The stuck-in-its-ways Jeep Wrangler works just as well with some electrification.
By now, you should know that Jeep (and the broader Stellantis organization) are going all-in on electrification, and it's about damn time. But while the timeline for an all-electric Jeep is unclear, the off-road brand is pushing forward with plug-in-hybrid models wearing the 4xe badge (pronounced for-bye-ee, not for-ecks-ee).
We won't debate the merits of going PHEV rather than EV here, but what we will say is there's a great deal to like about the first product in the range, the Wrangler 4xe. Clearly customers agree, as the gas-electric Wrangler was the best-selling PHEV during the second quarter of 2021. But while the powertrain is radically different for the industry's most tradition-focused automaker, the fundamental Jeep experience carries on unfazed (for better or worse) in the 4xe.
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Respect to Jeep for leaning into the Wrangler 4xe's different powertrain with visual accenting – if you go for a Rubicon, like our tester, the electrified Jeep is instantly recognizable on the road thanks to its electric blue touches. The traditional Jeep tow hooks wear the shade, while it's also found on the hood decal, outlining the Rubicon lettering on the hood sides, and on the fender badging. There's also a subtle 4xe badge below the driver's side taillight.
In the cabin, the electric blue replaces the Rubicon's traditional red contrast stitching and lends a bright, vibrant character to the otherwise drab black leather. Jeep replaced the anodized red dash applique with a leatherette finish bisected by additional contrast stitching. These touches do little to reinvent the Wrangler's snug cabin, but they're visual reminders about that gas-electric powertrain.
We won't harp on the tight quarters here, but it's clear Jeep designers ran out of real estate considering the poor location of the PHEV controls. There are three buttons, tucked out of the driver's sight line near their left knee, to cycle between electric power, hybrid power, and a battery save mode. It's an ergonomically poor spot in a cabin that's already bursting with buttons and knobs and controls.
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As luck would have it, the first drive program for the Ford Bronco sat smack-dab in the middle of our Wrangler Rubicon 4xe loan. Funny, that. And if you've read our piece on Ford's revived off-roader, you'll know that we found the far roomier cabin a pleasant reprieve from the Wrangler's tight confines. The Wrangler's small pedal box, limited shoulder room, and ultra-short dash are claustrophobic at best.
As has been the case for ages, the Wrangler's main opponent to a high Comfort score is its uncivilized and occasionally unstable ride. Shod in 33-inch BFGoodrich KO2 tires, carrying solid axles at both ends, and cursed with a dull and imprecise electrohydraulic steering rack, the Wrangler is difficult to manage at speed, especially on rougher roads. Larger imperfections can send the steering wheel into a fit of out-of-control wobbling.
The PHEV powertrain is quieter than either of its gas-only siblings, operating silently in electric mode and at a hushed volume when the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine is at work. But as we’ve experienced before with that four-pot, it gets noisy and rough north of 3,000 rpm. That said, with the help of the electric motor, we rarely had cause to push that hard. Our tester’s Sky One-Touch roof, meanwhile, kept better control of wind noise than the traditional hardtop (and it’s worth noting, wind control is one area where the Jeep easily bests the Bronco). Road noise and tire roar remain substantial issues, though.
We're eager to see the new Uconnect 5 infotainment system in a Wrangler, but for now, the aging Uconnect 4 system remains. Yes, this system lacks some of the bells and whistles of Uconnect 5, and the 8.4-inch screen is quite puny compared to the big 12.0-inch displays coming out in other Jeep products. But the Wrangler’s system does everything it needs to.
The hardware is responsive, the graphics attractive, and the overall interface impressively easy to learn due to the bank of icons at the bottom of the display. There's one for each main section as well as a sort of app drawer, for less-used features.
The 4xe treatment adds a solid suite of PHEV-specific touches, so owners can monitor their energy use to their heart's content. While the three physical buttons to the left of the steering are the main interactions for the PHEV settings, digging into Uconnect reveals a few more useful tricks. There are pages to coach owners on economical driving, including the use of the regenerative brakes, and to monitor their power consumption. We like the 4xe's ability to display, in kilowatts, how much power the engine and motor are producing in real-time, too.
Like the Pacifica Hybrid minivan, the Wrangler's integration of gas and electric power is excellent. The 4xe seems to always know where the power should come from and puts that source at the fore with little hesitation. Aside from the lack of engine noise when running in EV mode, it's hard to tell the Wrangler is even a PHEV when under throttle.
