I had a 2012 Jeep Wrangler to drive last week. It was waiting at the Atlanta airport when I flew back from New Mexico after Christmas. I loved it.
I've wanted a Wrangler since I was old enough to drive, and just have never bought one. I heard all the stories that almost no one ever purchased a second Wrangler after living with the first. They were noisy, uncomfortable, they had all the suspension properties of a roller skate, removing or reinstalling the soft top was a stroke-inducing experience and they were underpowered.
I guess, truth be told, some or all of those reasons are why I never pulled the trigger and bought one. But I have continued to dream about them.
My illogical infatuation began when I was just older than two -- yes, I do remember when dinosaurs roamed the earth. My father returned from the Pacific in WWII with an affection for Jeep. This wasn't uncommon among Marines and G.I.s coming home from combat where Jeeps played such a key role.
Dad was now a professional photographer, running around to schools taking yearbook photos and weddings snapping memories. He drove a Willy's Jeepster with wood paneling for these chores. It was a big, hulking rattletrap with moon hubcaps.
My father, mother, sister, who is 13 or 14 years my senior, depending on the time of year, and I lived in Harborcreek, Penn at the time -- a rural suburb of Erie on the road to Buffalo, NY. We lived next door to my mother's parents who owned several acres behind our houses.
One of my earliest memories was of me and my cousins riding in the Jeepster as my sister learned to drive navigating the dirt paths through my grandfather's woods and fields. We hung out the open windows screaming and carrying on. It was great training for my sister later in life when she would have four little girls packed in the Dodge Cornet doing much the same thing.
Shortly after my sister got her driver's license, my dad sold his business, along with the Jeepster, and went to college on the G.I. Bill. We never owned another Jeep.
Fast forward about 15 years to the mid sixties.
My sister lived in Greenville, Penn. while my parents and I lived in Louisville, KY. During the winter when I was sixteen, we went to visit my sister and her husband. He was a Greenville cop who had a construction side business. I was particularly excited about this visit because he had bought a used CJ5 -- a forebear of today's Wrangler -- and promised me I could drive it on this visit. I had never driven a Jeep before.
Greenville is located in the snow belt about 70 miles south of Erie. Of course, there were several inches of snow on the ground and more fluttered down nearly every day.
I was out in my maiden cruise in the Jeep with my brother-in-law riding shotgun. It was snowing and the roads were slicker than reindeer snot. I had never driven a standard shift before. Operating the clutch, trying to locate the gears through a shift lever that grew two feet out of the floor and navigating the slick road surfaces proved too much for a 16-year-old kid with a six-month-old driver's license.
We negotiated a right turn onto another snow-packed country road. Those old Jeeps had a turning radius like an eighteen wheeler. I misjudged the turn and the Jeep wound up laying on the driver's side in a big ditch on the opposite side of the road.
I remember my brother-in-law -- patience wasn't a virtue of his when younger -- lying against me in the cabin with me scrunched up against the canvass driver's door. He first asked if I was all right -- I was -- and then he said something sensitive like, "What's the matter with you?" or "You wrecked my Jeep!"
Actually the Jeep wasn't wrecked; it was just stuck. A guy in an AWD pickup truck happened upon us and pulled us out. I didn't get to drive home. In fact, I never got to drive that Jeep again.
So it was nice having the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport last week. I learned my lesson; I managed to keep it between the ditches.
Other than the iconic grille and basic shape, there is little the new Jeep has in common with the older ones.
Jeep has done a lot in the last decade to make the Wrangler more civilized and user friendly. In fact, most of the gripes about older Wranglers no longer apply. The top is still a chore to operate, but otherwise, it's a superior off-road vehicle that you can live with every day.
I still want one.