Review: 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe
Auto racing is full of hamfisted, albeit useful proverbs. Somewhere between “nobody remembers second place” and “rubbing is racing” exists a rather prudent bit of advice: “race out of your windshield.” (As if you were going to look anywhere else.) What does this phrase really mean? Well, should you ever find yourself leading a snarling pack of cars on-track, it’s best to focus on the course in front of you rather than the review mirror. Mirror-watching costs time, and that means missing your mark.
Jeep has plenty of distractions creeping up on its bumper. In 2022, the Wrangler has a worthy adversary breathing down its neck: the Ford Bronco. On top of that is a whole new wave of outdoor-inspired SUVs hoping to steal a piece of Jeep’s adventure pie. Being “trail ready” isn’t a unique approach right now, even if few unibody wannabes come anywhere close to the Wrangler’s off-road prowess. The Outback Wildernesses of the world are, however, equally capable of overlanding and weekend camping as they are cosseting in daily use. For body-on-frame Jeeps, that’s always been less of a strong suit.
Lucky for Jeep fanatics everywhere, Stellantis is racing out of its windshield by focusing on new powertrains and fresh levels of customization to keep its beloved Wrangler relevant, all the while remaining faithful to a core group of buyers who will clutch their solid axles to the grave.
The most ambitious and forward-thinking of these new powertrains for the JL generation belongs to the hybrid four-cylinder 4xe, which rounds out a lineup that now includes Jeep’s trusty Pentastar, the rip-snorting Rubicon 392, an EcoDiesel oil-burner, and a turbo-four. If you recall, we provided a First Look Review of the 4xe last summer; two seasons later, Jeep delivered another retina-searing hybrid test rig to our snow-dusted Ann Arbor, Michigan, office. This being a Rubicon, which is the highest-trim 4xe on offer, the MSRP of $69,645 includes a $395 Gecko green paint job, leather-trimmed buckets ($1725), an a la carte tow package ($845), park assist ($995), steel bumpers ($1745), power top kit ($4195), and a bevy of other goodies because … Jeep!
From the outside—apart from a concealed outlet next to the A-pillar and the Electric Blue accents—the 4xe looks exactly like a Wrangler. Removable doors, open fenders, seven slots, et cetera. Under the skin things get more interesting, especially for a parent company stuffing supercharged V-8s into its entire lineup. Two electric motors, a high-voltage battery pack, a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four, and an eight-speed automatic transmission propel this Jeep down the road.
Let’s look at how this greener Jeep makes its muscle. For starters, a liquid-cooled generator motor mounted on the front of the engine replaces the typical alternator. This motor is connected by a belt to the crankshaft pulley. When the generator builds enough juice, it—rather than a chorus of four explosions in the cylinders—will spin the engine. (Think Toyota Prius.) The second motor, powered by a 400-volt, 17-kWh, 96-cell lithium-ion battery pack under the rear seats, is mounted to the front of the transmission case. Two clutches modulate its contributions to the drivetrain, whether the truck is in hybrid or electric-only mode. The latter offers a 25-mile range, which seems paltry but serves nicely for city duty (or a final push to a desert gas station). When the battery is at full charge, drivers can toggle between three modes using buttons to the left of the steering wheel: Hybrid, Electric, and charge-preserving E-Save.
All told, the system delivers a commendable 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft but at a combined 20 mpg (compared to the base four-cylinder turbo’s 22 mpg) isn’t winning any hypermiling competitions. Much like a Porsche 919 Le Mans racer, this is a hybrid for the sake of more horsepower and acceptable fuel consumption.
The exterior add-ons and Rubicon trim combine for a particularly handsome off-road outfit. Seventeen-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 33-inch rubber trail shoes appropriately fill out the truck’s large wheel wells while providing a still-decent turning radius. The 4xe’s trademark Electric Blue tow hooks and trim outlines, while they look cool on every other color Jeep, clash against this Rubicon’s lime green paint. If that’s a real concern, there are of course numerous aftermarket Jeep catalogues with more aesthetically pleasing options.
