Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which enters our markets by the end of the year, is for hardcore off-road enthusiasts. Ouseph Chacko gives the first impression of this fully imported vehicle

American carmaker Jeep is all set for a grand entry here with the Fiat-Chrysler alliance looking to launch the brand by the end of the year. It will introduce its Grand Cherokee luxury SUV and Wrangler off-roader, which will, for the moment, be brought in via CBU route and sold through ‘Jeep Studios’ within Fiat showrooms.

We got our hands on the Wrangler to see what the American carmaker has in store for Indian off-road enthusiasts. Jeep plans to offer the three-door and five-door versions of the Wrangler with petrol and diesel engines and manual and automatic gearbox options.

The test car we have is the Wrangler Unlimited Overland Sahara. And we loved its timeless looks the instant we laid eyes on it — the Jeep design traits we know and which have influenced so many SUVs today — seven-slat grille, big fenders front and rear, clamps to hold the bonnet down, exposed door hinges and a tailgate-mounted spare.

It comes with a body-on-ladder-frame chassis that has live axles at both ends. Suspension is by way of coil springs and leading arms and, of course, there’s a mechanical four-wheel-drive setup.

To climb up to the high-set seats, you have to use the rock-slider footboard. You look out through a pillbox windscreen with a very upright dashboard in front of you. It’s all black plastic, solidly built and hard wearing, but not too plush and you notice how the speakers are mounted on the ceiling. There’s no automatic climate control, no powered seats and no parking sensors, but you do get power windows and a high-mounted music system that has Bluetooth connectivity and voice control.

The pedal positions are not impressive in relation to the seat and the steering wheel. There is no reach adjustment for the steering and all the stretching makes your feet hurt after an extended period at the wheel. At the rear, the doors are quite narrow, the seat back is uncomfortably upright and the seat squab will leave even those of average height wanting more. The wheelbase has been stretched 500mm for this edition and that results in decent legroom though.

The Wrangler is also a five-seater and thanks to the roll cage running through it, removing the roof and doors apparently doesn’t affect body stiffness.

The 2.8-litre four-cylinder common-rail diesel makes an expected, audible clatter at idle. It makes an impressive 197bhp and 46.90kgm of torque and 100kph comes up in 10.79sec.

The five-speed automatic gearbox is, however, always hunting through gears, sometimes refusing to downshift or upshift and rarely second-guessing what you actually expect it to do. The long throttle travel also means the dull initial throttle response transforms into a sudden surge of torque when you further depress the pedal, and it’s accompanied by quite a lot of engine noise.

The ride, which is quite lumpy at low speeds, shudders over expansion joints and doesn’t quite settle down even at speed and the handling isn’t the most fun. This is a clearly off-road-biased vehicle which is quite refined and handles and rides very well.

It’s when you switch the smaller gearlever into 4L mode that it all comes together. That sluggish initial throttle response that’s annoying on the road gives you incredible throttle control over tricky terrain, and the slow steering and soft suspension allow you lots of control and good amounts of wheel articulation. On its off-road tyres it felt unstoppable, getting through most climbs and slush with little effort or wheelspin. It is off-road that the Wrangler really feels special.

If you like venturing off the tarmac and are looking for one of the most capable vehicles to do this in, this is one of the best offerings you’ll find in our market. But it’s a full import and at an expected price tag of around Rs. 30- Rs. 35 lakh, could be out of reach for some hardcore off-road enthusiasts here.