---- — Last week I drove a Jeep Wrangler through all the snow, rain, slush, sleet and winter gunk that fickle Ma Nature flung down upon us. During one nasty bout I climbed out of the proud, fearless champ. I walked an admiring circle around the Wrangler while the wind pinned my pant cuffs to my ankles and icy water flooded immediately through the seams of my shoes, soaking my socks. I climbed back in gratefully and said out loud, “so this is why people drive these.”
In another few weeks we’ll enter mud season, when I could easily repeat the ritual. Instead of wading through slush, my feet would stick in deep, mucky goo that pulls back like suction cups when I step forward. Inside the steady Wrangler again, I would need to stamp my caked feet against the thick rubber mat before I expressed my gratitude. Then the Jeep would drive clear of the mess with a purposeful surge. When properly set up for off-road riding, a Jeep Wrangler really can motor through just about anything.
A lot of other people appear to have noticed that fact. Therefore Jeep is on a tear. In the last three years the popularity of the Jeep brand has more than doubled in the United States. Last year the Chrysler Group, which owns Jeep, sold about 475,000 of the various sport-utility vehicles that wear the Jeep label. Just three years earlier, in 2009, the company sold only about 232,000 Jeeps. The leap is astounding. Clearly Jeep is doing something right.
Locally, Kevin Bihl at Bill DeLuca Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram in Haverhill sees the success coming primarily from the breadth of Jeep models available. Jeep sells six distinct sport-utilities. They range from the ultra-tough Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited to the more suburban Jeep Compass, a compact SUV you’re more likely to see parked at a school function than tearing along a mud trail.
“They have something for everyone,” said Bihl, internet sales manager at DeLuca Jeep, part of the DeLuca dealer group that also operates Bill DeLuca Chevrolet Buick GMC in Haverhill and Woodworth Chevrolet Cadillac in Andover.
To illustrate, he told of a shopper’s experience during last month’s extravagant Presidents Day sale at the dealership. The buyer wanted a family-friendly wagon. He and his wife were tall, and needed a model with space enough for them to stretch. At DeLuca’s showroom, “they sat in a Grand Cherokee, a Wrangler Unlimited, a Liberty and a Patriot,” Bihl recounted. The Patriot, a more compact model, didn’t suit them. But any of the other three Jeeps met their needs, the manager said.
The family went home in a Grand Cherokee, making a decision many other Americans make. The Grand Cherokee is the top seller in the Jeep line. Wrangler is in a solid second place.
Bihl explained that the two vehicles are figurehead models that define Jeep. The Grand Cherokee is a quintessential sport-utility, with a brawny, high-riding body, a roomy and durable cabin, four-wheel traction (with a lower-priced, two-wheel-drive alternative also offered), and towing abilities for serious recreational accessories like boats, campers and snowmobile trailers.
The Wrangler is the original Jeep, a square, upright, hill-scaling and gully-stepping toughie.
“It’s the model that everybody pictures as the World War II Jeep. You can’t get more American than that,” said Bihl.
My test model last week was the Wrangler Unlimited, a come-lately version introduced in 2007 as a companion to the smaller, more confining Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler Unlimited is elongated to accommodate a four-door body, full back seat, and some extra cargo space in back. The original Wrangler, more attuned to adventure than to family travel, is a two-door with a small hind end.
Both Wranglers find roles as everyday vehicles for many drivers, working day-to-day as commuter cars and around-town hustlers, with their off-road abilities appreciated on weekends and vacations. For me the Wrangler Unlimited operated as a good family back-up vehicle, on hand for quick little jaunts, while its gutsy brawn waited in reserve for those times when you won’t travel without it.
That was the circumstance last Sunday, when yet another belt of snow streaked through our region. My daughter, Greta, and her husband, Scott, headed up to Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire to ski the fresh snowfall. Naturally they drove the Wrangler Unlimited. Skiers without that option might have hesitated to travel through the storm at all.
Drivers of both the Grand Cherokee and the Wrangler – whether original Wrangler or Wrangler Unlimited – prize the haul-it-all, go-anywhere utility of the models, said Bihl. They tend to be sportsmen and athletic adventurers who use the vehicles to support lifestyles that aren’t limited by pavement.
“When they come in for service, you see the bike racks on the back of them. You see the canoe racks on the roof,” he said. “People with a Wrangler know that it can really tow, because it’s a full-frame vehicle, it’s not a crossover,” which has a lighter, passenger-car frame.
Only the Wrangler is a fully capable off-roader that you would dare push deep, deep into back country. But Jeep makes sure its other models also contain respectable measures of beyond-the-pavement capability. The company advertises that fact when it publishes vehicle specifications, the physical dimensions and figures that objectively describe a model. Whether they apply to the Compass, Patriot, Liberty, Grand Cherokee, Wrangler or Wrangler Unlimited, Jeep specs always include such data as ground clearance for navigating ruts and rocks, and approach and departure angles for attacking steep inclines.
The formula seems straightforward. Jeep maintains a solid reputation for active utility with its two spotlight models, the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. It extends that luster to a handful of other models, creating a stable of SUVs to appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests. Then it watches the brand popularity more than double in the span of just a few years.
The approach is working particularly well here, said Bihl, because of weather like we experienced last week.
“In New England, having the choice of a whole line up, with all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, is a big factor,” he explained. “Especially in a month like this February.”
2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Vehicle type: 4-door, 5-passenger, four-wheel-drive SUV Price range: $26,690 to $37,490 (plus options) Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/100,000 miles powertrain warranty; 3 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 3 years 36,000 miles roadside assistance Engine: 3.6-liter V6 Power: 285 horsepower at 6,400 rpm; 260 lb.-ft. torque at 4,800 rpm Base transmission: 6-speed manual Fuel economy: 16 mpg city; 21 mpg highway Wheelbase: 116 inches Length: 173 inches Width: 74 inches Height: 71 inches Weight: 4,075 pounds Fuel capacity: 22.5 gallons Turning circle: 41.2 feet