The Jeep Wrangler is like a four-wheeled mountain bike.

The name itself embodies good ol' American toughness because it is rooted in World War II. A Jeep has a rugged aura that appeals to outdoor folks, the ones who dig hiking boots, wool socks, strong coffee and roads that are as rough as a cow track through the tallgrass prairie.

There is a loyal and hardy contingent of Wrangler owners who take their vehicles off-road, and each year DaimlerChrysler puts on 40 two-day Jeep Jamborees at a number of locations around North America so drivers can learn to perfect their off-highway driving skills under supervision. Camp Jeep is a three-day fun fest of outdoor activities targeted at Jeep owners who want to learn more about the capabilities of their vehicles while participating in outdoor activities.

That said, however, a majority of Wrangler drivers use them in everyday driving. When the Wrangler was redesigned in 1997 it retained all of its off-road capability yet it got safer, more civilized and more suitable for road use. It got a new frame, a wider wheelbase and improved creature comforts, such as dual front airbags, power steering and a ride that is not as punishing on the pavement as the older models.

There are three Wrangler models: the base SE with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine starts at just under $15,000; the Sport with a 4.0-liter, six-cylinder begins at $19,055; and the top-of-the-line Sahara is roughly $21,000.

I drove a Wrangler Sport with the 4.0-liter engine and a five-speed manual transmission. This engine has strong mid-range torque, or pulling power, and it responds with little prodding. An automatic transmission is optional.

The Command-Trac part-time four-wheel-drive system is good for off-road use. Our test vehicle also had the Trac-Lok rear differential for even tougher challenges.

For 2001, changes continue. The cloth top is thicker and quieter, although the wind noise at highway speeds still drowns out the radio. The tilt steering wheel has greater adjustability, and tether anchors have been installed for child safety seats. The anti-lock brake system is new and an optional full-length console has cupholders for rear-seat passengers.

Wranglers are fun to drive because they are the personification of basic transportation. They turn on a dime, have a canvas top (a metal one is optional) and make no pretense toward luxury despite the fact that options include air-conditioning, metal doors with roll-up windows, anti-lock brakes and an AM/FM/CD stereo. A Wrangler is a go-anywhere, do-anything vehicle.

The same no-nonsense ride and the short, 93.4-inch wheelbase responsible for off-road maneuverability also bounce passengers around in daily use. Although the ride quality wasn't intolerable, I certainly wouldn't want to drive one from here to Colorado. (A friend of mine does.) Freeway pavement joints never pass unnoticed.

You won't find much room in the back seat and the only way to secure valuables is with the add-a-trunk lockable storage compartment.

Despite the Wrangler's rough edges, it is appealing because it is simple and forthright.

Price: The base price of our test vehicle, a Wrangler Sport, was $19,055. Options included high-back bucket seats, floor console, tilt steering wheel, full-size spare tire and matching wheel, anti-lock brakes, Trac-Lok differential, metal doors with roll-up windows, air conditioning, storage trunk and side steps. The sticker price was $23,985.

Warranty: Three years or 36,000 miles.

Point: The Jeep Wrangler is a rugged, off-road-capable vehicle that has been civilized for street use. The big six-cylinder engine has oodles of oomph, the steering is cat-quick and the top comes off if you have a hankering for open-air rock crawling.

Counterpoint: The ride is choppy, the canvas top noisy and gas mileage is poor.

Engine: 4.0-liter, 4-cyl.
Transmission: Five-speed
Four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 93.4 inches
Curb weight: 3,316 lbs.
Base price: $19,055
As driven: $23,985
Mpg rating: 16 city, 19 hwy.