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First drive: 2018 Jeep Wrangler [Review] - image 1

First drive: 2018 Jeep Wrangler [Review]

by Byron Hurd

We drive Jeep's overhauled icon.

For a moment, we'd like to take you back a decade. It's 2007. The sub-prime lending bubble is about to burst, but Detroit's troubles are already very real. The "Merger of Equals" has long since been exposed for what it really was--a purchase--and Daimler is divesting itself of now-cash-depleted Chrysler, dumping it into the eager hands of Cerberus Capital Management. This is the environment into which the JK-generation Wrangler was born.

A lot has changed in the intervening decade. The JK Wrangler saw three U.S. presidents, three corporate owners (from three different countries), and all three phases of the great recession--beginning, depths and recovery. Through all of this, the Wrangler itself remained relatively unchanged. Sure, it came into this world with a 3.8-liter V6 (AKA the "minivan" engine) and leaves it packing a 3.6-liter Pentastar, but fundamentally, this is the same Wrangler Jeep sold in the waning months of George W. Bush's administration.

The king stay the king
What's more remarkable is that everything we just said basically doesn't matter. Through the financial ups and downs, the fuel efficiency years and a recovering market hungry for bigger and badder trucks, the Wrangler sold. And why shouldn't it? It's a segment of one. For quite some time, the most compelling alternative to a brand-new Wrangler has been a used one. An archaic interior chock-full of irrelevant technology and virtually no concessions to convenience didn't retard customer demand one damn bit.

But it's time, and we have to give FCA credit. They know even better than we do what sort of opportunity 2018 represents for this nameplate. A new Wrangler comes around once every ten years. Plenty of Jeep's designers and engineers weren't part of the company the last time a Wrangler was new. Many won't be next time (and that's a rabbit hole we're not going down; not here at least). The message going around the team was simple: Make this count.

What's new
Let's start with the fundamentals. Jeep hasn't offered optional engines in the Wrangler since the demise of the TJ. That generation saw a couple of different four-bangers, starting with the AMC150--a sawed-off bastardization of the 4.0L inline-six design which carried over from its eponymous roots in American Motors--to the 2.4L engine of the TJ's final years. The PowerTech 2.4 was truly the first "minivan" engine Jeep offered in the model, but since it was the entry-level offering, nobody cared.

Well, the four-pot is back, and this time everybody is going to care. Why? It's no longer the base engine. That honor goes to the carry-over 3.6L Pentastar V6. It's the second-generation design which Chrysler first introduced in 2015, and it still eschews direct injection, but as in the outgoing Wrangler it makes 285 horsepower and 260lb-ft of torque.

This four-cylinder is a completely different ballgame, and the technology employed to make it the premium offering makes up for the V6's lack of it--and then some. At its heart, it's a turbocharged, two-liter unit. That's underselling it, though. It's also a mild hybrid, featuring a 48-volt battery-assist system which Jeep (and, we expect, soon all of FCA) is calling "eTorque." What does it do? A little bit of everything.

First and foremost, it boosts torque (especially off the line) and incorporates brake energy recovery. It also allows for seamless auto-stop/-start operation (which is belt-driven, rather than starter-driven) and augments fuel cut-off, allowing the Wrangler to coast farther without using fuel.

This sounds like a lot for a Wrangler, right? We were equally skeptical, and we haven't even gotten to the juicy part. The four-cylinder actually makes less power than the six. That's right. At 270 horsepower, it's pushing less top-end than the Pentastar. Torque output, however, is much higher--295lb-ft.--and if you've had your finger on the pulse of the 4x4 market long enough to remember the outcry that came from the introduction of the JK's 3.8L and 3.6L sixes, you might remember the (largely undeserved) backlash against both engines' torque figures.

In short, torque matters, and this time, Jeep has its bases covered. The news isn't all good, however, especially if you're a fan of manual transmissions. A new six-speed remains the base transmission for the V6 (regardless of trim, mind you), but it's a complete no-show on the new four. The same automatic that is standard on the four-cylinder is optional on the six, and it's the newest version of ZF's eight-speed unit found in many of FCA's newer rear-wheel-drive applications.

Jeep also decided it was high time to offer a full-time 4x4 system for the Sahara model. You can manually switch in and out of it if you so choose, but this is the first "always-on" 4x4 system Jeep has ever offered in the Wrangler.

