.6-l. V6 Pentastar petrol, paired with an eight-speed auto
Power: 209kW and 347Nm
Top speed: 156km/h
Available in South Africa from November 2018 in Sahara or Rubicon trim, either as the two-door or the Unlimited four-door model
I love this tribute to the war-time Willys MB Jeep, taken from ‘Band of Brothers’ footage.
Original footage ‘Autobiography of the Jeep’:
A non-boring look at the Jeep’s history: