2016 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler – The More Things Change, the More They Stay The Same

You can imagine those very first olive-green Willys MB Jeeps rolling off the line back in 1941, an answer to the problem of getting troops anywhere no matter what the terrain. A simple, field-serviceable vehicle that was reliable and wouldn’t strand soldiers. That was the start of it all, and since then millions of vehicles in all sorts of configurations and special models have been built. Hundreds of different versions over the years, which brings us to the 2016 Willys Wheeler edition. A nod to the original in a very military-looking gray color, it’s adorned with nostalgic decals and touches – but that’s where the ‘special’ part ends.

Over the years, you come to expect certain things from a Jeep Wrangler. It’s going to be simple, versatile and straightforward. Over the years, the most popular engine has always been some form of inline 6-cylinder. Now sporting a smooth 3.5L V6, the engine feels right, despite having the wrong layout. Power is good, and the sound is pretty under control for a Jeep. The same can’t be said, of course, about the road noise and air noise coming from the aggressive off-road tires and dated soft-top.

The tires we can understand, especially given the prowess they display when actually off-road. The top, however, we cannot understand why it has not benefitted from an update. They could have re-engineered how the mechanism folds, but it’s nearly the same manual piecemeal procedure that’s been there for decades. Our best time to take down the top completely was just under five minutes, but putting it back up took closer to eight. Try that if you get caught in the rain! The first section above the driver and passenger’s head flips back easily for quick open-air motoring, but it sags down and rests on taller people’s heads – like mine. Definitely still room for improvement here.

I can hear people saying already that a Jeep is supposed to be manual and supposed to be like this, but for $34k I would expect some more engineering could have gone into the system. Even if making it open easier isn’t possible, it should be more water-tight. Washing the dirt off from our off-road adventure at The Badlands Off-Road Park in Attica, IN let too much water in for our liking, soaking some cargo we had in the back. We get the nostalgia of the top configuration, but make it one of three things: 1. watertight, 2. easier to lower or 3. lower in price.

Speaking of our off-road time, that’s clearly where this Jeep shined. There really wasn’t much that we could throw at it that fazed it. Steep climbs, soft sand, rocks, ditches, water crossings, river beds – nothing slowed us down. 

The simple, manual shifting 4×4 system is user-friendly, and the Wrangler is available with such trick off-road equipment as cockpit swaybar disconnects. It does so much off road with just its simplicity – in stark opposition to other off-road performers like Land Rover which use lots of gadgetry.

This again brings up price, as even the starting price feels a bit high at $23k. You’re getting such a simple, albeit very well built and capable vehicle – but it doesn’t seem like it takes much to build, leading to a feeling that it could be priced better. Unfortunately, all the modern safety and compliance engineering that must be done has driven base prices up across the board, not to mention good-old supply and demand. People love Jeep Wranglers, and as I suspect they will continue to buy them. And despite not feeling like the world’s best value, we had a blast testing out what our test Jeep could do. With the sheer breadth of options and trims available, I’m sure you can find one that’s just right for you!