Rule number one in designing a new Jeep Wrangler is: Don’t screw it up. The second rule in designing a new Jeep Wrangler is: Always follow rule number one. Rule number three in designing a new Jeep Wrangler is: Don’t screw it up by putting rectangular headlights on it.
Because, while the open-top off-roader isn’t the franchise anymore (it’s typically not Jeep’s best-selling model), it is the spiritual center of the brand. It’s the icon that lends credibility to the company in the same way that the 911 does to Porsche, even as the German company sells half as many sports cars as it does SUV-type things. Jeep can sustain any number of failures, from the bovine Commander to the pitiful original Compass (known around these parts as the Swampass), and continue to truck along. But screw up the Wrangler and things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Side by side, the differences between the new JL Wrangler (bottom) and its JK predecessor (top) become more apparent. Note, for example, the new model’s slightly more angled windshield and the way its headlamps push into the outermost grille openings.
This is why, at first blush, the new-for-2018 JL version looks pretty much the same as the JK version it replaces. It’s only when you look back a few generations that you recognize how each short generational step has added up to a hell of a long distance between then and now. An early CJ looks like a Power Wheels toy when parked next to the comparatively hulking mass of a new Wrangler.
The new body is, in virtually every detail, different. Note its laid-back windshield angle, the way its fancy headlights encroach into the outer grille openings, its wide stance. It’s also larger. The two-door model gains more than an inch in wheelbase and two and a half inches in length. The four-door version is even more biggified, adding almost two and a half inches between axles and three and a half inches to its overall length. These are small increases in the grand scheme of things. But to the guy trying to ease his Jeep over a rock ledge, they matter. To the drivers of the Wranglers that clog college campuses, increased size is no detriment and the extra inch of rear-seat legroom in four-door versions will be welcome. To compensate for the increased size, Jeep has tightened the turning circle of both two- and four-door models and has given all versions of the Wrangler more ground clearance.
For the Wrangler Rubicon, in which we recently trundled around New Zealand’s Southern Alps, that increase (from 10.0 to 10.9 inches) came largely from the fitment of larger tires. The JL Rubicon wears 285/70R-17s, known to off-roaders by their outside diameter, 33 inches. The JK Rubicon wore 32-inch tires. In a bid for all-around all-terrain performance, the Rubicon now wears BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2s—the same tire fitted to the Ford Raptor. What they might give up in mud performance compared with the old Rubicon’s Mud-Terrain T/A KM rubber is more than offset by their portfolio of generally agreeable attributes including admirable (and quiet) dry and wet on-road performance and excellent off-road bite. Besides, figures Jeep, the guys who are serious about wheeling in a particular kind of terrain are likely to swap out the stock tires for something more specialized anyway.
That larger body still rides on a steel ladder frame, but compared with the JK’s, it uses more high-strength steel. This allowed Jeep to reduce the number of crossmembers from eight to five, saving roughly 100 pounds, according to the company. Despite that, Jeep says the new frame is more resistant to flex than the old one. The body bolted to the frame is mostly steel but with aluminum doors and hood and a magnesium tailgate skinned in aluminum. Jeep estimates that it saved another 100 pounds in the body and powertrain. Soon we’ll get Wranglers of all stripes on our scales to confirm.
And by Wranglers of all stripes we mean every possible permutation of the two- and four-door body styles, the four trim levels (Sport, Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon), and the two available gasoline engines: the familiar 3.6-liter V-6 that serves as the base engine on all versions as well as the new turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four. The only significant changes to the corporate V-6, apart from its now being built in Mexico instead of Michigan, are a higher compression ratio (11.3:1 versus 10.2:1) and the addition of a standard stop/start system. The aim was to improve efficiency. The engine still runs on regular. According to the EPA, the new V-6–powered Wrangler with the automatic achieves 18/23 mpg city/highway—increases of 1 mpg in the city and 2 on the highway.
A large part of the improvement comes from the new eight-speed automatic that replaces the old five-speed, a relic from the DaimlerChrysler days. The V-6 is also available with a new Aisin-built six-speed manual that replaces the old Mercedes-based six-speed. Jeep says the Aisin is better isolated from vibration and noise. Okay, maybe. But it’s certainly no more fun to operate. The one we drove resisted slotting into gear and would not be rushed. Further, the clutch engaged with an abruptness that saw many experienced drivers stall the thing. As for the 3.6-liter, well, it’s a fine engine but not ideally suited for this application. It lacks low-end torque.
