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If You Like...

If you like the Jeep Wrangler

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To crawl over rocks, stay above gullies and straddle ruts, a Jeep Wrangler’s suspension needs to be tall.

The Wrangler also needs big tires with thick sidewalls that absorb abuse and aggressive treads that can trudge through mud. And of course it needs to be capable of bouncing across brutal terrain and slamming up against boulders and tree stumps. But for many – if not most – Wrangler buyers, all that doesn’t matter because they never, ever take their Wranglers off road.

Instead, they use their Jeeps to bop around southern California with the top off. Or to commute to their jobs. Or to haul a boogie board or two. The Wrangler, direct descendent of the general-purpose military vehicle that forged a legend during World War II, is ludicrously over-qualified for most of what it is asked to do.

And yet the 2014 Wrangler, in standard two-door or stretched four-door Unlimited body styles, is still built a lot like that first Jeep of 73 years ago. It is, for instance, the only consumer vehicle sold in the US with both front and rear solid axles, and it depends on a stout, old-school steel ladder frame for its structure instead of the unibody construction common of virtually all new cars. Rack and pinion steering? Forget it. The Wrangler still uses a recirculating ball system.

Fortunately, the Wrangler is equipped with Chrysler’s latest 3.6-litre, 24-valve V6 engine, rated at 285 horsepower, which means that even at over 4,300lbs in its heaviest specification, a Wrangler is not slow. It’s not quick, either, mind, but left to shift by itself, the five-speed automatic transmission works unobtrusively, and the six-speed manual offers remarkable control in the rough. The Wrangler is thirsty, though, with the EPA rating the Wrangler at 17mpg in the city and 21mpg on the highway.

But even though the current Wrangler is bigger and more pliant than its wartime forbears, it remains ill-suited to street duty. The ride is relatively brutal, the wind noise at highway speed borders on deafening and there really are no obvious locations to store one’s effects securely. Don’t fool yourself about the top, either; it’s removable, but hardly a one-button drop-top affair.

Of course, what makes the Wrangler such a poor road companion makes it tremendously capable off road. Using its two-speed transfer case to its advantage, the four-wheel drive system allows the Wrangler to methodically crawl over terrain that would terrify mountain goats. It takes patience and refined driving technique to get the most out of the Wrangler in such conditions, but there is a scandalously huge amount of fun to be had developing those skills.

The only new vehicles that can match the Wrangler’s off-road ability sell for significantly more than its $23,390 base price. And even the most lavishly equipped Wrangler Unlimited will just barely crest $40,000. Go see what that will get you over at the Land Rover dealer.

But then again, if a tool for off-roading is what the customer wants, there is a less-trodden but infinitely more sensible trail to explore.

Then try…

You will never see a Polaris RZR XP1000 sitting in the parking lot of a gym, or being loaded to the hilt with groceries. In fact, if you see one on any street in the US, you are witnessing a crime – the $19,999 RZR XP1000 isn’t street-legal.

What the RZR XP1000 is, however, is a state-of-the-art, two-passenger, side-by-side, off-road utility vehicle. It makes no concessions to civilised behaviour on the street – and why should it, considering it isn’t allowed there? It is small, loud and begging of a helmet or two. There is no top to remove, no windshield, no air conditioning and nothing that would be mistaken for a door. It’s an uncompromised off-road machine: a skeletal steel frame to which two seats, four wheels, a long-travel suspension, four-wheel drive and a superbike engine are bolted.

The RZR XP1000 is also compact. Riding on a 90in wheelbase, it’s only 119in long over all – 45in shorter than a Wrangler, and more than 27in shorter than a Mini Cooper. That small size brings several advantages.

Weighing in at a listed 1,379lbs, the Polaris undercuts the Wrangler by 2,400lbs. That means that even though the RZR XP1000’s 1-litre, four-cylinder engine is rated at 107hp – or 178hp less than the Wrangler’s V6– its power-to-weight ratio is  better. Whereas every horse in the lightest Wrangler shoves around 13.28lbs, each pony in the Polaris moves 12.89lbs.

Off-piste, the Polaris fits into places larger vehicles dare not tread. Snaking between trees, straddling the edges of sand berms, sneaking under outcroppings – as long as there are no public roads involved, the RZR XP1000 will likely thrive there.

There is also an immediacy to how the RZR XP1000 reacts to driver input that no car or truck can match. With 16in of travel in its independent front suspension and 18in from the trailing arm, it can float over obstacles that beat up other vehicles, reporting back every pebble and rock as a mere twitch through the steering wheel. Dive into a dirty corner with the RZR and the front tires bite in as the rear rotates around.

Side-by-side utility vehicles range from micro-pickups built for farm work to recreational screamers like the RZR. What they all share is  a blithe ignorance of road manners.

Of course, for all but the few masochists who will modify a side-by-side to achieve street-legal status – a feat accomplished with the addition of a few accessories, including a windshield, directional signals, mirrors, a number-plate bracket and road-legal tires — RZR ownership is strictly an off-road proposition. That means a Polaris driver would need something else around town, ideally something stout enough to tow the RZR to the point where the road ends. And for that, there’s this.