The Jeep Wrangler's off-road capability drew praise from Consumer Reports' testers, but it received bad marks for fit and finish, driving position, comfort, ride, braking, and fuel economy.
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The Jeep Wrangler may be one of the few truly go-anywhere vehicles out there, but it still can't crawl out of its bottom spot in Consumer Reports rankings.
Yet again, the rough-and-tumble Wrangler placed dead last in the magazine's annual road test, scoring just 20 out of a possible 100 points. The Jeep Liberty didn't fare a whole lot better, scoring 27 points to finish second-to-last.
The test crew at Consumer Reports liked the off-road capability of the two Toledo-built Jeeps, but they didn't like much else. Bad marks were given to both vehicles' fit and finish, driving position, comfort, ride, braking, and fuel economy.
Hurting the Wrangler is that it's an off-road vehicle that happens to spend most of its time on the blacktop.
"As a car, it has a lot of downsides," said Mike Quincy, an automotive specialist with Consumer Reports. "As a fun, weekend, off-road vehicle, it's fabulous. But most people can only afford one car, and if a Wrangler is their one car and they've never lived with a Jeep or an SUV, Consumer Reports is here to say ‘this is what you can expect.'?"
Loyal Wrangler buyers know what they're buying, Mr. Quincy said, and he's well aware of the heat Consumer Reports takes for the low marks they give the Jeep.
"Part of the reason we criticize the Wrangler as much as we do, we're also writing for somebody who's never driven a Wrangler before," he said.
The magazine does perform off-road testing, but the results don't factor into the road test scores. That's a point Chrysler Group LLC made responding to the rating.
"Consumer Reports applies the same road-test criteria for all vehicles it tests, so Jeep 4x4s undergo the same tests as luxury sedans and minivans without regard to unique capabilities sought by SUV customers," the automaker said.
The magazine noted that this version of the Wrangler, with its much improved drivetrain, was the best ever, but still said the Jeep was "seriously outdated in the modern world."
But that throw-back attitude is part of what sets the vehicle apart from its competitors, analysts say.
"I would be surprised if anyone in that market read Consumer Reports and decided not to purchase it," said Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com. "It's a niche market, and there's not a lot of options for it."
Ms. Caldwell said the Consumer Reports ratings typically mean more for more mainstream cars such as the Honda Accord and the Chevrolet Malibu.
Even Mr. Quincy said that greatly altering the Wrangler would be akin to sabotaging a piece of Americana.
"Jeep sells a lot of Wranglers as they are. The Wrangler also has an amazing value retention. It depreciates very little. People love the Wrangler. You could make a fair argument if Chrysler softened it, made it more civilized, and took away its edge — they would lose sales," he said.
The Liberty, though, is a different story.
Where the Wrangler feels nostalgic, the Liberty just feels old. With its last major redesign in 2008, the Liberty is a holdover from pre-bankruptcy Chrysler.
"It's old and it's been neglected," Ms. Caldwell said. "I don't think it's any surprise why it's near the bottom."
A new version of the Liberty is expected in 2013.
The Liberty review in Consumer Reports comes from 2008. Mr. Quincy said Consumer Reports tests only models that are significantly updated from the previous model year.
The review notes that the V6 feels sluggish and its four-speed automatic transmission is not responsive or refined. It also says the "ride is unsettled, handling is clumsy, and the noisy engine guzzles gas. Its cramped interior is uncomfortable and sloppily finished.
"Chrysler knows [the Liberty] needs a lot of work," Mr. Quincy said. "You've gotta give the company credit for updating a lot of its product line and some of its efforts are definitely impressing us in our testing."
Consumer Reports said the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, for example, has the best on-road experience of any Jeep, ever. The 2011 Grand Cherokee Limited received a 69 out of 100.
In a statement, Doug Betts, Chrysler's senior vice president for quality, said Consumer Reports recognized Jeep as the most reliable domestic brand last fall and said the new list shows the automaker is the most improved company for overall test scores and second most improved for reliability.
"We still have more work to do, and we're busy doing it right now. As we renew the rest of the lineup, we anticipate Chrysler Group's scores will continue to improve at a faster rate than the competition," Mr. Betts said.
The top-ranked vehicle by Consumer Reports was the $67,000 Lexus LS 460L, which posted a 99 out of 100. The highest-placing domestic car was the $75,000 Chevrolet Corvette Z06.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6134.