My 2017 Jeep Wrangler is covered in mud. We’re marooned in a gulch. Up to the footboards in water. A three-foot step from the nearest mud bank. All four wheels spinning in place.
I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
The Mounds Off-road Vehicle Park is in the middle of a swamp 12 miles northwest of Flint. It’s 230 acres of bogs, hills, mud, sand and forest. A web of trails cuts through this forbidding landscape booby-trapped with roots, rock and moguls that challenge the fortitude of any off-roader. This is Wrangler country.
Jeep sells its rugged image to over a million customers a year. From the posh Grand Cherokee Summit to the cute, subcompact Renegade, Jeep’s familiar seven-slot grille is everywhere. It’s the outdoorsman’s automaker. The original sport utility vehicle has drive modes for SAND, MUD and OCEAN BOTTOM (OK, made that last one up). Even if most owners never take their comfy crossover anyplace more adventurous than a county road.
It’s an image built on the iconic Wrangler, a direct descendent of the Army’s World War II Jeep.
I’d never driven the famed Wrangler. Like a tough kid from the other side of the tracks, Wrangler’s first impressions can be, um, uncomfortable. The front hood is held down by straps. A tire on the back hatch makes access difficult. The exterior styling is retro-World War with big bumpers and an upright windshield. It gets more Spartan inside.
My Wrangler Sahara costs a whopping $45,000, but its technology is stuck in the Stone Age: There’s no keyless entry. It has nets for storage on the doors, and a hard plastic dash and door rests. At least it has power windows. You need the strength of Hercules to pull the drive mode shifter from 2WD to 4WD.
With the Wrangler’s brawny, 32-inch tires and 3.6-liter V-6 roaring, I communicated with Mrs. Payne in the seat next to me by megaphone.
But like my favorite, trunk-challenged, apex-carving Alfa Romeo 4C sports car, the Wrangler is built for play. What other vehicle is engineered for easy door removal? When I jumped into the tall Jeep, I hit my head. I turned to find a huge, 21/4-inch roll bar spanning the cockpit. Now we’re talking.
Don’t buy a Wrangler unless you plan to go off-road. Like the Mounds. In, say, December.
Late fall might be the most challenging time of year at the park.
After a week of torrential rains the swamp-like terrain was even swampier than normal. The park gatekeeper warned me to stay away from watery gulches. You know, like when Mom used to tell you to stay away from mud puddles on your way home. So naturally I ignored the advice and charged right in.
On asphalt the Wrangler’s body-on-frame chassis and big Bridgestone tires give it the manners of a crude pickup without the bed. Off asphalt, it’s a terrain-shredding animal. But my Wrangler met its match in a deep, water-filled rut. Like losing adhesion on a race track, you got to explore the edge of the envelope.
“You aren’t off-roading unless you get stuck,” said Kelly Boerner of Newport, Michigan, who brought his cavalry of veteran off-roaders to rescue me.
Kelly and his mates had done Bundy Hill and Silver Lake, but it was their first visit to The Mounds. They looked like one of those vehicle trains from the “Mad Max” movies. Vehicles big and small. Chevy Trailblazers, RAM 1500 ... and lots of Wranglers. Half the vehicles I saw at The Mounds (not counting ATVs and dirt bikes) were of the Jeep variety — and many had already been stuck. Indeed, the swamp was littered with marooned carcasses like a sort of present day La Brea Tar Pits. Difference is, dinosaurs didn’t have trucks to pull them out.
Our savior was a Ram 1500 pickup with five-inch suspension rider addition, hemi V-8, 38-inch tires and tow gear. Owner D.J. Floreskul threw a line around my tow tongue (just like my Lola 90 sports racer, oddly enough) and yanked me out of the bog back to terra firma. Well, at least terra mud.
There were other limits on the vast Flint playground. I learned to stay away from the rock quarries. The Sahara’s more refined features include cool 18-inch wheels with Granite Chrystal painted pockets and dent-prone steel fenders.
To further explore the limits (if not the watery bogs), I’d suggest the Wrangler Rubicon with a lift kit, plastic fenders and electronically detachable front sway bar. The latter basically gives the vehicle knees — allowing the front wheels to move independently of each other to crawl over rocks.
You might guess Wranglers are boy toys (like sports racers), but you’d be wrong. The Mounds was littered with Jeep women. And everywhere I went in Oakland County, I found females flogging Wranglers. An empty-nester friend had traded in her Town & Country minivan for a Wrangler. A retiree bombs around Arizona in her Jeep. Heck, even Mrs. Payne confided to me that she coveted a Wrangler as her first car as a 16-year-old.
Wrangler fan Lauren Stuart (she has two) fell hard for the brand while on a Pink Jeep tour in Sedona, Arizona. I know the Pink Jeeps. They’re the tour guides through Arizona’s impossible canyon trials. This summer, Lauren drove cross country to Sedona in her Rubicon (license plate “BE FIT”) to tackle the Pink Jeep trails themselves.
She must have used her smartphone’s Google Maps to get there. True to the Jeep’s stuck-in-WWII technology, my Wrangler’s navigation system couldn’t get us to The Mounds. Not because it couldn’t find it, but because its directions lagged about 5 miles behind us. It’s a rare glitch in Jeep’s usually excellent UConnect system.
Wrangler’s proven, torquey Pentastar V-6 mill had no issues. Its 285 ponies can easily outrun any bee nests you might disrupt in the wilderness. The Wrangler is unique: Loud, rugged, with a face that looks like it’s been to Normandy and back. It was built to run through a brick wall.
Just beware of the depth of the watery gulch on the other side.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2017 Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited
Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV
6-speed manual; 5-speed automatic (as tested)
3,976 pounds (automatic as tested)
$24,990 ($45,045 as tested)
285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet torque
Zero-60: 8.4 seconds (Car and Driver); towing: 3,500 pounds
EPA 16 city/21 highway/18 combined
Fearless off-roader; that WWII Jeep face
Loud interior; over $40,000 in upper trims
Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★