Better off road, better around town; the JL Wrangler promises a whole new generation of flexible wheelin’.

– Tucson, Arizona

There’s no vehicle – not even the legendarily slow-to-change Porsche 911 – that has a more immediate visual connection with its long history than the Jeep Wrangler. The average American may be clueless when you mention “CJ-7” or “YJ,” but show them any of the company’s two-door off-roaders from the last 60 years, and even at distance they’ll be able to tell you, “that’s a Jeep.”

It’s a brand identity that other companies can only dream of and the Wrangler is still the touchstone; the most basic visualization of the of what it means to be an off-road vehicle.

In addition to being as recognizable as they come, the Wrangler spans a gigantic range of use cases and budgets, these days, thanks in no small part to the mainstream-skewing, four-door Unlimited trim. But let’s leave that more prosaic model for just a moment; on the driving event I was compelled to grab the keys to a two-door Wrangler Sport to start the day, and I haven't yet fallen out of love.

2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

There’s no vehicle that has a more immediate visual connection with its long history than the Jeep Wrangler.

Starting in the first part of 2018, $26,995 (with a beefy $1,195 in destination fees) will buy you the most-basic, and in many ways still best, Wrangler Sport. Here you find two-doors, an easier than ever to fold soft top, a six-speed manual transmission, and a 285-horsepower, 260-pound-feet, 3.6-liter V6 that you’ll love.

The Sport is perhaps the most analog new car one can buy; it has manually adjustable mirrors and crank-up windows, for god’s sake. And, even though the cloth seats, tiny five-inch screen, and plastic-heavy interior incredibly basic, the Wrangler somehow pulls it off. This isn’t a Jeep I’d want to commute in, but it does feel like it’ll happily slog through mud, clamber over rocky pitches, and probably stand up to a bomb blast.

For the most basic two-door Jeep, the new generation means an update in styling, an upgrade in off-road kit, and then just leaving a good thing the hell alone.

But let’s talk a little about how well it’ll handle the trail. All Wranglers are “Trail Rated” as you’d expect, making use of two separate 4x4 systems, and two varieties of two-speed transfer case. On the basic level you’re looking at the Command-Trac setup with a 2.72:1 low-range ratio, and solid Dana axles front and rear. The hardcore Rubicon gets Rock-Trac, instead, with heavier duty Dana 44 axles, a low-range ratio of 4:1, and locking differentials. The diffs also get a cool red switch in the cabin, which doesn’t make them easier to use, but does make your interior a tiny bit more badass. The Rubicon also gets electronic sway-bar disconnect, and a crawl ratio of 84.2:1 (that’s with the six-speed manual, eight-speed auto versions have a 77.2:1 ratio).

2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

The Sahara is still ready for Moab at a moment’s notice, it’s just also ready for that surprise icy patch on you drive home from Christmas shopping.

The JL Wrangler has also upped its game with approach and departure angles of 44 and 37 degrees, respectively, a breakover angle of an almost improbable 27.8 degrees, and 10.9 inches of ground clearance. It’ll also ford 30-inches of water like a champ, and look good doing it on big 33-inch wheels (standard on Rubicon).

Impressive as all that may be, regular Wrangler drivers might actually derive more daily benefit from the model’s first full-time four-wheel-drive system, available on the four-door Sahara. Selec-Trac has a full-time two-speed transfer case with an automatic mode, that allows you to think a little bit less about the need to switch out of two-wheel high range. Don’t worry, you still get the 2.72:1 low range, and the Sahara is still ready for Moab at a moment’s notice, it’s just also ready for that surprise icy patch on you drive home from Christmas shopping.

In fact, the always-on 4x4 system is probably the thing you’ll notice the least (even if you appreciate it) if you’re thinking about buying a JL to drive every day. Jeep has made its poster child far more livable in terms of ride quality, in-cabin noise at speed, overall feature richness, and comfort. Every trim level gets some of that, but the four-door Sahara is really the prime target for regular drivers.

It was the Sahara that I borrowed for a weekend of suburban hanging-out, after the dusty test driving in Tucson was all wrapped up. And I think those extra days of normal driving really hammered home the best of the upgrades for this new Wrangler.

2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

If I’m honest, I don’t see a huge advantage in the 2.0T, considering it’ll be the up-sell engine, except for fuel economy.

