The trail is vertical enough to get my heart thumping softly. The elevation is serious, the incline steep and then, to compound matters, traction isn’t great either. It starts off shallow, but soon we are up against what looks like a wall, and then there’s no turning back. The climb is difficult, but I want an overhead shot of the Jeeps in the canyon, so I push on. Halfway up, I wish I hadn’t started. The boulders that make up the path are interspersed with patches of shale and rubble, so not only is it steep enough to give a mountain goat a nosebleed, finding grip is difficult too. Parts of it are so steep, in fact, I often find myself clambering up on all fours, camera strapped to my back!
A quick couple of shots with the Nikon and I take the longer, easier way back down to the canyon floor. It’s the path I assume we’ll be driving on soon, so I pay attention to all the difficult spots. “It’s always good to walk a trail before you drive it, especially one as tough as this,” drawls our Texan instructor with a knowing grin. Our convoy of three is lined perfectly to go up the shallower trail I’ve just come walking down. But since we still have a couple of minutes, I decide to take a good look at this thoroughly modern version of Jeep’s old warhorse.
As most of you are aware, it was this very car’s great, great granddaddy that inadvertently started the off-roader craze. Designed to traverse country roads turned to mush by battle tanks and an assortment of ‘tracked’ vehicles during World War II, this uniquely capable vehicle soon won the hearts of the men in khaki. We Indians got access to Jeeps early, being an integral part of WWII (we kept the Japanese from our border, remember), with almost every early model assembled here by Mahindra.
The current Wrangler, however, has evolved quite a bit. Sure, as with any icon, Jeep has kept some of the best bits, but there’s plenty of fresh stuff here as well. And, like all cars these days, Jeep’s basic off-roader has grown in size. So just like the early, low-bonnet CJ2s (with their ‘sunken’ headlights) gave way to Jeeps like the larger CJ5 (Mahindra Thar to you and me), this new Wrangler is larger too. Both wider and longer, what also immediately strikes you is just how much higher off the ground it rides. Massive tyres, a rude 285bhp V6 motor and a six-speed manual transmission are all part of the jaw-dropping spec. The traditional bits remain too. The Wrangler still retains a super-tough body-on-frame construction, suspension, front and rear, is still by non-independent live axle (important for articulation) and in case you need extreme articulation, you can even uncouple the front anti-roll bar.
Time to get back into the driver’s seat and see how well the Wrangler climbs. Four-wheel Low selected, locks on, we set off. But what’s this? We’ve gone straight past the easier climb. Wrangler Number One now begins to ascend the same path I’d scrambled up on my hands and knees. A soft ‘ohhh shhh-’ escapes my lips. “Keep her in first, give her some gas every time you find traction and she’ll take you up as easy as an elevator,” come the instructions from the spotter. The first eye-opener is just how easily the Wrangler ‘flies’ over even huge boulders; the clearance on those massive tyres and the wide track are just fantastic. Then there’s the torque that allows you to almost bunny hop the Wrangler from rock to larger rock. Find a bit of grip, squeeze the throttle and the Jeep moves ahead with a nonchalance that is simply thrilling. In places where the path eases, I shift to second, just to see the effect it will have, but the Wrangler still motors on with a bit more of a wiggle from the rear as it clambers up. Later we descend and wade through a shallow stream, traverse a soft river bed and scramble up a steep bank, but just like earlier, the car hardly feels extended or pushed to its limits. This really is another level; for once, an all-American icon that more than lives up to the hype.
Of course the ride isn’t cosseting on tarmac. It felt a bit jiggly on the short road section we drove and the Wrangler really isn’t practical. The comfort level is, however, several times higher than in our home-grown Thar; not truly a competitor, but our only real reference point. Build quality is around a hundred times better and the Wrangler will come to India with a 197bhp automatic gearbox-equipped diesel variant too. Jeep will initially import the Wrangler, so prices are expected to be in the region of Rs 18-20 lakh, which is quite a lot for a not-too-practical car. Still, I challenge you to drive one off-road and come back not wanting to own it. What you get for your money is the ultimate off-roader (yes, it really is that good), a thoroughly updated and modern icon with anti-lock brakes, airbags and tonnes and tonnes of attitude.