Historically, Jeep Wrangler owners are the luddites of the automotive world.
The Wrangler famously traces its roots back to World War II as a multipurpose utility vehicle. Its rugged 4×4 characteristics have carried over into the modern age. That’s the way fans like it.
“Jeep enthusiasts are resistant to change of any kind,” said Nena Barlow, an experienced off-road instructor and Wrangler owner. “We don’t like change, and whichever Jeep you have is the last good Jeep ever built.”
The all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL puts those fears to the test. The doors, fenders and other panels are made of lightweight aluminum instead of steel. A new eight-speed automatic transmission provides crisp gear changes and better fuel economy. Its ride is softened and the wind noise has noticeably improved.
The upgrades make the Wrangler more palatable for a wider range of buyers. “There are families that use this as a daily driver now,” said Mark Allen, head of design for Jeep.
Yet purists may also find the technology helps their driving experience. The steering has changed from a hydraulic unit to an accurate electronic system. The latest version of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Uconnect infotainment system comes in all Wranglers and is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. On the largest 8.4-inch unit, the touchscreen is exceptionally clear. Its back-up view made it easy to gauge the space between the Wrangler and a perilous ditch.
When it launches in early 2018, the standard engine will be the familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, updated to 280 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. The Wrangler will also offer a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with eTorque mild hybrid assist. It provides 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque.
An essential part of the Wrangler’s appeal is its rich history and undeniable chops. An estimated 25 to 30 percent of owners use their Wranglers in a dedicated off-road setting, according to Scott Tallon, director of the Jeep brand. Preserving that image and capability is paramount.
“Why does the windshield fold down?” Allen said. “Because it always has.”
But the Wrangler’s future is one of change. The first diesel engine in a Wrangler will arrive in 2019. A plug-in hybrid version will arrive in 2020. Wrangler diehards have been concerned that the new model would deviate too far from its roots, Barlow said.
“An update every decade or so is not a bad thing,” said Stephanie Brinley, an analyst for IHS Markit.
The Wrangler attracts different types of buyers than it has in the past, Brinley said. The customer demographic grew from hard-core off-roaders to everyday commuters beginning with the introduction of the four-door Unlimited model in 2007.
That year, the Jeep Wrangler hit a then-sales record of 119,000 units, according to FCA. Sales volume has since continued to grow. In 2016, FCA sold 190,000 Wranglers. Through the first 11 months of 2017 sales jumped to nearly 177,000 units, a slight increase compared with the same period last year, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp.
The Wrangler has been modernized. However, Jeep is careful not to skew the vehicle too soft, Brinley said. The Wrangler still feels like a capable SUV with a commanding seating position. Now its ride is smoother, quieter and more efficient. “It puts technology where it makes sense,” she said.
For instance, the four-cylinder and V6 engines are equipped with start-stop technology to reduce emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the Pentastar V6 at 18 mpg in city driving, 23 mpg on the highway and 20 mpg overall. The four-cylinder engine has not been rated by the EPA. A few hours of driving on the highway, mixed with some city streets and a spirited dirt trail detour, exceeded 27 mpg.
Fuel economy will continue to be a focus for the Wrangler going forward. The diesel engine is expected to further improve efficiency.
“Off-roaders want the diesel for the torque, and overlanders want it for the range,” Barlow said.
The plug-in hybrid in 2020 is in response to tightening emission restrictions around the world, head of Jeep and Ram Mike Manley told Trucks.com.
Still, the Wrangler remains at its best when it leaves the pavement. All models come with heavy-duty axles and a manual transfer case. A Wrangler Sahara Unlimited made easy work of a dirt trail with steep rocky inclines that would have challenged many vehicles on the road today.
Jeep saved its best work for the Wrangler Rubicon.
The Rubicon comes standard with locking Dana 44 axles, a standard Rock-Trac transfer case and 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 off-road tires. On a bright red Rubicon with the doors and roof removed, the SUV leaned dramatically from one side to another as it rumbled over desert terrain. The shotgun rider hung perilously over the ground, inches from cactus thorns.
A light touch to the gas pedal brought the Rubicon to level ground. Shifting the transfer case to 4-low optimized the vehicle’s remarkable 4.0:1 crawl ratio, which delivers maximum torque with minimal input. The steering, suspension, tires and engine feel perfectly integrated to escape danger or enjoy a day on the trails.
Pricing starts at $26,995 for the two-door 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sport. The Wrangler Sport S adds power doors, locks and windows as well as air conditioning for $30,195. The Rubicon trim is available from $36,995. Choosing the four-door Unlimited option adds $3,500 to each trim.
The comfortable Wrangler Sahara only comes as a four-door Unlimited. It’s priced from $37,345.
The new model has the stamp of approval from enthusiasts — even those who modify their Wranglers as soon as they get their hands on them.
“The Wrangler JK was like they got the vehicle 90 percent there, and the JL is 100 percent,” Barlow said.
She paused for a moment.
“Well, let’s say 99 percent.”