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Jeep marks 75 years with new Wrangler

AAP logoAAP 21/11/2016 Peter Atkinson

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It is a history as proud and remarkable as any in the automotive world.

Sure, it doesn't have quite the same romance as marques like Mercedes-Benz, which can claim to have invented the motor car - or Ferrari, with its motor sport and movie star image.

But Jeep's story, forged on the battlefields of World War II and enhanced by its unique place in the off-road community, is one of which the company is rightly proud.

So no surprise that the brand is celebrating its 75th anniversary in style.

In honor of Jeep's 75th Anniversary, this one-of-a-kind Wrangler was built to commemorate the ’41 Willys MB. #Jeep75 © Twitter/@Jeep In honor of Jeep's 75th Anniversary, this one-of-a-kind Wrangler was built to commemorate the ’41 Willys MB. #Jeep75

Jeep has worn its "since 1941" status on its vehicles for a couple of years now, and the company's recent "etched in mud" advertising campaign has further entrenched that message.

To formally mark its three-quarters of a century, Jeep has created celebratory models right across its 4WD and SUV range. In the case of the Wrangler - the Jeep with the closest connection to those original wartime Willy's Jeeps - they have created not one but two commemorative models.

The first is the "75th Salute" concept vehicle that retro-fits a standard Wrangler with all manner of nostalgic cues - from the canvas seats to the manual transmission and absence of B-pillars and even doors.

The second, though, is one you'll see on the roads Down Under - a 75th anniversary edition Wrangler rekindling the spirit, if not exactly the form, of those original wartime vehicles.

The original Jeep - known as the Willy's MB - was a no-frills military vehicle that helped pave the way for modern four-wheel-drives.

It had a so-called "Go Devil" engine delivering a puny 60 horsepower (45 kilowatts) from its 2.2-litre capacity. With canvas seats, three-speed manual transmission, virtually no suspension and a top speed of 100km/h, the spartan Jeep was nevertheless a remarkable thing - with more than 600,000 built in the final four years of World War II.

It later morphed into the civilian Jeep CJ - and a long line of models to follow.

By comparison, this 75th anniversary edition Wrangler is positively plush and pampering, with its leather-look seats (heated as well), its satellite navigation, air conditioning and fancy infotainment system.

But it still manages to evoke the spirit of those famous Jeeps of long ago with its rugged looks (particularly the military khaki green paintjob, known as "Sarge") and its tough-looking hardware, like rubber stops and tie-downs on the bonnet, chunky push-button door handles and big, flared wheel arches.

But don't be fooled into thinking this car fits into the modern mould of urban SUVs.

The Wrangler is an unashamedly hardcore off-roader - cutting its teeth on the legendary rugged Rubicon trail in the US.

That means a tough, ladder-frame construction and rugged handling characteristics to match. It's stiffly sprung and rides on big, chunky tyres - characteristics that deliver a very "Jeep-like) ride. That means it tends to buck and pitch on uneven roads and even wanders a bit on the highway.

The Wrangler's relatively short wheelbase magnifies this rather unsettling ride - requiring plenty of driver inputs on rough or uneven surfaces.

The payoff is that the Wrangler will effortlessly take you to places that most SUV owners only get to see in travel brochures. It has a dual-range transmission, massive ground clearance and enough grip and torque to allow it to scale the steepest of inclines.

The Wrangler's trademark removable panel roof gives it the true outdoorsy, built-for-adventure personality - a slightly rudimentary interpretation of the sunroofs so prominent in modern SUVs.

Mechanically the Jeep is adequate, if nothing to write home about. Our test machine came with the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine (209 kilowatts), coupled to a fairly basic five-speed automatic transmission.

Not the most responsive, nor the most refined drivetrain we've tested - but it delivers enough low-down torque to give confidence that it could haul itself out of the deepest, slushiest mudholes you're likely to encounter.

We drove the two-door variant of the Wrangler - a four-seater with fairly modest rear-seat accommodation but plenty of space up front.

Cargo space, too, is restricted in normal format but much more useful when the rear seats are folded down and rolled forward, creating a flat, accessible storage space. A split rear door gives easy access.

While we quite enjoyed the chunky, deliberately macho styling of the Wrangler's cockpit, a couple of ergonomic issues proved annoying.

Worst was the uneven positioning of the pedals, requiring careful placement of your foot to avoid missing the brake altogether. Not a major issue, perhaps, but a potential danger in emergency situations. This was compounded by some low-hanging wiring which further restricted access in the footwell.

Other bugbears were mainly cosmetic - the strange placement of the electric window buttons, for instance - which sit at the top of the centre console stack.

First world problems, no doubt, and matters that would hardly have troubled those Jeep drivers 75 years ago.

JEEP WRANGLER 75TH ANNIVERSARY

HOW BIG? With its short wheelbase and two doors, it's a relatively compact four-seater with slightly compromised access to the rear seats. Not that your mates will mind too much once they're tearing down the beach with the wind in their hair.

HOW FAST? Not particularly. The petrol V6 is a competent performer but the Jeep's high, stiff ride and dual-range transmission means it's not as fast or as smooth as your typical SUV.

HOW THIRSTY? Official combined thirst is 11.3L/100km, which isn't particularly frugal. But the Wrangler's off-road capability isn't designed to produce fuel-efficiency.

HOW MUCH? While the cheapest Wrangler starts from $41k drive-away, this special edition will set you back $51,000.

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