The 2017 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler Is an Off-Road Weapon

True to its roots, the Wrangler Willys Wheeler isn’t too shabby as a daily driver.

byEdouard Portelette|
Jeep Reviews photo

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, our impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2017 Jeep Wrangler Willys Wheeler.

It's close to impossible to step into a Jeep Wrangler without feeling that happy feeling. Not just the first time—every time. The original SUV, the Willys makes you want to get dirty. 

So that's what I did. To test out the Wrangler Willys Wheeler, I took it out for a downhill mountain biking trip. I took off the top, dropped the bike into the back seat, and headed for the trails in Central New Jersey. For a day, I lived inside an advertisement for a Jeep Wrangler. What could be simpler?

This particular Willys Wheeler arrived a two-door with a six-speed manual transmission—just the way it should be. Inspired by the 1940s-era Willys CJ, the civilian version of the revered military Jeep of World War II, the Willys Wheeler design and style trace a line back to its origin—and give it a bit of downtown attitude. 

It sits on capable BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A tires, and has a fifth one bolted to the back door—just in case you tear a sidewall on some sharp granite. It comes standard with a Command-Trac four-wheel-drive system, a 3.73 Trac-Lok rear differential, and off-road rock rails. Half-doors are also an option, if you really want to strip it down, or you could just take the doors completely.

The slightly ham-fisted retro-ness of hte design may not be to your taste (a military star? Really?), but I love the look of this Jeep. The high-gloss black 17-inch wheels are just right, and all the shiny black details are nice additions as well—if at times a little over the top. Once I got the keys, the first thing I did was remove the top and back windows. The nice fall weather held, so the pieces stayed in my house for a few days.

It's not as luxurious as most modern SUVs, but the Willys interior is form and function blended perfectly: It has black cloth seating, all-weather slush mats, off-road grab handles, a leather-wrapped chrome shift knob and steering wheel, and deeply-tinted side windows (if you keep them on). Its only obvious bow to the modern age is the addition of FCA's fantastic uConnect system, allowing you to pair your phone. There's also an Alpine premium sound system with a big sub-woofer in the trunk. (Sadly, this limited trunk space, but isn't everything in life a negotiation?)

When you get your hands on this thing, your first instinct should be to go online and search for every available off-road trail in a 200-mile radius of your house. Your best bet might be on Wrangler forums. The Jeep faithful have earned their gnarly reputation. If you ride a motorcycle, you know that riders will often wave hello to one another in passing; it's a community thing. Wrangler owners do the same. It's just one more thing keeping that smile on your face.

Monkeys in the Jeep, Edouard Portelette

The Pros:

  • This Jeep is an outstanding off-road weapon.
  • To each his own, but this is one good-looking truck: Rugged, handsome, awesome rims.
  • Take the top off, and boom: Big grin.
  • A powerful, flexible engine. I was expecting this SUV to be slow. It's not.

The Cons:

  • Quite the rough ride, and a tiringly stiff clutch. Makes for an impractical daily driver.
  • The fuel economy is, um, bad.
  • The Wrangler has some of the worst crash-test scores of any vehicle currently on sale.
  • Taking the top off and putting it back on is a bit of a struggle. One of the zipper pullers broke on my first attempt, for example. 
Willys close up, Edouard Portelette

The 2017 Jeep Wrangler, Ranked:

Performance (off-road): 5/5

Comfort: 3/5

Luxury: 2/5

Hauling people: 5/5

Towing stuff: 4/5

Curb appeal: 5/5

“Wow” factor: 5/5

Overall: 4/5

Edouard Portelette

The Bottom Line:

At the end of the day, this Wrangler Willys is a throwback off the production line that won't embarrass the kids. You know exactly what you're buying: a great off-road machine and a vehicle that says "I like to get dirty on the weekends." It could be an awesome second car to keep at the beach, or a cabin upstate, or at your place in Nantucket. It's definitely not a luxury car that will be most comfortable for your daily commute, though. I would buy this car in a heartbeat—if I didn't live in New York City. 

The $6,000 upgrade over the base Wrangler you get buy opting for the Willys Wheeler trim is totally worth it. The cool looks alone would make it worth the money.

By the Numbers:

Price (as tested): $23,995 ($35,200)

Powertrain: 3.6-liter V6, 285 horsepower, 260 lb-ft of torque; six-speed manual transmission; four-wheel-drive

Fuel Economy (as tested): 17 mpg city / 21 mpg highway

0-60 mph: 6.9 seconds