For torque, buyers might want to wait for the turbo-diesel 3.0-liter V-6 that will come in 2019. For now, the torque king is the turbo 2.0-liter inline-four with a slight electric assist. A hybrid Wrangler? Isn’t that like having your salsa produced in New York City? Kinda, yeah. But even iconic ruffians such as the Wrangler need to worry about fuel economy these days, hence the focus on weight reduction, faster windshield angle, etc. Like General Motors’ eAssist system, the Jeep’s replaces the alternator with a motor/generator unit that can boost torque under acceleration as well as gather energy through regenerative braking. It also allows the engine to be shut off when the vehicle is stationary or coasting. How much boost the so-called eTorque system can provide and what fuel-economy gains it achieves, the company is not yet willing to say. But the turbo 2.0-liter produces 295 lb-ft of torque at 3000 rpm. The gas V-6 produces 35 less lb-ft and then only when it reaches 4800 rpm. And this new engine boasts plenty of tech, including direct injection; a twin-scroll, low-inertia turbocharger mounted directly to the cylinder head; and a variable-displacement two-stage oil pump. Other than filling the cabin with the uninspired noise of a workaday four-cylinder, the engine feels great. It’s plenty powerful enough to motivate a four-door automatic Rubicon. And the eight-speed automatic is the only transmission offered with the new engine.
The rest of the driveline is largely unchanged from the JK. The Rubicon comes with electronically locking front and rear differentials, an electronically disconnecting front anti-roll bar, and a 4.00:1 low range for its part-time four-wheel-drive system. It also rides on strengthened Dana 44 axles front and rear. This is tried-and-true stuff. There are no adjustable-ride-height air springs, no terrain-response system. Instead, the driver operates as the terrain-response system, choosing the range, the driven wheels, which differentials are locked, and, well, pretty much everything else.
The value-oriented Sport and comparatively ritzy Sahara model come with lighter-duty axles (a Dana 30 up front; 35 out back) with open diffs and a standard 2.72:1 low-range. For the first time in the CJ/Wrangler’s long history, buyers can opt for a transfer case with a full-time all-wheel-drive mode. It’s optional on Sahara models, all of which are four-doors.
How’d it all come together? Well, in 4 Low, the JL feels pretty much like Wranglers always have—capable well beyond the intestinal fortitude of most of its drivers. On the road, the Rubicons that we drove acquitted themselves admirably. The electrohydraulically assisted steering is a major improvement over the old purely hydraulic arrangement, helped no doubt by the excellent KO2 tires. Braking performance is adequate thanks to upsized stoppers. Ride quality and handling are good for a vehicle with a high center of gravity and bound by big, heavy stick axles front and rear. As vehicular anachronisms go, this one is pretty pleasant not least because the newly designed interior is reasonably comfy and fully up to date.
And, yes, the doors will come off, any of the available roofs are removable or retractable, and even the windshield still folds down. Think about how unlikely a thing that is in the modern world. Sure, lower or remove all that, and a weird-looking skeleton of bars and frames is revealed. But damn if it doesn’t feel good to go alfresco.
What’s more, the softtop no longer requires a decade of package-engineering experience to operate. The cargo-area side and rear plastic windows slide out to form an oddly appealing bikini-top arrangement. In a hardtop Wrangler, the panels over the driver and front passenger now require but a quarter turn on each of the latches to remove. The new front-fender vents evacuate underhood air to reduce hood flutter at speed. This is a carefully considered improvement, if not a wholesale rethink of the family jewel. In short, Jeep did not screw it up.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-/all- or rear-/4-wheel-drive, 4- or 5-passenger, 2- or 4-door convertible
ESTIMATED BASE PRICE: $28,500–$33,500
ENGINE TYPES: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve 2.0-liter inline-4 + AC motor, 270 hp, 295 lb-ft (0.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack); DOHC 24-valve 3.6-liter V-6, 285 hp, 260 lb-ft
TRANSMISSIONS: 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 96.9–118.4 in
Length: 166.8–188.4 in
Width: 73.8 in Height: 73.6 in
Passenger volume: 99–108 cu ft
Cargo volume: 13–32 cu ft
Curb weight (C/D est): 4000–4500 lb
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 6.5–8.0 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 23.9–25.0 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.1–16.3 sec
Top speed: 115 mph
EPA FUEL ECONOMY (C/D EST):
Combined/city/highway: 19–22/17–20/23–25 mpg