Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Jeep Wrangler versus Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen

$40,000 American versus $111,000 German
With its legendary offroad abilities, the Jeep Wrangler is rarely considered the underdog in any given 4x4 competition.  However, Car and Driver Magazine's October 2012 issue has a series of interesting comparison tests in which they pit a variety of low-priced underdogs against vehicles that would be its direct competitor if not for the huge price discrepancy.  In this particular comparison, they matched a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon against the Mercedes-Benz G550 Geländewagen:

War Bonds: Two old battle-axes fight for domination of the reformed-military-vehicle market.

Both vehicles have humble beginnings as military vehicles, and both have evolved considerably from their rough-and-tumble roots.  What do you get from the G-wagen for 2.8 times the price of the Wrangler?  All the typical Mercedes luxuries, the expected luxury cachet, and another 100 horsepower.  But if that's what matters to you, you're reading the wrong blog.

What we care about here is their offroad abilities, and neither vehicle disappoints with their tough truck-based ladder frames, dual solid axles, and tidy, utilitarian dimensions.  They may be soft and smooth and quiet on the surface, but underpinning both are heavy-duty components no longer seen under lesser faux-by-fours.

Similarities extend beneath their nearly indistinguishable profiles: both vehicles have selectable differential lockers in the rear and front axles, which place them (literally and figuratively) at the top of the 4x4 mountain.  Without diff locks, a 4x4 is merely a 2-wheel-drive since it will spin only 1 front and 1 rear wheel (whichever two have the least available traction) when the terrain gets slick.  A rear diff lock provides a true 3-wheel-drive since both rears and 1 front will fight for traction.  But only with lockers front and rear is a 4x4 a true 4-wheel-drive, in which all 4 tires must lose traction before the vehicle gets stuck.  The vast majority of SUVs on the road are 4x4's in name only - the Wrangler and G-Class are the real deal.

Both vehicles include a necessary low-range transfer case.  The Mercedes' gives a decent 2.618:1 reduction, while the standard Wranglers have a 2.72:1 ratio; the Rubicon model tested here has an unmatched 4:1 gear reduction for superior control in even the toughest of terrain.  The Jeep is also available from the factory with 4.10:1 axle ratios, perfect for an upgrade to 35-inch tires; the Mercedes has adequate power and torque to handle oversize tires without requiring deeper gearing on the highway, but will struggle in extreme rockcrawling situations.

In spite of the Wrangler's superior off-road abilities and comparatively bargain price, it is still the superior driver on-road.  Sure, the Geländewagen is faster in a straight line, but the Wrangler corners better with superior steering control despite its knobby mud tires.  The Jeep rides better with superior body motion control, brakes better, cruises more quietly, and returns better fuel economy.  Factor in additional benefits to the offroad crowd - huge aftermarket support, easily attainable and affordable replacement parts, vast vehicular knowledge base available from countless resources - and the Jeep becomes the superior choice before even taking the huge price discrepancy into account.

Car and Driver sums up the Jeep's underdog win quite eloquently:
The Wrangler Unlimited drives like it looks. It’s an honest bit of merchandise. It’s the Levi’s jeans of the automotive world, neither faddish nor unfashionable. That it’s a better-driving vehicle than one that costs $70,000 more is reason enough for it to win.
Jeep should be commended for producing (and making good profit on) such a world-class vehicle.  It's no wonder that Jeep is selling Wranglers as fast as they can scramble to produce them.

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