Jeep goes the ex­tra mile to get Wran­gler right.



THE ther­mome­ter has just ticked over 44°C and the sun is pen­e­trat­ing even the most weath­ered head gear, adding to the dry heat with pierc­ing ef­fect. But it’s the flies that have caught the eye – and ears, arms and legs – of Bernie Traut­mann and John Adams, two Us-based Jeep en­gi­neers in Aus­tralia for the first time. Re­spon­si­ble for pre­par­ing the new JL Wran­gler for duty, Traut­mann and Adams have ex­pe­ri­enced their fair share of in­hos­pitable ter­rain. That’s ev­ery­thing from the -40°C cold of Alaska to the 55-plus heat of dis­used mine tracks in Parker, Ari­zona – the lat­ter one of the new favoured test ar­eas the guys use to pun­ish pro­to­types. One of pro­gram man­ager Adams’ most mem­o­rable is a hot test where the soles of the boots of one of their trav­el­ling party stuck to a rock, sep­a­rat­ing com­pletely from the rest of the shoe.

Yet it’s the ever-present Aussie blowfly – hun­dreds of them – that have the pair don­ning head nets and swat­ting fu­ri­ously. I’m al­most scared (or em­bar­rassed) to tell them that our red dirt sur­rounds on the out­skirts of Alice Springs doesn’t have what the av­er­age cocky would con­sider a lot of flies. Any­one who’s ven­tured through re­mote ar­eas knows the lit­tle buzzers seem­ingly have a sixth sense when it comes to lo­cat­ing hu­mans in the mid­dle of nowhere, some­times in the sort of num­bers that make you won­der what sort of in­sect oa­sis they’ve stum­bled upon.

My im­me­di­ate in­stinct is to get our vis­it­ing Amer­i­cans think­ing about an au­to­mated sys­tem of re­mov­ing flies from cars that doesn’t in­volve rac­ing the win­dows down and madly chas­ing them about the cabin, only to re­alise some of their winged bud­dies have taken the open cav­ity as an in­vi­ta­tion to an­noy.

Af­ter all, these guys are en­gi­neers, they in­no­vate and try to cre­ate so­lu­tions to prob­lems – prob­lems peo­ple some­times don’t re­alise they have. Or, at least, prob­lems they never thought there was a so­lu­tion to. It’s now clear to them the fly (many of them) is a prob­lem.

But Traut­mann and Adams aren’t here for the lo­cal wildlife, although they do have their eyes peeled for kan­ga­roos, most of which are tak­ing respite from the cen­tral sum­mer heat. They’re on a key en­gi­neer­ing mis­sion.

With new­com­ers such as the Com­pass and Wran­gler, Jeep is think­ing more glob­ally, in turn adding more coun­tries to its test­ing and de­vel­op­ment sched­ule. At the in­sis­tence of lo­cal Fiat Chrysler Au­to­mo­biles chief Steve Zan­lunghi, Jeep’s De­troit-based HQ has added Aus­tralia to that list.

Traut­mann, a Ger­man-born, bow-and-ar­row hunt­ing Michi­gan lo­cal is the off-road de­vel­op­ment lead on the Wran­gler. Clearly, it’s


a big deal in Jeep land, be­cause in many ways the Wran­gler is Jeep. It’s the car that de­fines the brand that was cre­ated in 1941 as a tough and ca­pa­ble mil­i­tary ma­chine that evolved into a civil­ian 4x4. It’s a proper off-roader and one that gets used to tackle some lu­di­crously tough tracks and trails, and it’s the car the af­ter­mar­ket revs its en­gines for be­cause so many of the pas­sion­ate own­ers love adding to the Wran­gler ca­pa­bil­ity.

All of which means more pres­sure for Traut­mann, some­thing he de­scribes as “at times in­sur­mount­able”. But it’s also some­thing that drives him.

“Typ­i­cally when we launch a ve­hi­cle … ev­ery­one [within the com­pany] kind of watches. Wran­gler’s dif­fer­ent in that it’s kind of like the whole world is watch­ing us. That’s what fu­els me; that’s my pas­sion,” he says.

“We’re not go­ing to stuff it up! The ex­pec­ta­tion through­out the world and the af­ter­mar­ket world … the Jeep Wran­gler has so many sweet spots we have to hit, there’s a lot of pres­sure.”

Key to that fo­cus is how it per­forms in chal­leng­ing ter­rain – and not just any chal­leng­ing ter­rain, but the sort of stuff that would leave your av­er­age fourby beached, snagged, bogged or fail­ing to pro­ceed.

“The ve­hi­cle al­ways has to in­crease in ca­pa­bil­ity,” Traut­mann says, point­ing to the tighter turn­ing cir­cle, bet­ter ap­proach and de­par­ture an­gles and crawl ra­tio that’s dropped from 59:1 for the auto JK to 77:1 for the JL. “We’ll never give up ca­pa­bil­ity, for us that’s the fore­front of ev­ery­thing we do.”

