Iconic. Peerless. Unique. Unrivaled. These and other clichés spring to mind upon mention of the Jeep Wrangler. Truly professional journalists pride their ability to string these chestnuts together in one sentence, such as, “Jeep’s iconic Wrangler enjoys a unique status in the automotive cosmos: it’s both peerless and unrivaled by alternatives.”
The arrival of a fresh Wrangler is the automotive equivalent of a new Pope at the Vatican. Born to help save democracy in the heat of World War II, this Jeep stands proudly atop 75 years of heritage. Thanks to persistent evolution, Wranglers are craved by folks in generation B (boomers) to Z (eligible for a graduation present).
Early this year, the new JL Wrangler arrived at showrooms to give its immediate predecessor—the JK, born in 2007—a well-earned retirement. This is no quickie facelift. The 2018 models bring new exteriors, six trim levels, fresh interior décor, four top configurations, a major powertrain overhaul, and significant chassis improvements. The round headlamps, seven-slot grille, and body-on-frame construction carry over for consistency.
Countless upgrades assure that the JL is armed and ready to make good on the billions Fiat Chrysler invested in its global mission. Wranglers are exported to 150 countries and production capacity has been doubled to 400,000 units to serve every last hand raiser.
Squeezing more travel out of each drop of petroleum is just one of the new Wrangler’s meritorious goals. Towards that end, the doors, hood, and tailgate skin are now aluminum to drop the weight of two-door models by 128 pounds and four-doors by 203 pounds. The fully boxed high-strength-steel frame is 18-percent stiffer and 100 pounds lighter than before. Doors can be lifted off their hinges and left at home when desired and the windshield folds flat after the wipers and four screws are removed. Cumbersome soft-top zippers have been replaced by Velcro attachments. In alfresco mode, structural members remain erect to provide roll-over protection and a secure anchor for the inside mirror. A cool Sky option folds the top at the touch of a button.
The faithful 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 continues as the base engine with 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque plus push-button starting and automatic shut-down at lights. A more modern 2.0-liter DOHC turbo-four borrowed from Alfa Romeo is the step-up choice. This aluminum block and head engine is boosted by a twin-scroll turbocharger and a belt-driven alternator/starter hybrid assist called eTorque, netting 270 horsepower, an impressive 295 lb-ft of torque, and 25 mpg on the highway. Next year, Wrangler customers will also be able to choose an Italian-made 3.0-liter turbo diesel rated at 260 horsepower and 442 (not a typo!) lb-ft of torque.
Driveline options include a six-speed stick available only with the V-6 and an eight-speed automatic that’s standard with the I-4 and optional with the V-6.
The three available transfer cases all provide low-range and neutral (for flat towing) modes. Command-Trac automatically engages 4wd when needed, Rock-Trac has a 4.0:1 low-range ratio for climbing Mount Everest, and Selec-Trac is a full-time 4wd system also offering the 4.0:1 low range. Limited-slip and locking front and rear differentials are also available.
The Wrangler’s off-road prowess tops anything short of a half-track. Clamoring over rock piles in Arizona’s Saguaro Ranch with a spotter to guide our path, we enjoyed the surefootedness of a mountain goat. Engaging the 84:1 torque multiplication available in low range with the manual transmission allows walking-speed creeping with the engine idling. Traction control automatically stops any wheel in the air from spinning. For those committed to their daily work commute come snow drift or high water, there is no more dependable choice than a Jeep Wrangler on winter tires.
The front anti-roll bar disconnects at the touch of a button for maximum articulation (wheel travel) off-road. Ground clearance ranges from 9.8 to 10.9 inches and it’s possible to ford 30 inches of water without drowning this Jeep’s engine. The rough and tumble Rubicon edition includes 33-inch tires as standard equipment.
What’s more amazing is the poise this new Wrangler demonstrates on pavement. Engineers raised the suspension’s roll axis 2.5 inches to diminish lean in turns. Double-rubber isolation—between the live axles and the frame, between the stout frame and the body—takes the sting out of collisions with expansion joints and pot holes. Gas-pressurized dampers are smart enough to adjust their firmness with wheel travel. The electro-hydraulic recirculating-ball power steering sends no feel back to the wheel but does know how to maintain a straight path on the highway except in the presence of heavy cross winds. Wind noise commences at 40 mph in the convertibles and at 55 or so in the hardtops. A smart compromise is the three-piece hardtop which provides open-air driving with less commotion.
Both the standard V-6 and the new turbo-four will top 6000 rpm when the shifter is in manual mode. Unfortunately, some of the manual transmission’s fun is sapped by too much friction in the cables between the shift lever and the gears.
Most customers take the four door because it carries a fifth passenger and access to the rear seat is significantly easier. The list of safety features includes four airbags, electronic stability control, a rear backup camera, blind-spot monitoring, and sensors to warn of fixed objects and encroaching traffic at the rear. To lift the glass hatch, you must first swing the tailgate and spare to the side. The rear seats fold and there’s extra storage space under the cargo hold’s floor.
Passenger room is largely unchanged in spite of wheelbase and overall length increases in both two- and four-door models. Carpets are readily removable and drain holes are provided for expeditious hose down after a day in the mud. Air conditioning is finally standard equipment. The updated Uconnect electronics provide navigation, colorful LED instruments between the tach and speedometer, and 7.0- or 8.4-inch central touch screens. The pitch and roll displays are handy during off-road expeditions. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are both provided. Leather trim is available and the driver is now blessed with adjustable lumbar support and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel. Four USB sockets and a 115-volt AC outlet are available. Upper trim levels contain brightly finished dash panels with matching seat stitching.
Prices start $3409 higher to pay for all this goodness. The loaded Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon we drove in Michigan totaled a heart-stopping $53,430. In essence, this loaded version is a Rolex watch for those who have no interest in water sports. But considering the fact that paying your Jeep dues grants admission for a club of rabid enthusiasts, the high price is warranted.