In most any other vehicle, the Jeep rugged-ready cabin would be a no-go, but in the Wrangler Rubicon it is perfect, mirroring the trail-ready attitude of the exterior. The Rubi’s dash looks like a giant Otter Box swallowed the 8.4-inch touchscreen, and the rubber knobs are just as chunky as the tires. Both the transfer case lever and gear selector are substantial-feeling (the latter possessing the girth of a Coke can) and flow through their respective positions with a muffled click. Associate editor Nate Petroelje, who has spent ample time in Broncos and Wranglers, still prefers this classic lever-style transfer case controller over the newbie-friendly G.O.A.T.-mode dial on the Bronco. Again, racing out of the windshield.
Seating is plenty comfortable for front and back seat occupants should you decide to spend a day on the trails, and the leather chairs are easy to wipe free of grime. Vents, gauges, buttons, and surfaces, despite their largely utilitarian nature, are adorned with blue fabric stitching, a glint of polished aluminum, or a bit of debossing in the case of the grab handle.
Our lime green snow dog, with its front-and-rear locking diffs and a 4.10 rear gear, tackled several light trails with ease. That wasn’t surprising. Most shocking was when the four-cylinder would entirely cut out in favor of the generator motor, which felt like a silent slice through Mother Nature’s backyard. (If you’ve ever witnessed a headphone party without headphones on, this is exactly what it looks like.) The only drawback of this tag-team routine is the somewhat clunky handoff. Depending on when—and how hard—we accelerated, there were occasional delays while the baton was passed from electric motor to pistons. This isn’t a deal-breaker out on the trails (especially considering the power and additional range you get in return), but more serious buyers may want to vet the 4xe in rush-hour gridlock before purchasing.
Speaking of low speeds, the Rubi’s steering has a proper amount of resistance at a crawl, perfect for quick adjustments on the trail or pivoting those big meats over parking-lot asphalt. The cost is that highway driving requires constant micro-adjustments to keep life in one lane. “Above 70 mph, you absolutely need two hands on the wheel,” says editor Grace Houghton. That’s tough, she noted, because the famous “Jeep wave” is near-constant salutation in Southeast Michigan.
Wind noise serves as another perpetual distraction, especially if you’re unacquainted with Wrangler driving. The Rubicon 4xe is a rolling cheese grater compared to, say, an F-150. That said, compared to the noisy Bronco, consider the Wrangler a Rolls-Royce Ghost. (Houghton, too, noted that tire slap was barely audible compared to the Bronco Sasquatch.) Cranking up the more-than-capable Alpine stereo drowns out the woosh, and without removing the roof or doors we estimate that the nine-speaker system packs more than enough boom-bap to garner attention at Ensenada or Daytona Beach.
If there’s a clear downside here, cost is the culprit. Surely paying nearly $70,000 for this flavor of Wrangler holds little appeal for sand-shredding Jeep traditionalists, and at that price you can just as easily score a luxurious Land Rover Defender. In that sense, the 4xe is maybe better understood as an expansion of choice in powertrain the same way that SKU #4755628AA is but one of 13 Wrangler wheel options available from Mopar. The more the merrier, and bringing in electric-curious buyers who might have otherwise not considered a Wrangler at all can’t hurt.
The current Rubicon remains a proven, polished off-road weapon, and the 4xe powertrain doesn’t change that. The mere existence of this hybrid off-roader will not encourage loyalists to defect to the Blue Oval or anywhere else. Jeep is still racing out of its windshield, the hybrid Wrangler simply improves visibility.
2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe
Price: $56,820/$69,645 (base/as-tested)
Highs: More choice for individualistic Jeep fanatics, more grunt for no additional pain at the pump, more on-road polish than the Bronco.
Lows: Occasionally confused drivetrain, significant cost, still not an enjoyable highway cruiser.
Summary: A hybrid off-roader that, despite needing some powertrain tuning, retains its fundamental Jeep-ness.