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Dogs came from wolves. SUVs came from Jeeps. Jeeps have been around in India. Jeeps are coming back to India. Sriram Narayanan explains...

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When animal rights activists talk about animal cruelty, I wonder why they don’t include pure breed dogs. Think about it. A Saint Bernard, a Great Dane, an Afghan Hound and a Chihuahua are all the same animal. And they have one common ancestor. The wolf. So you can imagine the amount of breeding and in-breeding that’s happened over centuries to make wolves into the purebreds of today. Dogs are great company. But to get them to look a certain way, to get them ready for a breed’s specific line of work, we’ve created living things the way nature never intended them to be.

A pug, because of its flat nose, has inherent breathing and sight issues. A dachshund was bred for the specific purpose of getting into rabbit holes to flush them out. So they were bred to have sturdy long bodies and extremely short legs, and ended up with a spine that can’t support such unbalanced proportions. Large breeds like the Saint Bernard have an average lifespan of eight years.

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Strange things to think about when the Wrangler’s headlights are directly looking at the ground below and the only thing keeping gravity from having my stomach right over the steering wheel is my seat-belt. I release the brakes slowly and wait to hear the crunch of front bumper hitting ground. All I continue to hear is the crackle of rocks under the tyres and soon I am level on earth. The way an automobile is to be level on earth. When it’s not on level earth, all I can see out of the windshield of the Wrangler is either the sky when climbing up boulders that can almost be classified as walls, or the ground when I am coming down what feels like a ladder with missing steps.

In fact, the Jeep Wrangler owes its origins to a concept that was born because the conventional automobile could only run on level earth. And they needed a vehicle that could climb up and down unfathomable natural terrain.

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The kind of unfathomable natural terrain I was climbing from inside the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited in a remote ranch in Texas, USA. The place was full of rocks, boulders, slush and a dry river bed. This is quite simply the best-looking SUV I have seen in my life. Not even Ford with the Mustang or even Chrysler with the Challenger have done such a great take on retro-modern as is the Jeep Wrangler. That grille, the hooks to lock the bonnet, those fenders over the front tyres, those exposed hinges and rivets are all as much automotive porn as a Lamborghini Aventador Jota.

But then, that’s mere stunning design. I will tell you what’s also tunning. Remember how stunned you were when you first learnt how babies are made? And it had nothing to do with god or shooting stars? You will be more stunned at the amount of wheel articulation possible in the Wrangler. I noticed the Wrangler ahead of me staying nearly level with the terrain below literally wringing the axle like it were a piece of cloth in the hands of a dhobi washing clothes by the river.

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A Range Rover can do this. But it does it in an extremely effortless, distant manner. Its Terrain Response system ensures all you have to do is steer. Moreover, the cameras all around the car ensure you have a great view of everything around. The Range Rover is like farming in a Segway wearing a tuxedo. You do the ploughing, sowing, seeding with some buttons and a joystick with not even a speck of earth reaching even your shoes. The Wrangler is like a farmer in a vest and trousers. He simply rolls up his trousers, uses his palms and does what needs to be done. The only things you need to select are two- or four-wheel-drive and if you want to engage low-range.

No terrain response, no hill descent, no auto hold, no automatic braking, no suspension height adjust. It’s just you, the pedals, the steering and the gearstick. However, I am told some of the stuff can be selected as an option. I’d rather keep it simple. It’s the Wrangler’s simplicity that lets it do stuff that would leave other SUVs in a few pieces. If your tuxedo gets some mud on it, you’d need to take it to the dry-cleaner. If your hands or feet get mud on it, you just need to dip them in a stream. Which is how the Wrangler is.

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The Wrangler I drove here is a five-speed auto with a 3.6-litre V6 petrol making 285bhp. What India will get is a 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel making 160bhp. But at 400Nm, it makes around 50Nm more torque than the petrol. If you want true-blue American gasoline in your Jeep, you will have to go for the two-door, which will come only with a 3.6-litre petrol mated to a six-speed manual.

While you can have soft-top versions with both the two- and four-door models, in India, this Unlimited with the removable hard-top trim you see here is likely to find the most homes. It’s got four doors, five seats, a spacious boot and you can take the roof off.

In full or in parts. The interior won’t give any complexes to the Germans or the Japanese. If you are looking for the usual finery that you’d expect in stuff like a Honda CR-V or even a Nissan X-Trail, you will be disappointed. However, there’s this very durable, hose-it-down-with-water simplicity to the cabin.  And you get airbags, AC, power windows, ABS, ESP, traction control and a touchscreen media interface with USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

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On the road, it’s not a handler, but it is solid and stable. And it did rather well on some Texan roads that were so windy that roadside boards were falling off. Don’t expect German or even British levels of refinement. To give you some perspective, the all-new Range Rover had to go really heavy on technology, aluminium and price to chop 420kg off to get it down to 2200kg for the base version. The Wrangler four-door range starts at 1848kg. Of course, that also means it’s not exactly a Rolls-Royce for the fields.

The only weak link in what’s an incredible off-roader and a solid road car is that five-speed automatic gearbox. A car can be simple, but an automatic transmission cannot. Which is why the one in the Wrangler is too ponderous for the road. Jeep would be better off offering the six-speed manual for India. And for all the customisation options, you don’t get a reverse camera. Jeep admits that even American customers want one, but they are still figuring out a way to put one that can withstand rocks and boulders.

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Also tricky is the positioning of the Wrangler once it comes to India. In the US, the range is the equivalent of Rs 12-19 lakh. Import duties in India will mean this will go much higher. Yet, if Jeep can keep it to under Rs 40 lakh or thereabouts, in the range of the BMW X1 or Audi Q3, I reckon a lot of you would queue up for one. As an off-roader there is nothing that will touch it. As an on-roader there are a few compromises to be made over a standard crossover or sedan, but nothing that you can’t live with.

What you would essentially end up with is a wolf.

It’s the original, before it was bred and tweaked to suit fickle human tastes and kennel club standards. It’s the original before SUVs got maligned beyond recognition to crossover levels. And the only bits of genetic alterations on this are so it meets modern safety and comfort requirements.

Which is why it’s like that wolf that always hung around old human fires. Hanging about, but at a distance. Harmless, but wary. Liked to socialise, but with its own pack. And it resisted the comfort of human company, just so it wouldn’t have to compromise on what it was meant to do. Thrive in the unfathomable wild. The way nature intended it to be.

(Words: Sriram Narayanan)

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