I’ve gone wheeling at the Hidden Falls Adventure Park in Marble Falls, Texas for years. I take press vehicles there for off-road evaluation, so what I show up in always changes. The rigs I typically see around me don’t. Nine times out of ten, when I pass another vehicle out on the 3,000-acre adult playground, it’s a Jeep Wrangler of some sort – usually a modified JK or JKU. They’re constantly crawling over its trails.
Many of those Wranglers belong to the members of Austin JeepPeople (AJP), an organization which describes itself as “a group of Austin area JEEP owners, who share a love for the ‘JEEPLife’ and use them for what they were meant for… to bring family and friends together.”
AJP’s biggest annual event is the Polar Bear Run. Since 2013, Jeep drivers have been showing up to it, removing their tops and doors to let in the winter air, cranking up their heaters, and hitting the trails. They’ve been helping charities, too. This year’s event raised $18,000 for Texas Search and Rescue (TEXSAR), Honor Flight, and Cutie PITooties Pit Bull Rescue.
One of AJP’s administrators, Brad Hale, told me via Facebook that this year’s Polar Bear Run had 400 registrants. I was one of them. On Saturday, January 13, I arrived at the 2018 Polar Bear Run in a Wrangler. It didn’t blend in, though. It was the only JL in the park.
Word of its presence spread slowly. People looked at it, but didn’t block my path. Hale’s brother Curtis and a JK Rubicon owner named Stevie Cutler helped me remove the doors and black three-piece hardtop. Cutler undid the front passenger-side sway bar. I unbolted the sway bar on the driver’s side. Once those were zip-tied out of the way, one of my trail mates aired the Bridgestone Duelers down from 36 to 21 psi. It took a lot of wrench turning, unplugging, and elbow grease from three people – and time – to get the JL ready, but roofless and doorless was the only way to go.
When we had everything disassembled, Cutler jumped into the front passenger seat and we headed off to meet up with a pack of drivers.
It was going to be… interesting. We drove across relatively mild trails, but they were going to be trails JK Saharas and Rubicons with upsized wheels and tires, lifts, and lockers could get over. My media vehicle had stock rubber, 118 inches of wheelbase, and 9.7 inches of ground clearance.
However, the all-new Wrangler did better than I expected it to. I took the most difficult paths I was offered. It came away with some cuts and scrapes, though. The transfer case skid plate took a few hits. One descent proved too much for the JL’s 36-degree departure angle and left a rock rash on the back bumper.
In between legs of our journey, my fellow drivers came up to stare at and touch the JL. They had never seen one in person. Once they got over the initial shock, they began asking questions. “What do you think of it? How does it compare to the JK?” My response was usually along the lines of, “I love it. It rides so much better than the old Wrangler and the infotainment is finally modern! Gets better gas mileage than I remember getting in the JK, too.”
After lunch, I parked the Wrangler close to the sponsor tents to give more people a chance to see it up close. Not surprisingly, it was continually mobbed. Some people nodded approvingly.
Others peered at the new gauges and transmission and transfer case levers. More than once, someone wondered out loud where they could start cutting the front fenders off and where they could reposition the turn signals. I took my eyes off of the Wrangler for a couple of minutes, then turned around to see someone had already lifted its hood. Jeep was getting free publicity for the new Wrangler… and lots of it at that.
Based on the JL’s popularity, I think it’s safe to say that even though it was the only Wrangler of its kind at this year’s Polar Bear Run, it’ll have plenty of company at next year’s event.