As you may have noticed, the Kruger National Park has been a bit damp this week. In fact, for what was to be my first visit to the Park, it would have been far more advisable to not pack a hat, sunscreen and mosquito repellent, but rather a surfboard and snorkel!

Thankfully, however, my “travel equipment” did include the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, arguably the best off-road machine in the country. Though the torrential rain caused the Jeep PR team plenty headaches, I think it actually suited the launch of this vehicle very well. After all, the rain made the roads treacherous, and the off-road section even more testing.

As regular readers will know, Jeep introduced a subtly facelifted version of the Wrangler in 2011, with the biggest improvements featuring in the cabin. It is a significant step up, with better materials, more modern design and added convenience features. Due to the rain our test drive ended up being considerably longer than planned, and it took place in extremely tricky conditions, featuring lots of standing water, bucketing rain, massive potholes and slippery surfaces. The Wrangler lapped it up. It is also in conditions such as these that you really appreciated large, high-profile tyres… The extended test drive also highlighted the comfort of the seats (though the lack of a driver’s footrest remains an irritation) and the superb sound system.

But the focus for this launch was very much the new 3,6-litre V6 Pentastar engine, which replaces the old 3,8-litre mill. The new engine delivers 209 kW and 347 N.m of torque, improvements of 43 and 10 per cent respectively compared with the previous engine. It also uses less fuel. The Rubicon version featured here has a claimed combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 11,4 litres/100 km. The Wrangler has always been a fast sprinter, and I must say I find the blistering 0-100 km/h time of 8,1 seconds somewhat ridiculous! But fun, of course… I didn’t get the opportunity to drive the five-speed automatic model, but rather the six-speed manual, which features ratios very well-suited to the refined and punchy new engine’s torque characteristics. The gearbox itself has been improved, too, with a new clutch housing, flywheel and long-travel damper clutch.

The Rubicon model is, as the name suggests, the most off-road oriented version of the lot. As a result it features the heavy-duty Dana 44 front and rear axles and the Rock-Trac NV241 two-speed transfer case with a 4,0:1 low-range ratio, as well as electric front and rear locking differentials and a disconnecting front sway bar which improves the already excellent axle articulation even more. It is a hugely capable off-roader, with the ability to crawl up very steep inclines.

Due to the rain our extreme off-road test section was cancelled, but I nevertheless got the opportunity to do a water crossing and drive on some extremely rutted, slippery terrain. It was no challenge for the Wrangler.

The biggest step forward for the Wrangler, clearly, is in its on-road ability. Though the large tyres, short wheelbase and height mean it will never corner or ride like a normal SUV, the Wrangler is now far more liveable on a daily basis. The engine is really lovely, being refined, yet powerful, and though no economy champ, it is a big improvement on the 3,8-litre used before. It’s also a surprisingly quiet cruiser and the cabin is now packed with all the necessary mod-cons, as well as safety features, including ESP, electronic roll mitigation, trailer-sway control, hill start assist and traction control. The brakes have been upgraded to cope with the higher speeds the new vehicle is likely to achieve.

Overall, if you’re looking for a hardcore off-roader, but also want to be able to drive it on the road, the Wrangler makes more sense than ever before. Even after the addition of the Toyota FJ Cruiser, the Wrangler remains a unique, niche offering, but the niche is now, at least, a fair bit wider.

Specifications:

Model: Jeep Wrangler 3,6 V6 Rubicon
Engine: 3,6-litre, V6, petrol
Power: 209 kW at 6 350 r/min
Torque: 347 N.m at 4 300 r/min
0-100 km/h: 8,1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 11,4 L/100 km
CO2: 266 g/km
Price: R389 990
Maintenance plan: 3 years/100 000 km
Service intervals: 12 000 km