Rather than mounting the motors directly to an axle, engineers attached one to the front of the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder as a belt-driven generator – like what Ram offers on its eTorque mild hybrids. The other motor, which is responsible for electric drive, lives at the front of the transmission housing and replaces the gearbox's torque converter. This approach yields seamless hand-offs from gas power to electric and back again.
That said, under electric power alone the Wrangler's already leisurely straight-line performance is slower still. You'll enjoy a brief surge of torque off the line, but with just 134 horsepower and 181 pound-feet from the transmission motor, the Wrangler runs out of steam quickly. Dig into the throttle enough and the gas engine will kick on, even in electric-only mode.
Performance is far brisker with the gas engine and electric motors working in tandem, where the Wrangler 4xe conjures up 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. The abundant and immediate twist makes freeway passes a less stressful affair than in a V6 model, and the clever integration means seamless performance the rest of the time.
The only other major impact the powertrain has on the broader Wrangler package are the regenerative brakes. Jeep has tuned these stoppers well, avoiding the poor low-speed manners found on other hybrids and crafting a package that rarely feels different than any other Jeep. Really, the engineers deserve praise for building a plug-in hybrid Wrangler that feels so similar to the familiar ICE-powered SUV.
Of course, that extends to the wayward handling. An off-road vehicle wearing 33-inch mud-terrain tires is no Lotus Elise, so it's little surprise the 4xe wanders from corner to corner with all the grace and poise of a tranquilized water buffalo. The steering, meanwhile, is so lackadaisical you need to constantly scan the surface ahead for irregularities and adjust your line in advance. Enthusiasts will shriek that a solid front axle is better for off-roading, but aside from a few fringe cases, that capability is not worth the compromise in on-road behavior, particularly since the independent-front Bronco does so well in both regards.
The Wrangler is relatively light on standard active safety equipment, but Jeep doesn't demand too much coin to add a whole host of goodies. Spend $995 and you'll score blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert and rear parking sensors. Another $795 brings the Advanced Safety Group, introducing full-speed adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, along with automatic high beams. The former is a prerequisite for the latter, but still, $1,790 isn't outrageous for this level of active safety.
It all works quite well, too. Tuning on the adaptive cruise control is smart enough, and the forward collision warning is sensitive without coming across as annoying. We'd like to see more active safety in the future, though. A rear camera mirror would be a welcome addition, as would some form of lane-keeping assist to better manage the wayward Wrangler at high speeds.
The EPA rates the Wrangler 4xe, the only PHEV model in the class, at 20 miles per gallon combined as a hybrid. But take advantage of its 17.3-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery and it returns 49 mpge while providing 22 miles of all-electric range. It's fair to criticize modern PHEVs as returning mediocre distance on electric power alone – the Chevrolet Volt could cover 53 miles back in 2016 – but the 4xe's range is plenty useful if most of your driving is in towns and cities and you recharge regularly.
Using our Grizzl-E Classic 240-volt charger to refill at the 4xe's max rate of 7.2 kilowatts, we could top off the Wrangler's battery from empty in about two hours. And from there, it broadly matched the EPA's range estimates. We covered the distance from home to Detroit Metro Airport, a 25-mile, highway-intensive trip, almost exclusively on electric power, for example. And over 200 miles of mixed testing, our Wrangler returned an indicated 25.1 mpg with regular recharging. That’s about equal to the Wrangler EcoDiesel’s combined rating.
Of course, you'll pay for that efficiency. A plug-in-hybrid Rubicon like ours adds $10,705 to the ICE model's $44,295 starting price. If you were wondering how long it'd take to recoup your investment in fuel savings, we suggest you don't even bother with the math. It's not good, and adding options makes things worse.
Our Rubicon 4xe starts at $55,000 including a $1,495 destination charge. From there, it adds virtually the entire Wrangler options catalog, inflating the price by $12,700 to a frightening $67,700. Now yes, the 4xe is eligible for a $7,500 federal income-tax credit, and certain states may add incentives on top of that. But this is still a $68,000 Jeep Wrangler at the end of the day.
Thankfully, deflating the price isn't too hard. We like the Sky One-Touch Roof, but at $4,095, we'll deal with the hassle of removing a hardtop, which is available for $1,495 (or go for the no-cost softtop). We'd also nuke the $1,495 Nappa leather upholstery, ditch the $695 painted wheel arches, and depending on how we planned to use our Wrangler, maybe lose the $795 trailering pack and the $1,745 steel bumpers. That approach leads to a more palatable price of $60,170, which drops to around $53,000 if you’re able to take full advantage of Uncle Sam’s help. The 4xe is still a substantial investment over the gas model at that price, though.
Wrangler Rubicon 4xe Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe: Review
2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe