I had driven the 2017 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara just a few miles from Crown Automotive's lot before being initiated into the exclusive Jeep Wave Club.
Apparently, I learned, it is custom for Jeep Wrangler drivers to wave to one another. At first, I was reluctant to return the gesture. I had not made their same commitment to the car; I had merely borrowed this Jeep, for seven days, to write this story.
» Model: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4X4
» Exterior color: Gobi Clear
» Interior color: Black
» Engine: 3.6-liter V6
» Horsepower: 285
» Transmission: Five-speed automatic
» Fuel Economy: 20 mpg highway; 16 mpg city
» Price (as tested): $44,605
But a few more miles down the road, I moved my modesty to the roomy backseat and began to wave back. That urge to belong, after all, is human nature, as ancient as our desire to roam.
And, according to Crown Automotive sales consultant Dustin Young, "The Jeep is a primal vehicle."
The Sahara is the four-door luxury version of the Jeep Wrangler, a vehicle famous for its box shape and off-road capabilities. In regards to bells and whistles, the Sahara is a step above the Wrangler Sport and a step below the Wrangler Rubicon. The Sahara's standard features include four-wheel drive, LED fog lamps and a one-year subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio, but it also boasts a bevy of upgrade options.
For instance, my tester featured a painted three-piece hard top ($1,995), leather-trimmed, heated front bucket seats ($1,350), and Alpine premium audio system with nine speakers and all-weather subwoofer ($945), among other upgrades that rounded its base price of $34,245 up to $44,605.
And its looks matched its price. Between its creamy beige color, dark windows and polished wheels, its style is simultaneously sleek and aggressive, not to mention utilitarian. The dealership fitted my tester with a Thule roof rack to accommodate my kayak.
"The Jeep is all about adventure," Young had told me. "Not creature comforts."
Comfort, however, is subjective. And from my leather-trimmed bucket seat, I was riding high.
As a 5-foot-2-inch, sedan-owning person, I had worried the Sahara would swallow me. Even with its step rails, I had to pull myself up into the vehicle. But once inside, heavy doors shut, I was surprised at how snugly I felt behind the wheel, and I quickly forgot about the heft of the vehicle. Though that room came in handy. Finding it difficult to comfortably maneuver my 9-foot kayak on and off the roof rack, I ultimately folded the backseats down and filled it with my Dagger Roam, its back half poking out the rear window.
Moreover, I had worried that the Sahara would feel as unwieldy to drive as a moving van. But, like the ride itself, the drive was smooth and sturdy. It felt effortless — which meant I could spend more time focusing on other features.
Young had described the Alpine system as a "theater-like experience," but concert-like is more befitting.
The rich sound of the Alabama Shakes boomed all around me, as cathartic and energizing as when I had seen the group live. With the volume cranked, every errand became an opportunity for such music immersion therapy. And for all the Sahara's style and capability, that stereo is what made me fall most in love with it.
In my week with the Jeep, the biggest drawback I personally found was its height. The Sahara stands at just over six feet, and I struggled to hoist my kayak onto the roof.
Though, during that process, I discovered the Jeep's true durability. As I wrestled my 55-pound boat on and off the car, the paint withstood a good bit of banging without scratching. Still, I was relieved when I learned I could fit my kayak inside, too.
It is noteworthy to mention, though, that those who listed the Wrangler's fuel inefficiency as its biggest con did not themselves own a Jeep.
Jeep-owners, or "Jeep People," as I learned they call themselves, had more important issues to discuss with me. For instance, had I taken it off-road or removed its top yet?
One afternoon, as I stood on the street outside my downtown apartment, stuffing my boat into the back of the Sahara, I was approached by a parking attendant.
"I see you're part of the club," he said, pulling up his shirt sleeve to show me the tattoo on his bicep, which depicted the front of a Jeep Wrangler with its iconic round headlights and 7-slotted grille. He owned a 2009 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and it was the best investment he'd ever made, he told me.
He offered to put me in touch with friends — Jeep People — who could accompany me to Prentice Cooper State Forest to off-road.
As he crawled around my backseat, oohing and ahhing, I remembered the modesty I'd once placed there, but had long since tossed out the window. Driving a $44,605 vehicle can do that to a person.
"It isn't just a car," my new friend told me. "It's a life."
And one, I dare say, that this girl could get used to.