After all the rumors that led up to the 2018 Wrangler's debut, the company finally laid to rest any suspicions regarding its materials usage by confirming that the doors and hood would be made from aluminum, the rear tailgate a hybrid of aluminum and magnesium, and the fenders (still) plastic. An F-150 this is not, but the real-world implications for those who prefer to remove their doors are real enough.

What makes it work
We apologize if this is a number- and jargon-rich review, but ten years of development went into this car, and it's not as simple as saying "everything is incrementally better" as if it has only been a few years since a new Wrangler was last written up. We promise to get to the fun part soon, just bear with us for some more minutiae. It'll all be over soon.

At this point, it's important to lay out the "grade walk" for the new Wrangler--the trims and how each is positioned. For starters, the Wrangler can be had in two basic flavors: two- and four-door. The two-door model is offered in three trims: Sport, Sport S and Rubicon. Four-door models get four variants: Sport, Sport S, Sahara and Rubicon.

Sport models are basic. These are the canvas on which those looking for the best deal will eventually paint their homegrown masterpieces. It's also the cheapest, most fuel-efficient way to get a Wrangler, which still appeals to some people (Hi, Dad! - Auth). Stepping up to Sport S bumps the comfort level slightly; think of this as more of an upgrade package than a trim level. This is where you get "niceties" such as power windows and aluminum wheels. This is the first trim where FCA's new UConnect 4.0 infotainment is on full display, with an optional 8.4-inch screen and navigation.

The Sahara is the beginning of the Wrangler's "money" trims. At this point, the model line truly diverges. Exclusive to the four-door, the Sahara is the premium, comfort-oriented offering. 8.4-inch Uconnect is standard at this level, as it a ton of connectivity. USB Type-C? Yep. 115V power outlets? Check. At this level, you can also option a power-retractable top (another first for Wrangler) which operates much like a Fiat 500's. Think of a giant, motorized sardine can and you're in the ballpark. The sides are fixed composite; the folding top itself is cloth.

And then, there's Rubicon.

What is Rubicon?
In short, everything.

For those who want the most capability straight out of the box, Rubicon is the king. The specs that apply to the "lesser" trim levels simply aren't relevant here. You can still option some of the niceties found on Sahara and lower trims (8.4-inch Uconnect is standard, for example, and you can opt for leather seating), but the name of the game here is capability.

The Wrangler doesn't get a "Trailhawk" model like other Jeep models. With this nameplate, capability is simply implied. What any other "Trailhawk" can do when piloted with concentration and deliberation, a Wrangler Sport can dispatch with ease. Where other models need to aspire to Wrangler-like capability, Wrangler simply does it as a matter of course because, well, that's the whole point, right?

This is no suspension-and-tire package, either. Rubicons get a shorter final drive ratio (4.10:1), a more aggressive crawl ratio (77.2:1) and, thanks to mild body lift and relocated fenders, space for 35-inch aftermarket (or Mopar accessory) wheels. The stock 33-inchers aren't too shabby either. Jeep's "Tru-Lok" locking front and rear differentials are also standard on Rubicons (a limited-slip rear-end is optional on lesser trims), which get Dana 44 axles front and rear (where lesser models get Dana 30/35 front/rear).

In addition to locking differentials, the Rubicon also offers an electronically disconnecting sway bar, allowing for increased articulation. If you're big on installing your own accessories (off-road lights, winches, etc.), the Rubicon is what you want for that too. Factory accessory switches have been included on the center stack, and the front bumper has a built-in mounting location for easy winch installation.

As it sits, the Rubicon has a 44-degree approach angle, 27.8-degree breakover angle and 37-degree departure angle. Don't bother looking for competitive specs. You won't find any better. The Rubicon will also ford 30 inches of water and, just for giggles, it'll tow 3,500 pounds.

What it's like
While Jeep's reps made a point up front of saying the Rubicon's new standard all-terrain tire was an improvement for on-road comfort, we were relegated to Sahara and Sport variants for our asphalt-based testing. Our route took us from the north side of Tucson, Arizona, to the Old Tucson enclave (slash-theme-park-slash-filming-location) on the southwest side of town, near Saguaro National Park.

Our on-road time was split between 3.6-liter and 2.0L Sahara four-door models. We want to get this out of the way up top: the 3.6 works just fine. It may be the lesser engine, but it's by no means a disappointment. We tried out both "Powertop" (the aforementioned fabric sardine can) and regular hard-top models and found both to be adequately quiet and comfortable for road-going duties. Is it still a solid-axle vehicle with a high roll center? Yep, it sure is. Will it get you where you need to go without too much punishment? Yep, it will.

