When people think of Texas, they expect cowboy boots, rodeos, country music, and football. If you grew up watching the show Dallas in the 80s, you might imagine the Lone Star state as flat, rolling ranchland with a homogenous cityscape. But northwest of Austin, surprising slabs of granite rise into the air, well suited for a drive in the new Jeep Wrangler 4xe, the off-road brand’s first plug-in hybrid.
Jeep and its distinctive seven-slat grille have been around for 80 years now, and the brand is nudging its way into the age of electrification with this baby step. I call it a baby step because although it is significant to see a Wrangler with two electric motors and the ability to creep, almost silently, along an off-road path, there’s still only 21 miles of all-electric range.
That will open the door to a bigger step and eventually, I’m certain, to a production all-electric Wrangler. The Magneto concept that debuted at the Easter Jeep Safari was just a taste of what’s to come. Heck, if the Hummer can become an EV, it’s a no-brainer for the smaller and nimbler Jeep.
Rock Climbing, EV Style
I had several hours of quality time behind the wheel of the 4xe between Austin and a private off-road course outside of Llano, Texas. It rained all the way out, and the Wrangler Rubicon 4xe felt capable and familiar, gripping the road with standard BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain tires aired up to on-road spec.
Before departing the launch point, Jeep staff instructed me to try it out in all-electric mode as I meandered from city center out to the highway to get a feel for the performance of the dual motors. I pressed on the accelerator, testing the torque, and found it adequate, but lacking the thrill of a straight EV. The 4xe shines in low-torque situations, but the abundant twist isn’t there for the sake of quickness.
The 4xe shines in low-torque situations, but the abundant twist isn’t there for the sake of quickness.
Once I got to the stopping point at Inks Ranch, where a team of Jeep Jamboree guides waited, the sky cleared and the humidity set in. That was great for staying dry, but less advantageous for driving as the moisture added a level of slippery sheen that turned craggy granite into sheets of slick mud.
After transitioning to softer tires, Jeep Jamboree guide Shawn Gulling led me down winding dirt roads to the first obstacle, a short rock climb that was graded down to a water crossing. Jeep rates the 4xe for up to 30 inches of water, and while I didn’t have my ruler out as I splashed through, it felt as though the Jeep was close to the limit while plowing straight through.
Like any other trail-rated Wrangler, engineers sealed the sensitive bits, including the high-voltage electronics, in a watertight aluminum case. Under the redesigned rear seat, the battery case and wiring stay snug and dry, even when completely submerged; that’s a critical feature if you want to keep your 4xe running. The 400-volt, 17-kilowatt-hour battery pack also has a dedicated heating and cooling circuit, which will mitigate Texas’ extreme heat or Michigan’s bitter cold. On top of that, a chiller subverts the air conditioning refrigerant and utilizes it to keep the battery cool.
Past the water crossing, volunteers from Jeep Jamboree then guided me up a gnarly slab with a stairstep obstacle on the trip down. Once I reached the top, the SUV’s belly scraped the rocks loudly, announcing its displeasure but continuing on with all-electric power.
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The wheels spun and thrashed at one juncture until I turned the wheel and goosed the pedal lightly; it felt like I got off easy on that one and prepared to make the turn to descend. After all, the trail at Inks Ranch is rated at level eight to nine, which the Jeep Jamboree site describes as “Likelihood of getting stuck is high. Mud holes may be deep and rock climbing is more arduous. Lifts and lockers are helpful. Requires [four-wheel-drive] with [low-range].”
For a moment, I teetered on two wheels and held my breath, the fight-or-flight response activating in my nervous system. Had I been driving alone, I wouldn’t have tackled an obstacle of that difficulty but I trusted the team of Jeep Jamboree guys on site to guide me. Built into the all-new instrument cluster is the familiar off-road tab to monitor pitch and roll, which could be comforting when you’re sure you’re about to flop over.
“You’re okay,” one reassured me as I expressed some worry about tipping the 4xe like a discarded toy. “The angle feels more extreme than it is.”
Slight Changes To The Structure
Underneath, the 4xe has solid front and rear axles, a full-time four-wheel-drive system, and a two-speed transfer case. The breakover angle on the 4xe Rubicon is 22.5 degrees to the gas-powered Rubicon’s 22.6. Approach angles are similarly matched at 43.8 and 43.9 degrees, respectively.
Brand manager Brandon Girmus told our group that engineers paid close attention to the breakover angles and moved the center of gravity backward and down to account for the battery placement. And then they ran the 4xe extensively, putting more than three million miles of reliability validation and testing in spots all over the world.
Underneath, the 4xe has solid front and rear axles, a full-time four-wheel-drive system, and a two-speed transfer case.
As you might expect, the 4xe uses Dana 44 axles on the front and rear, an electronic sway-bar disconnect system, and high-pressure gas-charged monotube shock absorbers. Lift the hood, and you’ll see that the Wrangler 4xe is equipped with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, two electric motors (a large one attached to the gearbox and a smaller unit shared with Ram’s eTorque mild-hybrid powertrain), and eight-speed automatic transmission. It delivers 49 MPGe and Jeep recommends 91 octane or higher for the best efficiency and performance.
You can drive the 4xe with one pedal, but Jeep stops short of using the exact phrase “one-pedal driving,” because the Wrangler only comes to a full stop when you press your foot onto the brake pedal. Choosing the max regen mode in the hybrid page engages energy regeneration without using the brake, and warning lights alert drivers behind you as you slow down, even if you don’t actually hit the brake.
Earlier this year, Stellantis announced that they would be partnering with Electrify America to install charging stations at trailheads in Moab, Utah; the Rubicon Trail in Pollock Pines, California; and Big Bear, California. These Level 2 (240-volt) charging stations are free for Jeep users when they access a mobile app and can fully power up the battery in about two hours.
Electric Blue For You
Jeep told us that cargo volume is about the same for a 4xe as it is for a gas-powered Wrangler, it’s actually a net loss of four cubic feet with both seats up and five cubic feet with the back seat folded down.
Jeep has helpfully started color-coding its enthusiast models, reserving red accents for the Trailhawks and Rubicon, orange for the desert-running Gladiator Mojave, and now, blue for the Wrangler 4xe. Bright blue stitching in the cabin and tow hooks on the exterior make it easy to distinguish between the plug-in Jeep and a standard Wrangler.
The 4xe is available starting at $47,995 for a Sahara version, $51,683 for a Rubicon, and $53,570 for a High Altitude variant with all of the creature comforts. That’s several thousand more than the equivalent Wrangler, but when you consider the $7,500 federal tax credit, the 4xe’s price premium isn’t too severe considering its added power and all-electric range.
While the Jeep Wrangler 392 brought more growl into our lives and on off-road routes, the 4xe balances out the universe with a soft hum. For those looking for a little electrification, the 4xe represents a step in the direction they want to go. Hey, do you hear that? It’s the sound of an old dog learning new tricks.
Gallery: 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe: First Drive
2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe