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Redesigning the Jeep Wrangler is a delicate job. Designers have to honor its history and respect its loyal owner base, while addressing significant shortcomings in a marketplace that has seen dramatic evolution since the last version was introduced back in 2006.
The template is clear: Make improvements throughout, but don’t change the silhouette.
Judging by the four-door Wrangler Unlimited Sahara we recently purchased, Jeep seems to have successfully performed this tricky feat. As our testers drive the Wrangler during its 2,000 mile break-in period, they all agree that this version is better than the last one and still retains its rustic charm.
The Wrangler is such a unique animal that it is hard to resist drawing endless comparisons to the previous generation. Nothing else is like it because nothing else has the character, heritage, romance, and mystique of a classic Jeep.
All of the Wrangler's defining elements carry over: seven-slot grille, removable doors, removable top, fold-down windshield, exposed roll cage, tricky access, rear swing gate and hatch, and abundant ground clearance. There's no real hardware revolution here, either, as the new Wrangler retains its body-on-frame construction and front and rear solid axles. The Wrangler is once again available in numerous trims, with a lengthy list of options, from powertrains and equipment to dealer-installed modifications.
We bought the popular four-door configuration, with the uplevel Sahara trim. But to get common comfort features, such as the cold-weather package, tow package, and upgraded infotainment system, we had to pile on the options. Throw in an automatic transmission and blind-spot detection system, and this adventure-ready machine brushes $50,000.
That feels like a lot of money for a vehicle that at its core is bred to get dirty and scratched, and lead a treacherous, adventurous life. Then again, most Wranglers are so-call “mall crawlers,” embodying the lifestyle but living on pavement.
How It Drives
Because it's designed to climb boulders, expectations for the Wrangler's on-road performance are not high. While its handling is improved with quicker steering, it’s still no match for a modern SUV in terms of agility.
This powertrain is significantly improved. The 285-hp, 3.6-liter V6 engine teams smartly with an eight-speed automatic transmission, making for a smooth, refined speed buildup and a prompt throttle response. (A turbocharged 270-hp four-cylinder engine will soon join the ranks, followed by a 3.0-liter diesel in 2019.)
Jeep offers a selectable, full-time four-wheel-drive system—the Wrangler's first—but only in the Sahara trim. The advantage is that it can stay engaged indefinitely, eliminating the need for drivers to make a decision as to when to engage or disengage 4WD.
The ride is stiff, with bumps coming through. Constant short motions make the Jeep jittery even on smooth roads.
On the highway, the Wrangler is clearly out of its element. Because of its boxy shape and lack of a headliner to add isolation, the wind noise can be overwhelming. (Jeep offers headliner panels for the hardtop that may muffle some noise, but they don’t cover the entire roof.)
It's really tough, almost impossible, for occupants to have a natural-volume conversation on the highway. However, the Alpine stereo is powerful, and we did note that hands-free calls worked well.
Getting in or out is awkward, and that remains a Wrangler tradition. Climbing in, riders must step onto the running board, which positions their body too high, or they must stretch over it. Getting out, there is no way to avoid rubbing pants across the running board—a nuisance in a salty winter or when playing in dirt.
The cabin gets a welcome update in function and appearance. The basic design is familiar, but the digital screens, accent trim, and modern features give the Wrangler a decidedly modern feel. There are nice touches, such as the gear selector with a red trigger release and a classic Jeep on top, the outdoorsy graphics on the displays, and the available auxiliary controls awaiting the installation of aftermarket equipment, such as extra lights.
The controls are arranged on a very flat plane, including the center-positioned window switches. This unusual placement requires some mental reprogramming, and they're a bit of a stretch for the driver to reach. We wish the driver’s window had an auto-up feature, especially on rainy days. We like the push buttons for common functions, like adjusting the heater or turning on the heated steering wheel. (And yes, that is how coddling the Wrangler has become.)
The stalks behind the steering wheel are a bit stubby, making them harder to reach than with most vehicles.
The traditional short, vertical windshield limits the forward view, but visibility through the side windows and rear glass is good.
The seats are wide, accommodating, and spongy. Their initial appeal can wear thin as support fades on long drives. Some testers wished for more bolstering to help hold their bodies in place.
The rear seat has lots of room for adults, though access is more difficult than in most midsized SUVs due to those running boards, a narrow door opening, and tall step-in height.
There is a fair amount of cargo space in the rear with the Unlimited trim. Accessing that area is a two-step process, with the side-hinged gate and the glass hatch. Once open, there is a large cube of open space available.
The Wrangler does not have many advanced safety features. Higher-trim models offer helpful driver aids, including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and a rearview camera with dynamic guidelines. However, forward-collision warning and automatic braking are not offered for 2018, which is surprising on a vehicle that can top $50,000.
The Jeep Wrangler has an undeniable appeal that can’t be measured. It is the embodiment of a storied history that evokes freedom and adventure.
Yet clearly it isn’t the easiest vehicle to live with. For those seeking a refined SUV, look elsewhere. For those buyers who have owned a Jeep or always dreamed of one, the redesigned Wrangler has fewer trade-offs—and more appeal—than it ever had before, all without compromising its character or off-road credentials.
Formal testing will begin soon, including time on our challenging rock hill course. We'll let you know how it does.
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