The Jeep Wrangler is one of our all-time favorite vehicles, though certainly not because it drives well. It never has, and, Iacocca willing, it never will. No, we love this stalwart 4×4 because of its single-minded focus on its rough-and-tumble mission, which imbues it with a rich character rare in today’s marketplace.
Of course, for all its boulder-taming capability, there are legions of Wrangler buyers who rarely use their Jeeps on much more than a two-track road, never mind Moab’s red rocks. For those folks, the ones who use their Wranglers every day, something like the Willys model you see here is close to ideal. With plenty of features and a nice package of baked-in off-road equipment, it’s perhaps the best balance of daily driver and factory trail machine in the lineup.
Our test Jeep started as a $33,570 Unlimited Sport, which was then slathered in $245 utilitarian-cool Sarge Green paint over black cloth upholstery. The Willys comes in both bare-bones and feature-laden models; this was the latter, with LED head- and fog lamps, rock rails, power windows and heated mirrors, all-weather floor mats, upgraded brakes, remote entry, a locking rear differential, gloss black exterior accents, leather on the steering wheel, and a few other bits at a reasonable initial buy-in of $39,565.
Even stopping there, such a Jeep Willys provides good all-weather and all-terrain ability while also taking the bite off its ragged edges. It gets special off-road shocks but doesn’t have the Rubicon’s disconnecting anti-roll bars or burly Rock-Trac four-wheel-drive system. The standard-issue Command-Trac setup is plenty capable, though, being able to lock into a 50/50 front/rear split and offering a low range with a 2.72:1 ratio (compared to the Rubicon’s 4.00:1). It also allows shifting from rear-drive to 4Hi mode at speeds of up to 55 mph.
But this Willys also stirred in a large can of comfort and convenience features, including the $995 Technology bundle, $4,190 Sun and Sound package (bigger central screen, navigation, the Sky sliding roof, premium audio, automatic climate control, removable rear quarter windows, and a ton more), $1,500 automatic transmission, the $995 Cold Weather Group, a couple of safety packages, a towing bundle, and a bunch of additional goodies.
The total price was $50,965, which seems like a lot—heck, it is a lot—but damned if this wasn’t the most livable Wrangler we’ve been in for some time. And given that Jeep Wranglers are among the very best new vehicles at holding their value, we say check all the boxes you want or can afford. You’re going to get a decent chunk of your money back when it’s time to move on.
We loved the Sky cloth top, the most versatile of the Wrangler’s many roof options, as it combines the finished look and most of the weatherproofing of a hardtop with a convertible-like experience. And even though we drove this Jeep during the last of Michigan’s wintry weather, we stayed plenty warm despite some single-digit temperatures. Quick-warming heated cloth seats and a heated steering wheel helped, too.
The smooth-shifting automatic was a forced upgrade with the no-charge 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder under the hood; the engine might be the only thing we’d change. With 270 horsepower and 295 lb-ft, the four-cylinder has enough gusto to move a four-door Wrangler just fine. But the engine never lets you forget it’s working, with plenty of grumbling noise and turbo whooshing and the like, all of which only gets worse in 4Hi mode, when it has two more wheels to drive. And there’s a demonstrable difference in how much pedal input you need in order to maintain the same speed between rear- and four-wheel-drive modes. We’d likely stick with the standard V-6, which also allows you to select a six-speed manual—thus saving $1,500—if you’d like.
Of course, neither its options nor its engine much affect the Jeep Wrangler Willys’ on-road handling, which is like most any other Wrangler’s: ponderous, somewhat sloppy, and absolutely unathletic. But no one buys a Wrangler for the way it moves on pavement; they buy one because of the way it makes them feel and its potential to explore great expanses of terrain.
The Wrangler for that reason has long dominated a segment of one, and its vast customization options from the factory and via the aftermarket plays a huge role in its continued success. The Wrangler is about to face perhaps its most formidable challenge yet in the form of the new Ford Bronco, but with a broad, well-established lineup that includes models like the 2022 Wrangler Willys, the V-8–powered 392, the plug-in 4xe hybrid, and more, Jeep appears well prepared for the fight to come.
|2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Willys||Specifications|
|PRICE||$33,570/ $50,865 (base/as tested)|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, rear-/4WD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.0L/270-hp/295-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,196 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||188.4 x 73.8 x 73.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||21/24/22 mpg (city/hwy/comb) (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||160/140 kWh/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.87 lb/mile|