WEST COAST EDITOR MARK VAUGHN: The Chinese market is the future for everything from cigarettes to cars, and every company that makes anything is gearing up to sell stuff there. For sedan makers, that means cars with big rear seats for powerful executives to be chauffeured around in. The new Mercedes-Benz S-class and Hyundai Equus are two sedans made specifically with China in mind. From Jeep, the Chinese market gets this, the Wrangler Unlimited Dragon Edition.
Jeep sells almost half a million vehicles in the U.S compared to 10 percent of that figure in China. But the number sold in China doubled in the last two years for which statistics are available, 2011-'12. Jeep hopes to open a Cherokee factory in Hunan, China, this year to avoid all those nasty import tariffs (an imported Grand Cherokee stickers for $205,000!). Hunan will have a capacity of 200,000 vehicles a year, a figure that approaches half of Jeep sales in the U.S.
All of which is a roundabout way of explaining why a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited with a dragon all over it wound up in my driveway last week. The Dragon Edition started life as a concept car at the 2012 Beijing motor show. It was well-received there and elsewhere, so production was launched in Toledo in September of 2013.
A word about dragons: European dragons have wings, Asian dragons do not. This one has no wings. It starts on the hood and its scaly body slithers all over the fender and down the doors on the driver's side. A snarling dragon face menaces following traffic from the rear spare tire cover. All Dragon Editions are painted black with “bronze satin” highlights. The car was designed in the United States by a Chinese designer.
I live in a part of greater Los Angeles that has a very high percentage of Chinese residents. For what it's worth, none of them commented on the car. Maybe I should have parked it in front of Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House and had lunch. Darn good dumplings at Hui Tou Xiang. Maybe then people would have noticed the dragon. Who knows? It's kind of subtle. I think it looks cool. If it was up to me, maybe I'd have done without the bronze satin trim, but what do I know about design?
The rest of the vehicle is a Sahara trim level Wrangler Unlimited, which means it'll do just about anything you ask of it when the pavement ends. Last year I got to drive a Wrangler Unlimited off-road in Colorado and was very impressed with how much more refined they'd made it. No more squeaks, creaks or rattles but still just as capable crawling up obstacles. There is nothing out there that can beat a Jeep when it comes to creeping over rocks and up mountains. The new Wrangler now does it all and sounds quieter doing it.
But driving it on city streets you are reminded how much more refined most modern crossover utility vehicles have become. If the new Wrangler is a giant leap over previous Wranglers in refinement, then just about any modern CUV is a couple giant leaps of refinement over this. You have to want a Jeep Wrangler specifically. Most buyers will go for car-based crossovers.
Do you want a Dragon Edition? You may not but that may not matter so much anymore. There's a good chance some of the two billion or so Chinese buyers may want one. And that's the point.
The 2014 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Dragon Edition is equipped with a 3.6-liter V6.
2014 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Dragon Edition
ASSOCIATE WEST COAST EDITOR BLAKE Z. RONG: I've always thought of the Jeep Wrangler as the Mazda MX-5 Miata of off-roaders: small, cheap, ubiquitous, and fundamentally good at what it does. Unchanged for generations, it's purchased by the sort of people willing to sacrifice such ephemeral concepts as comfort, serenity, and practicality for their devotion to motorized excitement. Kind of like Miata drivers, really.
The driving position is odd: you sit upright, for the most part, and the pedals are mounted deep within the footwell. The steering wheel doesn't telescope. You're huddled over the wheel like you're cradling it in your arms, you hopeless romantic. In back is a Tetris-like sliver of visibility blocked by the wheel cover, the third brake light, and a rear door hinge ripped from a cold storage locker. Running boards are positioned at a height that's only useful for tripping you as you exit. Be careful with the doors, lest they flop out and ding the car next to you.
The Wrangler produces good power from its 3.6-liter Pentastar V6; driving above 75 is difficult not because of a lack of power but from the wind noise, which whooshes like a brick sailing through the air right before it goes through a window. The ride is reminiscent of an '80s mini-truck. Mushy steering and brakes are similarly optimized for off-road supremacy, but they're not terribly offensive.
Some reviews make the Wrangler sound as if it's the worst possible daily driver out there -- as if the Wrangler will punch you in the face if you so much as consider taking it to a mall. I didn't mind. Driving the Wrangler Unlimited around town was loud, bumpy, and dim, but it wasn't exactly the end of the world. We suppose that the people who rock one of these every day dream of the day they'll finally conquer Moab or join the Easter Safari -- one of those moments when the stars align and the moon turns blue and the sacrifices they make will all pay off.
In the Dragon Edition, they'll make a sacrifice of good taste.
Oh, the Dragon Edition! The Dragon Edition takes a Hallowed American Tradition and asks the set designer for the first two “Rush Hour” movies to help pander to the burgeoning Asian market. For an additional $4,500 you can sit in chairs embossed with faux dragon scales, stare at dragons through the gauges, and step out of a vehicle with Twin Dragons resembling the neck tattoos of Yakuza gangsters as they primp and preen across the hood, left fender and rear wheel cover. It's like “Portlandia” by way of Asia: put a dragon on it!
This thing looks ridiculous. The fact that Jeep offers this as a real package, available to consumers who purchase it with legal tender, must baffle car shoppers on both sides of the ocean. (Even the ad copy reads like a fortune cookie.)
True story: as I drove up the 405 Freeway, I pulled alongside a silver Wrangler with darkened wheels. Four-door, hardtop, same spec as my Dragon Edition. “Cool Jeep,” I thought. Then I looked over at the conspicuous badging on the front fender – “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” Edition.
Maybe it's a Jeep thing. Maybe I don't understand.
Base Price: $31,795
As-Tested Price: $42,640
Drivetrain: 3.6-liter V6; 4WD, five-speed automatic
Output: 285 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,340 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 16/20/18 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 17.8 mpg
Options: Dragon Package 24D ($4,500); leather bucket seats ($1,300); five-speed automatic transmission with Hill Descent Control ($1,295); UConnect ($1,570); seat-mounted side airbags ($495); remote start ($495); air conditioning ($195)
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