Jeep Wrangler — Still the off-road champ

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Before the all-new 2018 Wrangler models arrived, you had to be a Jeep aficionado to really enjoy living with it on a daily basis. They were built for off-road, no apologizes necessary. Thankfully, the new Jeep has been updated with refreshed styling, a higher-quality interior, and new safety features. The carryover Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 that produces 285-horses and 260-lb-ft of torque can now be mated to a modern eight-speed automatic transmission, which improves drivability. We lived with the standard six-speed manual, which will probably be the choice for most people opting for the off-road capable Rubicon.

An optional engine upgrade is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder mated to the eight-speed auto. It develops 270-horsepower and 295-lb-ft of torque, more than the V-6, and is also available with a mild hybrid system.

So is on-road performance improved over the last generation? It's been three years since we spent time in a 2015 Wrangler, but based on our memory, we can say yes, this is a better vehicle for daily living. We noticed improved ride and handling vs. the outgoing model. Steering is much more precise and steady with none of the previous wiggling, thanks to the new electro-hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering system.

But the Wrangler still falls short of most SUVs in on road refinement and interior solitude. The noise level at highway speed is amazing — carrying on a conversation and listening to the radio must be done at a high and annoying volume. The Wrangler is still at or near the bottom of the list as a daily driver.

But here is the real bottom line. After a day spent behind the wheel of a 2018 two-door Wrangler, putting it through its paces on the Rubicon-equal, 60-degree boulder-strewn landscape in the Sonoran Desert outside Tucson, Ariz., we can assure Jeep loyalists that the new Wrangler JL is an absolute home run in every sense. Its capabilities off-road boggle the mind. It is the most capable off-road Jeep in the brand’s 75-plus-year lineage.

The 11-year wait for the new Wrangler has brought a ton of needed changes and new features. The doors and door hinges, hood, fenders and windshield frame are now made out of aluminum with a magnesium rear swing gate with aluminum skin.

The windshield still folds, but instead of taking an hour and a half to work your way through 28 bolts, you now need only a matter of minutes by removing just four bolts for the operation. A new headbar now connects the A-pillars and stays in place when the windshield is folded, allowing the rearview mirror to remain in place.

The doors are still removable, and combine with door pins that are staggered lengths for easy installation and removal. The Torx bit tool size is now stamped directly on to the aluminum door hinge to eliminate the guesswork in determining which tool is needed. The doors are also self-closing, and have a new detent feature that keeps them open to a set position when desired. A new half-door design will be available starting in 2019.

The rear swing gate has a wider opening; the rear license plate now sits on the rear bumper to accommodate the spare tire, which has been lowered to improve visibility. Rear visibility has also been improved by relocating the rear wiper to the bottom of the glass, and equipping all models with a rear backup camera.

All four trim levels — Sport, Sport S, Sahara and Rubicon — come standard with a removable soft top. Thankfully, the zippered windows have given way to a new and easy to use slide-in tongue-in-groove configuration that makes removing the windows a snap.

Our Rubicon test truck featured removable outer front bumper sections to improve the approach angle for steep inclines. The Rubicon also gets a 1.5-inch wider track; 33-inch all-terrain tires, and an electric front sway bar disconnect system that’s perfect for extremely slow rock crawling.

A 7-inch or available 8.4-inch touchscreen houses the fourth-generation Uconnect system, which now sits atop the center stack and includes both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Large, functional climate control and audio volume control knobs with media connectivity ports are directly below the touchscreen. There are five USB ports located throughout the cabin.

The Jeep Wrangler two-door starts at $28,190 including destination charge and escalates from there according to two-door and four-door configurations, models and equipment options. For instance, our incredibly off-road-ready two-door Rubicon with the V-6 engine carried a base price of $38,190 including the $1,195 destination charge, and after options came to $47,665.

Base price: $28,190; as driven, $47,665
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 285 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 260 pound-feet @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: four wheel
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 96.8 inches
Length: 166.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,972 pounds
Turning circle: NA
Luggage capacity: 13 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 17 city, 25 highway, 20 combined
0-60: 6.1 seconds (Car and Driver)

The Good
• Prodigious off-road capability
• Easier soft top operation
• Latest infotainment system

The Bad
• Not particularly fuel efficient

The Ugly
• Noisy at highway speed