• Spike Ballantine

Jeep Wrangler Sahara

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

car review jeep wrangler sahara 4x4

Jeep is one of the world’s iconic manufacturers, and is as American as a love of guns and the ludicrous practice of calling sporting events a “world series” even though it’s only America who are competing. And the Wrangler is just as iconic, being firmly rooted in the mythology of the original Willy’s.

Ok, no one actually claims that this car is a direct descendent of the army and civilian jeeps of the 40’s and 50’s and onwards, but they do have a lot in common. Mechanically, they share a chassis and suspension concept, and the styling… Well, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that there is a relationship.

Sure, those earlier Jeeps used a lot less plastic and probably weren’t available in colours like “Hellayella”, which is the name of the particular bright yellow paint job on our test car, but there is a definite spiritual successorship that’s easy to spot. We’re driving the Wrangler Sahara, which is the entry-level option; don’t be fooled though - that label doesn’t mean its light on features.

It’s got Jeep’s Trial Rating which means it’s a proper 4x4 with low-range gearing. It’s also got a V6 motor and enough interior toys to fill a decently long spec sheet. But this car isn’t exactly light on price. At R868 000, for the same money you pay for a Jeep Wrangler Sahara, you could get yourself any number of premium compact SUVs from the likes of Audi or BMW or Volvo. Or Land Rover or Range Rover. Or Alfa Romeo.

I get that a Jeep Wrangler and a BMW X3 are very different cars, and even if you’re a 4x4ing fan, you’re not likely to be weighing up a Wrangler against a Land Rover because they appeal to very different people. But still - R868 000 is a large chunk of cash to spend on a car that’s arguably not nearly as premium as anything else at the price. So if you aren’t getting premium, what are you getting?

For starters, a lot of off-road ability. The Sahara is built primarily for off-road driving, with a body on frame chassis and live axles front and rear. It’s also got the kinds of clearances all round that are similar to the new Land Rover Defender - that includes a 760mm wading depth. Undoubtedly the best thing about the Wrangler is its ability to go anywhere

I’ve driven enough Wranglers in different off-road conditions to know that it just doesn’t quit. The short wheelbase of the Sahara gives that extra bit of manoeuvrability, and its Command-Trac 2-speed transfer case allows you to select the best drive for the conditions - front wheels only, 4-wheel high or low. You can even drop it into an auto mode where it makes the 2-wheel vs. 4-wheel decision for you. The mechanical concepts may be from a time before computer aided design and high tech manufacturing, but they still work - and work incredibly well.

In fact, in this instance, they work better than the modern additions. The Wrangler Sahara has Hill Descent Control, which automatically regulates speed on angled approaches. It’s not an uncommon system, but the difference between other SUVs and 4x4s and the Wrangler is that in those cars, the system actually works.

The hill descent control in the Wrangler was, according to the on-screen message, not available at any time during my seven days with the car. Similarly, the engine is fitted with a start/stop system, which helps save fuel by switching off the engine while idling, in certain conditions. That, too, was not available. They may be minor fixes, a reset of some sort, but when you’re spending close to 900k on a car, you don’t expect to be driving to the dealership to sort out irritating electronics issues.

Those particular annoyances don’t make the Wrangler Sahara any less capable off-road. Al ot of people will buy this car more for its ooks and its attitude, and less for its 4x4 ability; and that means a lot of Wranglers will spend a lot of time on tar, where its owners will find out it’s not quite as good tackling traffic as it is as conquering mountains.

Remember the old school mechanicals I mentioned? The ladder on frame chassis, the live axles? Well, there’s a reason that most cars on the road have done away with those designs, and it’s because a monocoque body with more modern wishbone or multi-link type suspension makes for a much more comfortable everyday ride. The Wrangler Sahara isn’t exactly uncomfortable, but it ironically requires a much more relaxed definition of the word “comfort”.

The easiest way to describe it is that you feel pretty much everything, everywhere, either directly through the steering or through the seat. The shassis seems to move in every direction - up, down, forward, back, left, right - no matter what kind road you’re on, the Wrangler is always talking to you.

Feeling everything means you feel the severe bumps severely, but for the most part, every drive has you moving around in the cabin whether you like it or not. The Wrangler is only available in South Africa with Jeep’s 3.6 V6 Pentastar motor: a naturally aspirated petrol that puts out 209kW and 347Nm.

Those figures might suggest this car is all about performance, but with a top speed 177km/h and a 0-100 time of, I guess, around 11 seconds, the power - like everything else in the Wrangler - is all about off-road ability. There is a good burst of power off the line, but its’ short-lived, and as you climb through the revs, it begins to feel more utilitarian than anything else. It’s still a good tool around town, and the 8-speed auto gearbox does well to keep the power on stream.

car review jeep wrangler sahara 4x4

On an everyday basis, the best thing about the Wrangler Sahara is the interior. It’s a little tight for those in the back, but up front, there’s a collection of chunky controls and more than enough comfort - dual zone climate control, cruise control, smartphone connectivity, onboard navigation, plus park distance control with reversing camera.

The interior is arguably the most balanced thing about the Wrangler - lots of adventure utility, including a fully removable roof and a water resistant sound system, paired with rugged design that delivers attitude and comfort in equal measure.

When you look at the interior and you interact with it, it feels great. And when you see the

Wrangler Sahara, it looks really good. But when you drive it, there’s no other way to describe it other than “compromised”, with a wobbly chassis and a ride setup that lets you feel every crease and ripple and hole in the road. I have al love / hate relationship with this car - I really want to like because of its looks and its interior, and its incredible off road ability; but as an everyday option… Well, you’d really have to want to live the Jeep life in order to overlook its shortcomings.

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