I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car.
2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: By the numbers
· Price as Tested: $48,060
· Powertrain: 3.6-liter V6 engine, 285 horsepower, 260 ft.-lbs. torque; 8-speed automatic transmission (6-speed manual standard); four wheel-drive
· EPA Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city; 23 mpg highway
· Towing Capacity: 3,500 lbs.
· Random dad fact: Jeep offers the Wrangler with a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with an electric motor for added torque, and although it is only available with the automatic transmission, boasts 295 lb.-ft. of torque.
Years ago, I had a roommate who bought a stick shift, V8-powered 1976 Jeep CJ-7. Fortunately for the rest of us who lived in the house, he had no problem with any of us driving it. So we took it to Baja – 12 hours of roofless bliss beneath bluebird Southern California skies. Once in Baja, we had no object other than to hoon the crap out of the little truck on dusty mountainsides, and then, when the dust settled and the hangovers had kicked in, spend another sunny day driving it home.
If only the trip had been so romantic. Would-be kidnappers and sketchy Mexican strip club weed dealers aside, the drive to and from Ensenada was a slog. It never rains in Southern California, but it did that weekend, soaking everything and everyone inside the Jeep. During the day, we baked beneath the sun (especially at the hours-long wait to cross the international border back into the US) and at night, we shivered. Driving at speed on the highway was a constant fight with big tires and a short wheelbase.
Ah but for an hour or two, as we drove slowly along Highway 101 past Solana Beach and Carlsbad, legs dangling carelessly out the doorless cutouts, Jeepdom was tops. And that's to say nothing of the dusty hooning, which was sublime.
It turns out that even new Jeeps are a bit squirrely out on the highway, but are also a lot more comfortable than they used to be. The interior shape and dimensions are similar, but the materials are stuff you'd expect to see in a passenger car. Plush carpeting and a soft-touch dash stand in lieu of the hard metal surfaces of yesteryear.
This is all good news when it comes to carting around a little one. The old school Jeeps, with their lack of rear seatbelts and joke of a roll bar, were about as safe as a hot air balloon basket outfitted with off-road tires. Now, Jeep Wranglers come from the factory enclosed in a full cage, and feature all the bells and whistles you'd expect to see in any modern car or truck, including a decent infotainment system. My how times have changed.
2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Interior & Cargo
Even with all the nice carpet and fancy seats, the Jeep's interior is small. But an upright seating position and good visibility – and, should you shell out the extra $4,000 for it, four doors – make for a comfortable and accommodating inner sanctum. The baby seat was a tight fit in the 2-door model – although the LATCH anchors were super easy to use – but the 4-door version has about as much space inside as an old-school Cherokee. But if you want the real Jeep experience, perhaps it's better not to compromise with an expensive 4-door Wrangler when what you really need is a minivan. You could always wait until the niños are old enough to ride the back bench bareback, and then enjoy the traditional 2-door model.
The old fashioned 2-door Wrangler I tested had less than 13 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat – not a lot in SUV parlance. But the rear seats fold up and out of the way to yield nearly 32 cubic feet of space. The 4-door model, on the other hand, has that much rear cargo volume with the back seats in place, expanding to more than 72 cubic feet with the seats tucked out of the way. With four doors, the Wrangler may be a bit less Jeep-ey, but is is more like a real car to someone who needs it for transportation as well as recreation and/or image.
Even so, I was somehow able to fit a chunky stroller and a gallon milk jug behind the back seat of the 2-door. And with some acrobatics, worked out a system to get the baby in and out of the back seat of the truck (because he can stand on his own two feet now – this would not have worked well with a flailing infant).
2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Driving & Fuel Economy
Even after all these years, a short wheelbase Jeep still drives like a Jeep. It's squirrely in the most endearing way. The difference is that now, you don't need a V8 to get good power. FCA's Pentastar V6 is a torquey engine that's powerful enough to get the little truck moving quickly. I drove a stock, Pentastar-powered Rubicon on the red rocks outside Moab, Utah several years ago, and there wasn't much it couldn't do. Around town and out on the highway, the little V6 is as smooth as it is capable.
Other than its potent little V6, one of the most enjoyable facets of driving the 2-door Rubicon was its diminutive size. Unlike a full-size four wheel-drive pickup truck, the Wrangler has a small footprint on the road, and is easier to park and navigate through tight spots.
My test vehicle came with an 8-speed automatic transmission, but I – like many of those who count themselves as diehard Jeep fans – consider a Jeep without a manual transmission anathema. It kind of comes down to what you're going to use it for. If you get a Jeep because you want to do Jeep things, you're probably going to want a short wheelbase truck with a manual transmission. It's not that long wheelbase Jeep Wranglers with automatic transmissions can't handle challenging off-road conditions, it's just that they're essentially window dressing to signal to other motorists that you're the outdoor type when you may not be. The sheer volume of Wranglers sold over the last few years supports this hypothesis.
As you can imagine, fuel economy isn't great in a Rubicon – it wears big, heavy tires. But it isn't terrible either, especially for a tall vehicle that weighs more than 4,000 lbs. In mixed city and highway driving, I was getting nearly 20 mpg.
2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Safety
Parents are generally a safety conscious lot, and as such, most give serious thought to the crash testing performance of any vehicle they're contemplating. Unfortunately for Jeep lovers with offspring, neither the 2- nor the 4-door Wrangler models did well in crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The little Jeep got a good marks in the moderate overlap front collision test, but got only a "marginal" score on small overlap front impact and a "poor" rating on its side impact test. The headlights got a bad score, too. The federal government has not yet rated the Wrangler for crashworthiness.
That may not bode well for parents who want their children to be cocooned within the latest safety technology, but if you must have a Jeep Wrangler, take comfort in knowing that these new Wranglers are a lot safer than the CJ-7 I drove to Mexico. They have airbags, seatbelts all around and a roll bar that can actually do something to protect passengers.
The Long and Short
Leaning on a Jeep Wrangler as a family car would be tough, but for the dedicated Jeep aficionado, doable. But as I always like to point out with all motor vehicles that trade in superfluity, I must point out the folly inherent in owning a classic Jeep. Most Americans live in crowded urban and suburban areas where open land is generally spoken for. In other words, it can be pretty difficult, if not impossible, to find a place where you can really enjoy your Wrangler.
Despite that, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) sold more than 240,000 Wranglers last year, leading me to suspect that few people who buy Wranglers ever drive them off of paved roads. That's a lot of squeaky-clean off-road trucks. So it stands to reason that the Wrangler is more of a costume than most vehicles. Going back to what Brett Berk pointed out in his recent rant on pickup trucks, we can assume that if pickup trucks are cowboy drag, Jeeps must be outdoorsman drag.
Nothing is that simple, of course. People buy what they like if they can, and even if you can't afford a Wrangler (because they're expensive), there's a silver lining. In a Facebook argument about the usefulness of privately-owned trucks, my colleague John Pearley Huffman pointed out that with all the new Wranglers flooding the market now, the price of used ones will likely fall in the coming years. That's good news for anyone who wants to pay recreation-scale money for a toy that, new, costs luxury car prices. I'm sure my son, when he reaches driving age in 15 years, will be more than happy to glean the benefit of a previous generation's unwise purchases.
Two cents from Ben's spouse: It's a cool toy. I wouldn't want to deal with it every day, though.