The Clarkson review: Jeep Wrangler (2012)

Look what oi got, farmer Giles: diamante wellies

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Recently Bristol crown court sentenced a bus driver to 17 months in prison after he was caught on CCTV deliberately ramming his vehicle into a cyclist. I’ve watched the footage and it’s extraordinary. The bus driver comes alongside the bicyclist and then veers sharply to the left, flinging the poor man 10ft through the air, breaking his leg and crushing his precious bike. It’s plainly a moment of madness. A temper tantrum. A spot of road rage that got out of hand.

But if you watch the footage again, carefully, you see that, to begin with, the cyclist is pedalling along quite slowly in front of the bus. And when the bus moves right to overtake, the cyclist appears to go right as well. Was it an act of provocation on the cyclist’s part?

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 For many years bus drivers have been told by the authorities and those who read The Guardian that they are knights of the road, eco-warriors on a mission from God. They were given their own lanes, and car drivers were ordered by Her Majesty’s government to get out of their way. This went to their heads. So as soon as the last passenger was seated, they would simply pull out, even if a car was alongside.

On many occasions I’ve been forced to swerve into the path of oncoming traffic by a bus that’s set off without warning. And, of course, if there had been a trial or an inquest, its driver would have been given a tree or some tofu for taking the good fight to those whose cars were making life so unpleasant for the world’s polar bears.

But then someone of a Guardian disposition decided that, actually, bicycles were an even better way of going to work than the bus. So cyclists were suddenly given their own lanes, and their own special spaces at junctions. And there was talk that in any impact between a motorised vehicle and a bike, the driver would — no matter what the circumstances — be blamed.

So, all of a sudden, the roads are filled with two groups of people who believe they have right on their side. It’s the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea. It’s all the animals being equal but some wishing to be more equal than others. And the consequence is inevitable. One man is in prison. The other suffered a broken leg.

The only solution is to take away their special lanes and their priorities. It’s to make them understand that they may use the roads but only if they’re jolly careful, because roads have always been for “the people”. And the vast majority of people have cars.

Mind you, on Kensington High Street last week it didn’t feel that way. I thought at one point I’d become involved in a west London étape of the Tour de France. It was 7pm and there were hundreds and hundreds of people with wizened bottoms and beards and idiotic hats and luminous clothing, cycling through red lights at way beyond the speed limit. As they passed, many shouted abuse at me for daring to be there, stationary at a red light or cruising along at a mere 25mph. Some banged on my doors. Some bared their teeth. It was awful and I considered carefully the idea of running one of them down. Maybe two.

Mind you, some of their rage may have had something to do with the fact I was driving a Jeep Wrangler, which is a big American off-roader. They obviously hated it very much and that’s why I decided to leave them alone. Because I did too.

As we know, Jeep began by making rugged military 4x4s in 1941. General Dwight D Eisenhower said the second world war could not have been won without the company’s first effort. It was a simple thing, too, which is why many claim Jeep stands for “just enough essential parts”. Over the years, that original morphed gradually into the Wrangler. This was often converted by its fanbase into a high-riding, doorless, roofless monster with a V8 under the bonnet. It was usually to be found cruising around in Key West in Florida with a giant purple eagle on the bonnet.

But, crucially, it still worked well off road. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable drives I’ve ever had in any car was in a Wrangler, going up the craggy Rubicon trail over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Its heart may have been in San Francisco. But its soul was still in the back country. Unfortunately Jeep decided to start selling its Wrangler in other countries — countries in which people do not talk loudly around the swimming pool and giant purple eagles are considered poor form. In Britain, for example, we have the Land Rover. And Germany has the Mercedes G-wagen. So Jeep has decided its Wrangler should become more restrained. More practical. More European. And it hasn’t worked at all.

First, it is extremely ugly. And, second, you can’t see out of it. The blind spots are so big, bicycles are invisible. So are buses. So is the Albert Hall. There’s more. The only way Jeep has been able to fit in rear doors and seats is by shunting the front seat so far forwards that you can — and must, in fact — operate all the controls with your face. To make matters worse, the sat nav screen is so bright that once the sun has set, it’s as if you’re driving into the beam of an alien spaceship’s searchlight.

Of course, there are many levers and switches that mean it still works off road, but I’m afraid that on the road it’s not good at all. The 2.8-litre diesel engine feels as though it was designed by people who had no real concept of how such a thing might work. We have a name for these people: Americans. Then there’s the suspension. It is very soft. So soft, in fact, that you can drive over even the most alarming hump at whatever speed takes your fancy and you won’t notice it at all. On the downside, it feels as if you may fall out on every bend. And the steering is woeful. And, strangely, the ride on the motorway is unbelievably fidgety.

Then again, a Land Rover Defender is pretty hopeless on the road as well. But that doesn’t pretend to be a luxury tool, whereas the Wrangler I tested does. It has roof panels that lift out — if you have a PhD in engineering — and cruise control and lots of gizmos. It’s like a diamanté wellington. A gold-plated cowpat. A village idiot at the Savoy. There’s a sign picked out on the dash that says “Since 1941”. What it should say is “Mechanically unchanged since 1941”.

It’s a shame. I used to like the old Wrangler. I know it was a bit, ahem, Venice Beach and that if it were a man, it would shave its scrotum and enjoy going to the gym. But it was a good and interesting take on the 4×4 theme. The new version has lost all that. It’s trying to be a Land Rover for those who also want a few creature comforts. And for £28,000 it’s not as if you’re short of alternatives. All of which are considerably better. Except cycling, of course, or using the bus.


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