Despite being the most road-friendly in the test, the Infiniti did well enough hold its own in the dirt, as long as the road was smooth and hard or the medium was sand. With 400hp on tap, the Infiniti was the sand car of the group, with a surprisingly compliant ride and enough oomph to push its way up to the top of the tallest dunes. This is where the independent suspension acquitted itself quite well, showing none of the axle hop or suspension chatter of the solid-axled Jeeps.
While the QX56 may have been a natural at sand, it needs to go to remediation classes for whoops. The short travel suspension and chassis are quickly upset by these trail undulations; causing the body to pogo and the occupants to be jostled about until the shocks eventually reached equilibrium.
On our rocky Hill Climb, the four-wheel drive system, which can be had with a rear locker in other markets, but relies solely upon Brake Traction Control in the QX, works well enough to get the big Infiniti up rocky faces, but could be quicker to react. Once it got traction, it climbed without drama, although the limited ground clearance, 50-series tires, and unprotected underbody always had us on guard. In fact, it was the only vehicle to suffer a flat, leading us on a 200-mile side trip to find a replacement.
When it came to the Jeeps and the trail portion of our testing, they did not disappoint. Regardless of whether we were piloting the Wrangler or the Wrangler Unlimited, the Jeeps owned nearly all aspects of our off-pavement testing. They didn’t care if the terrain was sand, rocks, or washes; they lived up to the Jeep reputation. It is clear that exceptional care was taken to valve the monotube shocks, which worked well to control the suspension and offer up fade-free performance, even on roads that had our support crew fading.
Equipped with robust bumpers and a ridiculous amount of clearance for a production vehicle, we never once felt guilty turning the Jeeps loose off the highway. We were never worried about scraping, body damage, or tires going flat. Both Jeeps felt perfectly at home on the trail and both Jeeps owned the Hill Climb.
As on the pavement, the biggest distinction between the two came down to wheelbase and transmission. The Unlimited was more stable, the two-door more tossable. As good as the auto is, the manual is still the way to go for the purists in the group and even though the auto-aficionados tried as they might, you just can’t argue with a 75:1 crawl ratio.
One advantage the auto-equipped Wranglers have, though, is Hill Decent Control, which has the ability to use the braking system to slow the Wrangler to a crawl on the steepest descents that even the manual couldn’t match. It even works in reverse and is one of the quietest HDC systems on the market. Manual gear selection in the automatic also minimizes the advantage the manual maintains over the automatic.
Among the other notable features of the Wrangler is the ability to completely deactivate the Electronic Stability Program. Without computer intervention, the Wrangler becomes a true driver’s machine in the dirt. We found that defeating ESP was a huge benefit in deep, unyielding sand, allowing the Wrangler to fully utilize the newfound powerband of the 3.6L. But even with ESP activated, the computer algorithms work well enough to get a new wheeler through terrain that they might not have deemed passable. Either way, the system is scalable to your skill level.
The Wrangler is good, very good, but not above critique. There are a few changes we’d like to see, such as a rear locker that is liberated from its computer overlord to be speed and transfer case position independent. We’d also like to see a speed-independent sway bar disconnect, at least in low range. And finally, the 4:1 case can be a bit too low if your mission isn’t rock crawling, so we’d love to see either a three-speed case or at least a transfer case gear ratio option in the Rubicon.
With a week of testing and impressions behind us, we collected the scorebooks, queried the judges, and tallied the numbers, coming up with our winner of the 2012 Four Wheeler Of the Year trophy.
Winner: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
So what does it take to woo the judges at Four Wheeler magazine? Well, Jeep seems to know the answer. It has done its homework and delivered a vehicle that presses all of our buttons. Solid axles. Front and rear lockers. Disconnecting sway bar. Monotube shocks. Mud terrain tires. Removable doors. Open top. Lever-operated 4:1 transfer case. There simply isn’t another vehicle like it available at any price.
And now for 2012, Jeep has addressed the Wrangler’s biggest longstanding complaint – the engine. With over 80 additional horses on tap and more refinement overall, the smooth-revving 3.6L has transformed the Wrangler from a third car to one you can easily live with every day. The 3.6L offers better fuel economy, more power, yet no drawbacks as far as we could find on the trail. It is better than the old 3.8L, but without any compromise. With over 20 mpg highway, can the Wrangler be officially considered an acceptable commuter now?
This well-rounded version is as versatile as it is durable, rugged as it is refined, and as fun as it is serious about the task for which it was built. Whether tooling around the backcountry or driving it daily to work, the Jeep Wrangler can fit the need. It is just as fun for those who are new to the sport of wheeling as it is for those who have been doing it all their life and the Wrangler can be optioned from the basic to the near luxurious, with options unheard of in this class of vehicle 10 or even five years ago. It can do things no other production vehicle can, yet it is as civilized as the family sedan.
The Wrangler, without apologies, is the best 4x4 in production today, and it just so happens to be a really decent vehicle when it is on the pavement too. The Wrangler has set the bar high and for these reasons, we stand behind the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon as our 2012 Four Wheeler of the Year.
Great engine/trans combo, super maneuverable, fun
Rear seats hard to access, limited cargo space
2012 Four Wheeler of the Year
From the Logbook:
- “Highly maneuverable in any terrain.”
- “This is the anvil of 4x4s – versatile for a short wheelbase.”
- “Why does the Nav keep zooming in at every turn? Stop already!”
- “Nothing better than driving down a fast dirt road with the windows down on a warm desert morning.”
- “The six-speed and this engine are unbelievably fun together.”
Specifications As Tested