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The Enchanted Valley in northern Argentina is no place for a wimpy set of wheels.

So what better spot is there to assess the rugged virtues of the granddaddy of all sport utilities, Chrysler's Jeep Wrangler?

The Wrangler took to the terrain like a third-grader hitting the playground at recess. Whether it was inching along over craggy rock formations or splashing through rushing rivers, the redesigned, 1997 model proved its mettle on some of South America's most demanding turf.

And isn't that what a sport-utility vehicle should do, after all? It's true that most of the growing crop of sport-utes never tackle anything tougher than a snowstorm in city traffic. But if it's adventure you crave in a classic, functional vehicle, the Wrangler stands out.

FRESH COMPETITION. That's not to say there isn't competition. Much well-earned praise has been lavished on the new, small sport-utilities from Japan, Toyota's RAV4 and the Honda CR-V. Both vehicles are car-based trucks with perky good looks and fine on-road manners. And both have been well-received in the market: Toyota sold 17,150 RAV4s in the U.S. in the first three months of this year--nearly double the total of the year before--and Honda sold 11,969 CR-Vs. That model was launched last fall.

But the new kids on the block can't claim victory yet. In the small sport-utility segment, the Wrangler remains king. From January through March, Chrysler sold 19,900 Wranglers in the U.S., a 53% increase from the same period in 1996. A descendant of the 1941 U.S. military Willy MB, the Jeep Wrangler still has a unique character and appeal in an increasingly glutted sport-utility market.

It also has a well-defined mission. When Chrysler set out to revamp the Wrangler for the 1997 model year, the company's executives told their Jeep team to make ''an acceptable road vehicle and an exceptional off-road vehicle,'' according to Craig Winn, Jeep platform general manager. The thinking was that the Wrangler's icon status depended on its ability to conquer the most brutal driving conditions. If it's creature comforts you crave, Chrysler offers them in its larger Cherokee and Grand Cherokee sport-utes. Wrangler makes its mark in the unpaved wilderness.

To that end, the Wrangler retains its sturdy, body-on-frame construction. Its ancient suspension system, however, was replaced by coil springs that soften the ride and improve ground clearance. The steering is clunky, the brakes are not tight, and wind noise is ever-present. Yet a bit of primitiveness actually adds to the Wrangler's appeal as a hard-working little toolbox of a truck. Notice all the suburban teenagers wheeling around in Wranglers (an important sub-market for this ''entry-level'' vehicle). Do they care if the Wrangler is a bit rough-and-ready? Not at modest price tags ranging from $13,470 to $19,210. According to Consumer Reports, the Wrangler was awarded the highest safety rating for head-on crashes with vehicles of similar size and weight.

The Wrangler's most powerful engine--a four-liter, six-cylinder that puts out 181 horsepower--dwarfs the power plants of both the RAV4 and CR-V. However, it's also heavier and gets about 17 MPG city and 21 MPG highway, or 25% fewer miles to the gallon. The exterior is refreshingly retro. The fold-down windshield, round headlights, zippered windows, and cloth top probably wouldn't sell on any other sport-utility vehicle. But together, the features give Wrangler an identity that transcends market research.

UPDATED INTERIORS. While its outside looks hark back to World War II, its interior has been updated for the 1997 model. Gauges are grouped in a cluster with easy-to-read, white-on-black indicators. A center ''stack'' houses the radio, heating controls, and other switches. The new Wrangler has dual air bags, a rear seat that is eight inches wider than previous models, and such nifty touches as ''wash-out'' slots in map pockets, holes that let you flush out a muddy compartment, and then let the water drain out.

The Wrangler isn't for every sport-ute buyer. It's small, noisy, and hardly smooth to drive. But it is the original for good reason. As Chrysler's ad spiel goes, the Wrangler can ''go anywhere, do anything.'' And as the four-wheeling market gets more crowded, that's a pretty good place for this Jeep to be.

Bill Vlasic


PHOTO: Jeep Wrangler Sport

TABLE: Sizing Up Three Sport-Utes

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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