Key Wran­gler at­tributes re­main. There are next-gen Dana live axles at ei­ther end and a sec­ond stubby gear lever for se­lect­ing low range, now avail­able with a full-time trans­fer case for 4H on road.

The car we’re in is a Ru­bi­con – the of­froad hero – so also has a dis­con­nect­ing front sta­biliser bar and lock­ing dif­fer­en­tials. Carv­ing up a steep, rocky pinch demon­strates its im­mense ca­pa­bil­ity on rocks. This car is also sport­ing scars from pre­vi­ous ex­pe­di­tions, the left-hand rail look­ing worse for wear af­ter a brush with na­ture. The in­te­rior has been poked and prod­ded and there’s no glove­box; it’s been re­moved to al­low easy ac­cess to the wiring loom for con­nect­ing a com­puter.

The black four-door is one of the early pro­to­types, orig­i­nally wrapped in cam­ou­flage but now roam­ing naked given the car is on sale in Amer­ica. With the steer­ing wheel on the left


it is one of the early de­vel­op­ment ve­hi­cles that has been across a fair chunk of Amer­ica and as far south as New Zealand.

There was also a white two-door Ru­bi­con; although, it failed to pro­ceed early in our ad­ven­ture cour­tesy of a fault with the kill switch. The fate of each is grim: once their life as a de­vel­op­ment ve­hi­cle ends they’ll be crushed in line with reg­u­la­tions.

The Wran­gler is tested ex­ten­sively over im­mensely chal­leng­ing rocks, soft sand and through deep, oozy, sticky mud. It’s also thrashed over flow­ing trails and tracks, oc­ca­sion­ally with patches of cor­ru­ga­tions.

But it’s the ex­tended cor­ru­ga­tions and the rel­a­tively high speeds – 60km/h-plus – that Aus­tralia has plenty of and that Traut­mann is keen to learn more about.

We’re dis­cussing the vast­ness of the ter­rain – “I see this ex­pan­sive land that just seems to go on for­ever” – when he’s sud­denly hard on the brakes as a washout ap­pears ahead. It’s one of those short but pun­ish­ing cuts through an oth­er­wise re­spectable road that can ex­tend springs to their limit and gen­er­ally do their best to rip bits off bumpers and bash plates. We thun­der into it, the car cop­ing ad­mirably – un­scathed.

It’s a timely hit that gives Traut­mann an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what a car in the Aus­tralian out­back has to deal with, sur­prises and all.

“We’ve been on quite a few dif­fer­ent road sur­faces, some like back home and some quite a bit dif­fer­ent,” he says. “The cor­ru­gated roads, we get into some of the washed-out roads back home, but not for that longevity. It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of drive cy­cle, so that’s of in­ter­est to us.”

The steady stream of 4x4s loaded to the roof – and be­yond – also gives him an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how Aus­tralians use their 4x4s and how much they carry. The prospect of head­ing into the scrub for a week or more is largely for­eign to these Jeep ex­perts, who are rarely more than few hours from a shower or ser­vice sta­tion in their home­land. For this test we’re not swap­ping shocks or re­cal­i­brat­ing elec­tron­ics; it’s data the guys are chas­ing. Sen­sors and com­put­ers are con­stantly col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion on the move­ment of the sus­pen­sion, tem­per­a­ture and speed. That data will be taken back to Michi­gan and fed into a sim­u­la­tor that shakes the ve­hi­cle vi­o­lently, tak­ing the worst of the Aussie roads and con­dens­ing them into a test cy­cle to sim­u­late a worst-case sce­nario.

One thing they’ll be mon­i­tor­ing is the heat dis­si­pa­tion of the dampers and whether they’re up to the re­peated pun­ish­ment of vast stretches of cor­ru­ga­tions.

“We’ll take that data back home, scrub it then look at it with our ex­tended team,” says Traut­mann. “Is there some­thing there that takes fur­ther work? Maybe there’s a phase two where we come out and con­tinue that kind of data ac­qui­si­tion. Hard for me to an­swer. I’m a datadriven per­son, so the data will tell us if any­thing needs to be tweaked.”

In other words, this mis­sion may sim­ply be about val­i­dat­ing the ex­ist­ing sus­pen­sion tune, or it could re­sult in new springs and dampers unique to Aus­tralia to bet­ter cope with out­back roads. Not that you need large data files – or to be be­hind the wheel – to re­alise the im­prove­ments from JK to JL. Com­pared with the out­go­ing Wran­gler we’ve also got in our con­voy, the JL set­tles quickly, the new­found body con­trol a mas­sive im­prove­ment. There’s much less of the bronco buck­ing that a few de­cent lumps could in­flict on the rear of a JK. That new­found ma­tu­rity not only helps on these tough sur­faces, but also prom­ises to make the Wran­gler a nicer thing on the bi­tu­men.

“We’ve hon­oured the her­itage of the car … but it’s so much more fun on-road,” says Traut­mann. “It’s im­por­tant for us also to de­liver for the on-road cus­tomer.”

And, it seems, de­liver a bet­ter Jeep for the Aus­tralian off-roader.

Data gained from the test run will be used to strengthen the Wran­gler.

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