From the November 1979 issue of Car and Driver.
I have always been fond of Jeep Wagoneers. For years, while the rest of the industry played to our sexual fantasies and Flash Gordon nostalgia with fins and Coke-bottle shapes, the Wagoneer has been a no-nonsense box with four-wheel drive, taking people wherever they wanted to go with maximum comfort and minimum fuss. Last December, on a grouse-hunting expedition, the executive editor and I were pursuing a friend’s Wagoneer down a high-crowned dirt road that was a sheet of ice. Our mount was a serious, heavy-duty Chevy Blazer, which kept trying to slip off to one side of the crown or the other, often simply slithering down onto the snowy verge, where I’d gather it up again and get back up to speed, steering with the very tips of my fingers and puckered up tighter than your maiden aunt’s clutch bag. Through all this, the Wagoneer with which we were trying to keep up just motored along at a sedate 45, never sliding off course, never causing its occupants so much as a moment’s discomfort. Once again, I got the feeling that Wagoneer owners were onto something that the rest of us were missing with our personal transportation.
When the ’79 Wagoneer made its debut, I was immediately put off by the new cathedral grille, among other purely cosmetic changes, but my interest was piqued by the new Limited model, which promised posh comfort and rich appointments on a basic platform that I already accepted as four-by-four perfection itself. When we finally got around to obtaining a Wagoneer Limited for testing, the model year was winding down and the vehicle had been on the road for a while, but all that proved was that we were slow on the uptake and AMC had done a good thing when it gilded that particular lily—Wagoneers in the Limited configuration are currently taking 38 percent of Wagoneer sales. I collected ours at AMC’s technical center in Detroit and plunged into rush-hour traffic, headed west toward Ann Arbor. The driver’s seat, with its super-thick Limited upholstery, bulged upward beneath my buns, right where every other seat in the world has a depression. I felt I was teetering on a small mound behind the steering wheel. The air conditioning was hung beneath the instrument panel as though it had been installed in a Sears service center, as an afterthought. The radio appeared to be a no-brand aftermarket item that just happened to fill a hole in the dash. The two outside mirrors—right and left, as one might expect—didn’t go together, and, worse, each interfered with the opening travel of its respective vent window. My heart sank. Here was a vehicle I’d been yearning to drive for months, and already I disliked it. I arrived home in a funk.
Next morning, I cautiously asked J.L.K. Davis to drive it and give her impressions. “Terrific,” she said. “I especially like the seats.” Monday morning at the office I asked associate editor Rich Ceppos to take me for a ride, to tell me what he thought. “Best stock seat I’ve seen in a four-by-four,” he said. “Handles well, the ride is nice, I think they’ve done a good job.” So much for my initial impressions. Within a week it had become one of the most often used vehicles in our test fleet, and a month later we were dreaming up excuses to keep AMC from retrieving it.
The Wagoneer’s great strength is that it’s been around for a long time, long enough for the engineers and manufacturing people to get everything right. It is solid and reliable, and everything seems to be where it is for a reason. Why, on a car that’s been honed as long as this one, the mirrors don’t match and the radio and air conditioner look so much like afterthoughts, I cannot say, but the honing process has resulted in a highly civilized and sophisticated four-by-four wagon that’s as good pulled up at the front door of the Tavern on the Green as it is bounding through the woods. The Wagoneer’s Quadra-Trac full-time four-wheel drive is a large contributor to these feelings of civilized sophistication. There are no extra shift levers jutting out of the tunnel, no front hubs to lock, just a small switch inside the glove box. Reach in, turn the switch, and you’re in go-anywhere mode. On pavement, you have the full use of all differentials, with all wheels driving and none fighting the others in turns. When the going gets gooey, the switch in the glove box locks things up, front to rear, and you’re ready to climb trees. For really tall trees, order the optional low-range kit.
It’s unfortunate that a car as good as this one is so close to the end of the trail. It’s too big and too thirsty to last much longer, and it’ll have to wind up somewhere in size between a Subaru and its present self to be a hit in 1985. If AMC can accomplish that, and still maintain all the friendly competence that makes this such a discreet, gentleman’s four-by-four, it will have a vehicle we can love all the more.
1979 Jeep Wagoneer Limited
Vehicle Type: front-engine, 4-wheel-drive, 6-passenger, 4-door wagon
Base/As Tested: $12,045/$12,904
V-8, iron block and heads
Displacement: 360 in3, 5900 cm3
Power: 160 hp @ 3200 rpm
Wheelbase: 108.7 in
Length: 183.5 in
Curb Weight: 4350 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS
1/4-Mile: 18.6 sec @ 74 mph
Top Speed: 95 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 244 ft
C/D TESTING EXPLAINED
Source: Reviews - aranddriver.com