Back in 1976, I met two freshly minted second lieutenants who had just graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy. As soon as they were commissioned, these two had done what most of us did, which was to purchase a new vehicle. One had a new Triumph TR6 and the other owned a sparkling Fiat 126 Spider convertible. I was driving a Jeep CJ5 with a 304 V-8.
In my opinion, the Triumph TR6 was the best-looking, affordable sports car available in the mid-1970s. Its slab-sided body, Kam-style rear, and square front made it look like a blunt instrument. The Fiat was pretty. It had flowing lines and looked feminine when sitting next to the Triumph and, of course, the Jeep.
We had a week left of leave, so we spent the time driving each other's vehicles.
The Triumph was powerful. It had a straight-six mill that was a bit rough around the edges, just like the rest of the car. The top was leaky, it was hard to operate, and the heater eked out some warm air that you could almost feel if the car wasn't moving. The TR6 handled well, though.
The Fiat was a revelation. The pretty car was fast and economical, handled better than the Triumph, and had a beautiful interior where everything worked together to supply occupants with an enjoyable driving experience. All one had to do to lower the top was flip two levers and throw it back. It was just as easy to raise and lock down, so it could seal the passenger compartment perfectly. The little mill revved joyously to redline. This was a balanced automobile!
Compared to the cars, my Jeep didn't do well on the pavement. Once we hit the dirt, we abandoned the two sports cars and loaded in the Jeep for off-road fun.
My point here is that, initially, the Fiat looked girly and didn't appeal to me. Once I spent time with it, I had to rethink my preferences. The Italians knew what they were doing. If these vehicles were compared to footwear, the Jeep was a combat boot, the Triumph a brogue, and the Fiat a comfortable Italian loafer.
The Italians are now at the helm of Jeep. Do they know what they're doing when it comes to building an American off-roading icon?
For instance, the '13 JK Wranglers have some changes—none related to toughness. These include new seats that have softer foam that's less comfortable during off-road forays and are covered with a new, tight knit fabric that holds mud, dirt, and dust much worse than the '11-'12 fabric it replaced. In my opinion, the '13 wheels for the Rubicon and Sahara are just plain ugly. A dual-note horn and dual windshield washer nozzles grace the '13, as do lighted cupholders and an Alpine stereo in some models. The Unlimited gets an improved soft top.
Where are the fixes for the JK? Where are the stronger front axlehousings and ball joints? Where is the hardware and programming that repair the JK's electronic gremlins? While Jeep claims they fixed the hood straps (they didn't), where are stronger straps that keep the hood from bouncing up and down at freeway speeds? Why didn't Jeep add a transmission cooler? At least they are addressing the 3.6L V-6 head issues.
I realize that Chrysler is working on the new replacement Wrangler so the current JK is old news, but Jeep has put lighted cupholders and new seats in the current JK Wrangler, so why didn't they address the issues that plague it?
The Italians know performance, comfort, and build great cars. I remember my 1970s experience and their automobiles have just gotten better. However, Jeep needs to fix the JK and, when designing the new Wrangler, not emasculate our iconic vehicle that's been a part of America for 73 years. I hope they don't turn our combat boot into an Italian loafer.