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It’s been quite a model year for FCA already. FCA, of course, stands for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, and it encompasses the parent Fiat, along with Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Alfa Romeo and, last but not least, Fiat — the parent of the international tribe.
Cars, for those who haven’t noticed, are in the downward stroke of the vehicle-buying pendulum, headed for what many executives at General Motors, Ford and FCA see as oblivion, as the upsurge of trucks — all manner of trucks and SUVs — zoom past all cars in popularity and profitability.
Ford has declared it will stop building almost all cars — Taurus, Fusion, Focus, Escort, you name it — to make room for building more trucks. GM says the same thing, planning to eliminate all sorts of historically significant vehicle nameplates in order to convert plants from cars to trucks, trucks and more trucks.
It’s the same with Toyota, which is even now changing over a plant that builds Corolla compacts to accommodated building more RAV4 SUVs — which now outsells the Camry and Corolla brands.
Chrysler also is eliminating a few cars, although it has fewer cars than Ford or GM. It sounds as though the Charger and Challenger will remain, but parent and dutiful owner Fiat is watching closely and pulling the strings.
What we do know is that overall, the Ford F150 remains the top-selling vehicle in the U.S., but we must watch closely to see if the Chevrolet Silverado keeps pace with the F150 in their annual duel of full-size pickup trucks, because while the late-night ad campaign comes right at you with alleged “real people, not actors” who rave about how much more they love the Chevy truck. One even says, “I traded in my Ram for a Silverado.”
Well, the facts show the Ram is selling like proverbial hotcakes, with a classy redesign and an amazingly attractive interior. The report out of Detroit was that the Ram outsold the Silverado almost 2-to-1 for the month of June, something I find hard to believe, based on habitual U.S. buyers and their knee-jerk habits.
All of which brings us to today’s topic, which is: Jeep.
While the auto industry has struggled for most of this model year, FCA has improved its total foothold, thanks to the Ram and the Jeeps. Specialty cars like the Challenger and Charger, high-performance muscle-car throwbacks, are still selling, though not in heavy numbers. And the Pacifica minivans, improved though they are with their latest hybrid models, have dropped off a bit and FCA is thinking about adding a renewed Caravan or Voyager base minivan that could sell for less than the high-tech Pacifica.
Jeep, meanwhile, stands alone as one of the most interesting and curious brands. It has some very impressive new family models, such as the Grand Cherokee, the Cherokee, and the Compass and the compact Renegade, but the backbone of the whole Jeep line is the Wrangler — the basic, off-road specialist that has been refined thoroughly and repeatedly to become more “civilized” but without losing any of its quite-amazing off-road capability.It is refined to the point where, amid dozens of compact SUVs taking over the marketplace, Motor Trend tested 20 or more and named the new Wrangler as its “SUV of the Year” for 2019.
I am completely impressed with the Wrangler, although I would stop short of declaring the Wrangler the best SUV in the industry, as Motor Trend, but those who spend any recreational time off-roading will celebrate the award.
Recently, I had the chance to revisit the 2019 Wrangler, and verified my earlier findings that the 2019 Wrangler has made that giant step up to become a worthy family vehicle, with the elimination of the pogo-stick bounciness that I thought was standard equipment on Wranglers.
My test vehicle’s biggest obstacle was its name. It was the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, and indication that it is equipped for heavy-duty use. It was the Unlimited’s elite Sahara model, which means fancier features that shouldn’t prevent it from bounding over the Sahara Desert’s sand dunes like the old television series “Rat Patrol,” which made World War II Jeeps its central figures. And it was “Trail Rated,” which means it is built to go anywhere, whether there are roads or not.
That’s it: The 2019 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4X4, Trail Rated.” But when you want to bring all those subtitles into the spotlight, so the guy parked next to you at the ballgame won’t think you have just an ordinary Jeep, you get silver badges that say “Jeep” in familiar bold type, and above that a smaller “Sahara,” and above that a round emblem that denotes the “Trail Rated” capability.
Fortunately, there was no available room to list the price tag: $52,210. That’s up from the base price of $38,395, and reflects the addition of all sorts of modern conveniences, such as the back-up camera, the third generation Dana rear axle over the heavy-duty suspension with its gas-charged shocks, skid plates and shields protecting the fuel tank, the transmission and the transfer case, a trailer-sway damping feature, electronic stability control and roll mitigation, security device, and, it says here, universal garage door opener.
Those are standard on this model, and there are options added on, including: leather trimmed seats with Sahara embossed, cold weather package with heated seats and steering wheel, remote start, LED reflector headlights, foglights, taillights and daytime running lights, a premium audio system, rear park-assist, blind-spot detection, hill-descent control, and full frontal collision avoidance. Oh yeah, and there’s satellite radio, push-button start, and a GPS that plays out on a center stack screen.
You think those Rat Patrol ruffians might have enjoyed those features?
It was blue, but hardly a garden-variety blue. Its “Ocean Blue Metallic Clearcoat” code name falls short of the stunningly deep blue that penetrates your senses like a laser-beam.
Among the selections you are required to make is with the engine, There is, you should know, still another upgrade, to the “Rubicon” model, which includes the 3.6-liter V6 engine, although I am convinced the way to buy the Wrangler is with the new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder I had in the tester.
Consider these facts: The 3.6 V6 has 285 horsepower to the 2.0’s 270; but the V6’s healthy 260 foot-pounds of torque can’t beat the 2.0’s 295 foot-pounds. The V6 has a 6-speed automatic, the 2.0 gets the new 8-speed.
The lighter 4-cylinder also aids the Wrangler’s agility, with improved balance, although both, of course, have part-time 4-wheel drive that can be locked into your choice of settings. When on the road, you probably would choose the rear-wheel-drive only setting to aid fuel economy.
Those who have driven or ridden in Wranglers from a decade or two ago might still recall how potent it is in clamoring over rocks and hilly terrain seemingly without regard to how steep the challenge might be. If your experience with Jeeps is more contemporary, as in the luxurious Grand Cherokee, then you might look on the Wrangler with scorn at how primitive you assume it is.
Never, however, assume. The new Wrangler Whatsisname will still do everything the old off-road-beating rugged vehicle will do, but you will find that it can now transport you and your family to the country club, and even has a partial soft-top to turn it into a virtual convertible. We won’t get into removing the doors and leaving the roller-quality support structure keep you safe as you bound off-road.
I still don’t know that I would name it SUV of the Year, but I’m pretty sure that if and when you choose an alternative vehicle for that honor, the Wrangler will probably beat it, either on the road or certainly off the road. And probably both.