Every so often, mankind evolves backward, heading for the hills, eating with fingers, and fleeing civilization. Few luxuries are required, but a certain amount of capability is a must. The Kia Sportage two-door, a functional and durable 4WD in the $15,000 range, comes to mind, especially considering its warranty.
The Wrangler X model slots in between the base model and the Sport and is the least expensive way to get the 4.0L inline-six. You can modify a Wrangler, but we prefer factory power without messing with suspension, brakes, axles, and all those other unimportant components.
In addition to the engine, the X comes with a rear seat, cloth upholstery, and a stereo cassette. The tab on ours was further inflated by a limited-slip for the rear axle, aluminum wheels, and five 225 tires, a CD player with seven speakers, A/C, and three tow hooks (for $60). One important note: If you want the Dana 44 rear axle, 30-in. tires, and off-road packaging, you need a Sport or Sahara.
The Wrangler is capable off-highway, and the Truck Trend staff can introduce many unwilling passengers we've scared the pants off to prove that point. If a college football injury or last week's snowboarding fiasco makes you less mobile than usual, a Wrangler will get you to places you'd otherwise never visit. Anything like that, which you can't put a price on, automatically becomes a good value.
The Jeep's big inline-six has plenty of torque, a wide-ratio five-speed, and isn't too heavy. It wiggles off the start line right behind the R/T and X5. By highway speeds, though, the gaps between gear ratios and lack of aerodynamics take over, and the Wrangler falls behind. It's not unstable or incapable, just out of its element. But wander through a forest at walking speed, and you'll appreciate the crawl ratio of better than 40:1. The short dimensions and quick steering will thread among rocks and stumps better than any factory-stock truck today. And with a full array of numbered gauges, you'll learn the engine keeps running at 250 rpm and stalls a bit lower.
In the city, the same maneuverability pays dividends, and despite being the only truck without ABS, the Wrangler stopped second to the X5 (most things stop second to an X5). On the Interstate, the Wrangler requires steering attention due to its solid front axle and sub-Honda S2000 wheelbase. You'll imagine this is what it feels like inside a tumble dryer.
If you spend considerable hours on the road, the Wrangler's not your ticket. But for the cost of some two- or three-week safaris to the uncharted, you could buy years of adventures into the North American backcountry.