Despite muddy and frigid conditions more reminiscent of traditional off-road trails in the Northern United States, Jeep launched the new Wrangler derivatives in the snowy Southern Cape.
The iconic American off-roader, which has always remained fiercely uncompromising in design despite its mainstream suburban appeal, has been given new power and a four-door, long-wheel base version.
Cosmetically the new Wrangler retains characteristic Jeep styling cues such as the seven slot grille (made of plastic no less), round headlights and a tie down loop on the bonnet for the front windscreen.
Harking back to the original Willys' Jeep taillights are mounted separately from the body. But Wrangler still has a roguish appeal which has endeared it to many buyers as an image-conscious, urban accessory.
First four-door Wrangler
The four-door Unlimited version, with a 523 mm extended wheelbase looks more like a miniature Hummer, and appears odd at first. Gradually the styling grows on you and during the trail-driving portion of the launch, with obligatory mud-caked wheel arches, it started to endear itself to me.
Both the Wrangler and four-door Unlimited feature one of the most elaborate front bumpers in automotive history, a European-inspired safety feature that extends far enough forward to actually lie down on - trust me, I tried it.
Three trim options are available on the Wrangler models: Sport, Sahara and Rubicon, while the Unlimited four-door can be had in Highsport, Sahara and Rubicon trim.
Ranging in the great outdoors and revelling in the elements are easily facilitated by the various roof options.
Available on both the Wrangler and Unlimited versions is the Freedom Top, a three-panel roof with removable sections for the driver, front passenger and rear section. The Sunrider soft-top is also available. This roof can act as a traditional fold-down soft-top, but has a normal sunroof built in as well.
Both body styles have a surfeit of plastic trimmings which are hardly a delight to touch nor appear to be very durable. Inside the age old Jeep arrangement remains very much unchanged.
As per usual in a Jeep the driver footwell is cramped, and on the automatic models, despite the absence of a third pedal, the footwell packaging moves into the ridiculously-cramped category.
The range of new engines is key to the latest Wrangler family.
The petrol range is now powered by a 3.8-litre, overhead cam, 12-valve V6, replacing the venerable old 4-litre straight six.
Fuel injected and with a very open 60-degree V-layout, the new iron block motor produces 146 kW at 5 500 r/min and 315 Nm of torque at 4 000 r/min.
Very tractable off-road and vastly more efficient than its predecessor (I kept tapping the fuel-gauge, thinking it was broken, but consumption per 100km is down nearly 3 litres), the fuel-injected powerplant is one of the new Wrangler's strongpoint.
Even more fuel-efficient and a completely new departure for the Wrangler range is the introduction of a diesel engine. Displacing 2.8 litres, the four-cylinder turbo-diesel produces 130 kW at 3 800 r/min and 410 Nm between 2 000 and 2 600 r/min. Interestingly, the service intervals for the diesel are only every 20 000 km's.
The 2.8-litre diesel is either mated to a six-speed manual transmission (only in Unlimited guise) or a five-speed automatic gearbox (in both Wrangler and Unlimited body styles).
The petrol engine is available in both body styles with six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. Transfer cases are either the tested Command-trac system, or an extreme terrain Rock-trac system only found on the range-topping Rubicon models.
Befitting the name, Rubicon trim encapsulates a serious off-road package including a 4,0:1 low-range ratio courtesy of the Rock-trac transfer case, a unique electronic-disconnecting front stabiliser bar - Active Sway Bar System (ASBS) - delivering a 28 % increase in wheel travel augmented by front and rear differential locks.
Loves mud, copes with the mall
Little has changed in the on-road Wrangler driving experience. Your conversation drowns in wind noise, the manual gearboxes are agricultural to operate, and being suspended with live axles the ride is unsettled by any hint of a surface imperfection. It's not a happy vehicle with which to tackle a long-distance journey on tar, then.
With the Southern Cape dishing up severe weather, the launch trail run was practically a quagmire, and the Wrangler was much the better off for it.
Engage four-wheel drive low-range, keep the throttle inputs constant and the Wrangler is practically unstoppable off-road.
A brutal, muddy, rock-strewn river bed submerged the Wranglers and tested pitch and roll angles to the extreme, yet the vehicles - even the non-Rubicon trim models - in low range, just idled over everything.
Traction is prodigious across the range of engine and gearbox configurations, and even the new Unlimited versions, with their apparently greater vulnerability due to an extended wheelbase, were seemingly untroubled by the terrain.
The only question mark concerning off-road capability regards the automatic models, which despite sharing the same off-road calibrated ABS, struggled to provide enough compression braking during extreme descents.
Qualifying this statement it must be said the realm of comparison here is very extreme, with a long, treacherously slippery, tree-branch strewn, muddy slope being the unit of analysis. This is something one would probably never encounter in 99 % of off-road driving situations.
Chrysler is at a critical juncture. It has just been taken over by private equity firm Cerberus, and although the international business is flourishing, North American operations are not.
Whether or not Chrysler survives could in no insignificant part be determined by an ability to focus on core models delivered to buyers at keen prices - something Jeep has always been able to do with its Wrangler.
In line with this strategy the new Wranglers are very competitively priced.
You can purchase a Wrangler 3.8 Sport, with a six-speed manual box, for R219&nbs-;900. If you need more room, a four-door Unlimited version entry level Highsport can be had for R249 900.
There is simply nothing with comparable off-road prowess able to even touch these vehicles at such prices.
If you intend to go trail driving the Wrangler makes a lot of sense; even more so now with the options of diesel power and the Unlimited four-door configuration.
Unlimited 3.8 Highsport, six-speed manual - R249 900
Unlimited 2.8 CRD Highsport, six-speed manual - R289 900
Unlimited 3.8 Sahara, four-speed automatic - R289 900
Unlimited 2.8 CRD Sahara, five-speed automatic - R309 900
Unlimited 3.8 Rubicon, four-speed automatic - R314 900
3.8 Sport, six-speed manual - R219 900
3.8 Sahara, six-speed manual - R259 900
3.8 Sahara, four-speed automatic - R269 900
2.8 CRD Sahara, five-speed automatic - R289 900
3.8 Rubicon, six-speed manual - R284 900