It has been nearly 70 years since the first Jeep rolled off an assembly line and onto rocks and sand, and mud and muck few other vehicles in the world could have conquered.

But folks still haven’t figured out where it got its name.

There are two leading theories. One is that “Jeep” became military slang for GPW. GPW was Ford’s official designation for its version of the little World War II military vehicle also produced by Willys-Overland.

The other popular — and more romantic — theory is that soldiers awed by the unique WWII vehicle nicknamed it after a character in the Popeye comic strip that was popular at the time. Introduced a few years before the war, Eugene the Jeep was a mythical creature that apparently had the ability to pop up anywhere by traveling between three- and four-dimensional worlds.

The 2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon I recently tested also had the ability to travel between two dimensions: On-road and off-road.

Anyone who has ever done any serious off-roading (say, at a Jeep Jamboree such as the one described at www.pressherald.com/life/wheels/first-drive-impressive-in-2011-grand-cherokee_2010-07-04.html ) knows that it can be as difficult to travel competently between those two dimensions as the ones Eugene the Jeep passed through.

“Competent” is an apt word for describing the Wrangler’s performance on paved roads. I’ve known owners who never got any farther from the tarmac in their Wranglers than a gravel driveway, yet smiled whenever they got behind the wheel.

I think they’re nuts. No sane person can honestly describe the Wrangler’s performance on paved roads as even being moderately pleasant. It handles sloppily, has the poise of a hobo, and delivers ride comfort only incrementally better than a horse and buggy.

Remove the roof on a sunny day and the pleasure quotient climbs considerably — as long as you’re not driving at highway, eardrum-thumping speeds.

At least my daily commutes were made in a Wrangler Unlimited, which has two more doors and nearly 11 more inches of wheelbase than the standard Wrangler. Its stretched wheelbase makes for a lot less choppy ride, and it is in general a much more practical vehicle than the two-door.

Its back seat, for example, provides about 1.5 more inches of legroom and is actually quite roomy. Cargo space is even more impressive on a par with the most generous conventional midsize SUVs.

Access to that cargo space is hampered by the Wrangler’s convertible top, which bisects the rear hatch when it’s rolled up. That was virtually the entire time I drove the Unlimited because the test vehicle was equipped with a nifty optional hard top ($1,625 including rear window wiper/washer/defroster).

The top is a three-piece modular design that enables sections over the driver, front-seat passenger and the area behind the front seats to be removed individually — as long as it’s in that order. I never removed the rear section because doing so requires a tool, and the section is too large to be carried onboard.

But each of the two front sections took just seconds to remove by sliding a few levers, were light enough to be handled effortlessly, and fit easily in the cargo compartment.

Although removing its roof increased the Wrangler Unlimited’s appeal as a commuter vehicle, I didn’t fully appreciate the Jeep until I steered it away from paved roads.

That was possible thanks to a colleague, Rob Woodward. He’s an avid off-roader who owns two Wranglers, one fairly stock and the other equipped to handle the gnarliest terrain.

Woodward was gracious enough to serve as a guide during several hours of off-roading on and around Ossipee Mountain in Waterboro. I let him drive over some of the most inhospitable sections, partly because I didn’t have the guts to do so and partly because I wanted to get an expert’s evaluation of the Wrangler Unlimited.

He seemed blown away by the vehicle’s off-road capabilities. The Rubicon is the most off-road worthy of the three Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited trims. For example, it has more a more rugged four-wheel drive transfer case, bigger tires and a push-button anti-sway bar disconnect that allows greater wheel travel.

Woodward might be able to explain how well that stuff works, but I can’t. All I know is that we drove the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon over boulders that would have intimidated a mountain goat and down a dirt road ravaged by ruts so big they might have swallowed a WWII-era Jeep.

The Wrangler’s capabilities in those conditions gave me an entirely new appreciation of the vehicle. As it traveled from one dimension to another — leaving a dirt trail to enter a paved road — my impressions of the Wrangler Unlimited also seemed to enter an alternate dimension.

Instead of being bothered by its ride and handling, I marveled at how any vehicle could happily cruise home in one piece after being subjected to such an off-road torture test.

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

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