As our day drew to a close, we managed to sneak out in a manual-transmission two-door Sport for a little time with the six-speed, and found it is night-and-day better than the outgoing equivalent. Where the old six-speed is vague and sometimes ponderous to operate, the new one is snick-snick and engages quickly off the floor. Short throws and mild effort aren't things we've come to expect from a Wrangler, yet here they are, plain as day.

We found ourselves most appreciative of the 2018 Wrangler's convenience features. Charge points galore? Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility? 8.4-inch touchscreen navigation? All welcome developments. And you can still hose the thing out. Even the upgraded audio system comes with a weather-proofed subwoofer. That's not new, but the fact that it still exists is comforting. Jeep's engineers wanted something that could still be hosed out at the end of the day. They succeeded.

And speaking of carry-overs, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention a couple of wonderful vestiges and improvements. Soft-top models are now zipper-less, for instance, and the tops can be removed or erected by one person in a matter of minutes. The fold-down windshield has also been retained and improved. It's no longer part of the front "cage" structure, and can be laid down in less than ten minutes with a toolkit that is included with every car.

In these cases, the 2018 Wrangler has been made more convenient with no compromises at all. What's not to like about that?

What it does best
Off road, the game changes completely. From here on out, we stuck exclusively to Rubicon models. We got time in both 3.6- and 2.0-liter models, putting each through its paces. There are no poor choices here either. We found both tuned to offer easily-modulated throttles, making our lives much easier on the nastier stuff.

The Wrangler just inspires confidence under all circumstances. Reach the point where you feel like most SUVs would simply roll over? Nope, Wrangler is fine. Worried about that tight spot up ahead? Wrangler fits. Concerned about the frame-grabbing rock up ahead? Point your wheel at it and just go. You're fine. And when you screw up, the standard (across all trims, mind you) skid plates are there to save your ass.

The Rubicon is not a cure-all, but its capability is simply unmatched. Many have tried and, as evidenced by the market for compact 4x4 trucks, all have failed. Can it get stuck? Of course. Anything can. We witnessed a two-door Rubicon getting hung up after a miniature landslide claimed most of its footing. Did it eventually get clear of the snag? Of course. Was it necessarily easy? No, but that's the way it goes.

What matters
Your author has driven his fair share of capable vehicles in off-road situations, both in professional and leisure settings. From the lowly Subaru Crosstrek to the Land Rover Discovery and a multitude of entirely capable vehicles in between, few stones have been left unturned.

If you've never been wheeling before, it's difficult to articulate just how stupendously effective the Wrangler Rubicon really is. The "I can do that in my ____" crowd just has no context from which to appreciate its advantages. Just to get to our lunch spot, we had to take an (entirely unguided and unaided) cross-country trek that would have left anyone but the drivers of the most aggressively modified Subarus hunting for a satellite phone and some bottled water (and, as rough as the temperatures and wind were, a blanket). In even our "lowly" Sahara, it was nothing.

The Wrangler stands alone in this market because it is a singular vehicle designed for a singular purpose, and that appeals to a demographic that is essentially unmatched even on a global scale. Jeep is the genesis of off-road automobiles, as any honest history of a competing nameplate will acknowledge. Land Rover? Toyota? Mercedes-Benz? They all owe their hardcore roots to this uniquely and unapologetically American creation.

Leftlane's bottom line
The 2018 Wrangler is worth the wait. While those who prefer a bare-bones 4x4 canvas on which to build a project may not have much incentive to upgrade right away, that's pretty much par for the course when it comes to the Wrangler. Everybody else is in for quite the treat. Rubicon is still some next-level, uh, stuff. Sure, the mall-crawling bros will buy it simply for credibility, but that doesn't diminish its capability.

2018 Jeep Wrangler Sport 2 Door base price, $26,995; As tested, $28,190
Destination, $1,195
2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 2 Door base price, $36,995; As tested, TBA
2018 Jeep Wrangler Sahara 4 Door base price, $30,495; As tested, TBA
2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4 Door base price, $40,495; As tested, TBA

Exterior and Sport interior photos by Byron Hurd. Rubicon and Sarah interior photos courtesy of Jeep.

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