Listen, at 80 miles per hour on the highway, the Wrangler is still louder than would be a standard SUV/crossover like a Highlander or a Pilot. But it’s far more refined than any Wrangler I’ve driven before, especially in terms of straight-line stability (the longer wheelbase means fewer steering corrections on the freeway), and offering a much less busy ride quality. Oh, and it was blowing like hell when I drove from Tucson to Phoenix, so the improvement in lateral stability was noticed and appreciated, too.

My Sahara was also fitted with the new, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. With outputs of 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, it’s the initial acceleration (stop lights and such) that really benefit versus the base 3.6-liter V6, with 285 hp and 260 lb-ft. If I’m honest, I don’t see a huge advantage in the 2.0T, considering it’ll be the up-sell engine, except for fuel economy. The two-door 2.0T model gets 23 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway for a combined EPA rating of 24 mpg. The four-door version is slightly worse, returning 22 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, and 22 mpg combined. The V6 returns 18 mpg city, and 23 highway. 

But I will say that the late-arriving diesel V6, coming for the 2019 model year, should be the pick of the range, with 260 hp, 442 lb-ft, and almost certainly the best fuel econ (and biggest sticker price). We've been waiting for a diesel Wrangler forever… can you wait a little longer?

2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

Never fear: from Sport up through Sahara, you can pull off all manner of body panels and windows, should the need (or more likely, desire) strike you.

Thankfully you don’t have to wait for this much-improved cabin. Sure, the Sport trim with cloth still feels very rudimentary, but a decked out Sahara, with heated leather seats, a brilliant 8.4-inch Uconnect screen, and surprising civilities like a USB-C port, is pretty plush. The central HVAC controls are all easy to find and nice to look at, and the fact that the metal trim in the cabin is made from real metal doesn’t go unappreciated, either. Plus, some of those metal bezels are secured using real hex bolts, and Jeep designers (and drivers), just love stuff that bolts on and off…

There was a perhaps 15-minute span during our technical presentation of the JL, that consisted entirely of reporters asking about parts of the Wrangler that can be removed – this is surely the only vehicle on sale today that could support such a line of questioning. Never fear: from Sport up through Sahara, you can pull off all manner of body panels and windows, should the need (or more likely, desire) strike you.

The full soft top of the two-door Wrangler has gone zipperless; the sides can now be slid from their positions in a manner of seconds, which is a huge improvement from the old, skin-grabbing zipper corners of the old top. Oh, and the Freedom Top of the Sahara has quick-to-remove rear windows, too, should you want to augment the fresh air provided by the power-operated canvas roof. Doors can be unbolted and removed, and Jeep has made them lighter than before (though still 47 pounds for the fronts), and with a convenient grab-point molded into the understood of the interior handle. And, as you may have already heard, the window will still fold down. I was told the four-bolt operation (plus pulling the windshield wipers off) can be done in just a couple of minutes, though it took me around ten on my first attempt. Still, that’s a lot better than the 28 bolts and roughly 90 minutes it took to rock the military look on the JK Wrangler.

2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive
2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive

From the base three-door, all the way up to the most-mature four, Wrangler is now more practical, more flexible, and more lovable than ever before.

I asked my wife, Molly, if she wanted me to fold that windscreen when I took her out for the first time, on a stunning, 70-degree Arizona winter morning… and she looked at me like I was insane. To be honest, it is a little bit of a crazy question/ability. The point being that there are still an awful lot of people for whom, no matter how improved the driving dynamics are, a Wrangler will never make sense.

At the end of the day, spending over $40,000 for this Sahara ($37,395 + $1,195 + taxes), doesn’t make sense for a vast swath of buyers. Even the four-door is pretty cramped, front and rear, pretty loud, and pretty thirsty, when compared with any one of the very rational SUVs carmakers are selling at that price point. If you don’t care much about driving over a mountain, or pulling the doors off and going camping for the weekend, than you’re never going to get the full value of Wrangler. You’ve got to like Jeeping, at least a little, to love a Jeep.

The good news is that, if you’re in that like/love camp, the JL is going to be way up your alley. From the base three-door, all the way up to the most-mature four, Wrangler is now more practical, more flexible, and more lovable than ever before.

 

2018 JEEP WRANGLER UNLIMITED 4x4

Engine Turbocharged 2.0-Liter I4
Output 275 Horsepower / 290 Pound-Feet
Transmission 8-Speed Automatic
Drive Type Four-Wheel Drive
Weight 4,320 Pounds
Towing 3,500 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 31.7 / 72.4 Cubic Feet
Base Price $26,995

2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive