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2015 Jeep Wrangler Test Drive Review
The 2015 Jeep Wrangler continues the tradition of being the most capable SUV in the solar system—even if it looks like it may be the same age.
"New" and "Jeep Wrangler" might sound like an oxymoron, but the 2015 Jeep Wrangler still has a few tricks up its sleeves. An upgraded sound system and fresh set of editions to choose from gives the Wrangler new legs, even in its seventh decade of existence. At the higher end, Rubicon editions offer uncompromising performance off road—emphasis on uncompromising.
Look and Feel
The Wrangler is one of the few cars on the road that isn’t expected to change how it looks. In fact, Mark Allen, who is head of Jeep’s design department, said his job is done if the Wrangler stays the same year over year. His job should be safe for another year, as nearly every right angle of the Wrangler’s sheet metal returns this year and is mostly indistinguishable from previous years.
The same boxy 2-door Wrangler and 4-door Wrangler Unlimited are available this year alongside a few special-edition vehicles and color schemes that help keep the Wrangler lineup fresh year-over-year.
The Wrangler is offered in 3 basic trims (Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon) and 7 different packages, starting with the Sport, that step up in price, creature comforts, and out-of-the-box capability that cover a ton of all-terrain ground. The Sport S adds 17-inch wheels over the Sport’s 16-inch steel wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Returning from last year, the throwback Willys Wheeler and Willys Wheeler W add exterior accents such as black bumpers and front grille and decals as an homage to the CJ-2 from nearly 70 years ago. The Wheeler also adds a Dana 30 front axle in addition to the heavy-duty Dana 44 rear axle—which is standard on every model—along with a 3.73 axle ratio and a limited-slip differential.
The Wrangler Sahara is the next step up for Wranglers and adds more creature comforts inside. The Sahara package adds larger 18-inch wheels and can be fitted with optional leather on the inside. The Freedom Edition is largely mechanically the same as the Willys trims but sheds the vintage look for Freedom badging and an available 3.21 axle ratio, and Jeep says it’ll donate $250 from the sale of each Freedom Edition to the USO. The Altitude model follows the Freedom Edition, but adds a bulging hood and special leather stitching in the seats. The Wrangler X, although priced between the Rubicon trims, is actually a Sahara-based package with many of the Rubicon’s exterior accents other than the chunky wheels.
The Rubicon editions (Rubicon and Rubicon Hard Rock) still serve as the pinnacle for off-roading Wranglers with features such as heavy-duty skid plates, a heavy-duty transfer case, disconnecting sway bars, and Dana 44 axles on the front and rear. The Hard Rock and X also sport an aggressive hood with two ducts to help cooling.
All Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited models have Jeep’s 3.6-liter V6 and a 6-speed manual transmission. Fun crushers (or families, I suppose) could opt for Jeep’s 5-speed automatic, which is available in all models. All models come with 4-wheel drive (4WD).
Our test trim, a 2-door Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock, came ready to assault a mountain and wallet with equal elan. Its knobby tires, heavy-duty gearing and look-at-me red paint were just as impressive as its price: $39,255. A 4-door version of the same car would cost north of $43,000.
The performance of the Wrangler is probably better measured in terms of off-road capability than on-road gusto. Despite the 3.6-liter engine’s 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, the Wrangler still shares many aerodynamic characteristics with a barn door, which is to say it’s much better at the low-speed stuff than highway cruising. Having said all that, its 3.6-liter V6 is markedly better than previous powerplants, which were thirsty and aging. The new Wrangler’s acceleration and cruising speed are much more comfortable than in older models, and fuel economy is measurably better: The Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited manage 17 mpg city/21 highway, according to the EPA.
Off road, the V6 manages plenty of grunt to get up whatever boulder or glacial crevasse you’re looking to conquer. Its torque and power delivery are fairly linear all the way up to its 4,800-rpm torque sweet spot, which is helpful on low-speed off-roading excursions.
The Wrangler Unlimited can also tow up to 3,500 pounds when equipped with a trailering package, whereas the Wrangler can manage up to 2,000 when similarly equipped.
Behind the wheel, the Wrangler never feels short on power—even at highway speeds. Cruising down the interstate, hopping from one mud pit to another, our Hard Rock felt out of place only because of its gearing, tires, and suspension setup.
Although the 6-speed manual is really the only way to go in an SUV like this, passengers only noticed that the throws between gears seemed to be abnormally long and that sixth gear felt uncomfortably close to reverse in some circumstances. Also the transmission in our test car felt slightly skewed toward the driver, making throws a little tricky in the early going.
Form and Function
Our Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock was geared specifically for off-road duty. Functions like electronically disconnecting sway bars and locking rear differentials were exceptionally easy to execute. For off-road duty, there are few SUVs on the road today that are as easy or as capable as the Wrangler. Controls are generally easy to reach and well marked, with plenty of assist functions to soak up difficult terrain.
As a cruiser, the Wrangler does its best to make hauls manageable, but not necessarily comfortable. Its quick steering response and sharpened suspension mean the Wrangler Rubicon wouldn’t be a first-choice for cross-country, mile-swallowing trips. The ride was noticeably bouncy and stiff, and a perceptible noise from the tires came through into the cabin. The Wrangler Unlimited in less-stiff spec may be a better choice for multiple passengers on long trips, but as usual it’s a matter of picking the right tool for the right job.
As they stand, Jeep has done what it can to adapt its Wranglers toward more family-friendly duty. An upgraded stereo and available 9-speaker sound bar help bring the Wrangler closer to what consumers would expect from softer off-roaders, but there’s no mistaking the Wrangler for more user-friendly rides offered by other manufacturers.
Nonetheless, the more powerful, fuel-efficient V6 engine helps highway cruising. Available options such as a leather-wrapped steering wheel and heavily bolstered leather seats mitigate its stiffer suspension and harder setup.
Jeep has included a Torx wrench package this year to help remove the hardtop for a sun's-out, guns-out weekend during the summer months. In all, removing the top and doors is about a 2-hour operation, provided you have somewhere to store all the sheet metal and someone to help lift the heavier parts. Driving the Wrangler with no doors and no top is highly recommended for buyers, if at least only once to get the full experience.
And you don’t need to look far for many reminders of what Jeep wants you to think when you look at the Wrangler. For a couple of years now, Jeep has tucked Easter eggs all over the Wrangler, such as a small windshield decal of a Jeep climbing a hill in the bottom corner, a 7-slot grille in the top behind the rear-view mirror, and small Jeeps painted on the rims.
The tilt, but not telescoping, steering wheel helps users mildly customize the Wrangler for better control.
The sum total of the Wrangler’s technology is better measured in two parts. First, the part you control more often: infotainment and comfort.
The Wrangler, according to many enthusiasts, may have gone more mainstream than in years past. The Wrangler now can be fitted with heated seats, navigation (gasp, I thought that’s what a co-pilot was for!), and leather. This year, Jeep has included an upgraded sound system and available 9-speaker Alpine rig that could shake your fillings loose, but that’s mostly a sign of the times. (Curiously, the subwoofer has moved from a side compartment to the trunk floor, which makes me wonder how well it would handle getting wet from soggy gear in the back.)
While stationary, the Wrangler is a comfortable place to be for driver and passengers because of Chrysler’s plush seats. When in motion, the heavy padding does its best to soak up the bumps and shakes of the stiff suspension, but there’s only so much that can handle. In back, the Wrangler won’t provide the largest cargo hold in its class, but the Wrangler Unlimited picks up where that leaves off (12.8 cubic feet in the Wrangler with the rear seats upright vs. 31.5 cubic feet in the Wrangler Unlimited with the rear seats upright).
The other part of the Wrangler’s available tech is the myriad ways to setup the car from the cockpit to handle terrain. In models such as the Rubicon, there are endless ways to disconnect the sway bars and lock up the differential that only a few years ago seemed absurd. Hill descent control and 4-wheel-drive settings only add to the mix.
But overall, the Wrangler is better considered as the “thinking man’s Grand Cherokee.” Whereas the Grand Cherokee does its best to automate nearly every off-road circumstance, the Wrangler mostly relies on the driver’s familiarity with terrain and mechanical ability to tell it what it needs from its grunt. And if you’re not sure what that all means, it could be a long day in the sand.
The Wrangler’s safety is mostly limited by the SUV’s boxy architecture and age. More modern conveniences like frontal-collision avoidance, blind-spot monitoring, and lane-departure warning indicators aren’t available for the Wrangler. Supplemental front airbags are a $495 option as well.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also hasn’t been kind. The Wrangler received a Moderate rating in small-overlap front collisions and head restraints and seats, and a Poor rating in side collisions. The IIHS gave the Wrangler only a Good rating in moderate-overlap front collisions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Wrangler only 3 stars in a rollover crash.
All isn’t lost, however. The Wrangler still comes with standard antilock disc brakes on all four wheels, electronic stability control, and traction control.
Most Wranglers are bought with a single mission in mind: going off road, everywhere. For that reason, many Wranglers are purchased by buyers, then modified with an extensive list of upgrades to customize and meet the owner’s expectations of its being one of the most capable SUVs on the planet.
It’s hard to argue that the higher-end Wranglers aren’t becoming more luxurious vehicles for well-heeled buyers looking for a domestic SUV that can do it all, but the base models, which start at $22,795, are still relatively affordable.
Considering the Wrangler’s relative age and steadfast commitment to looking like the same boxy SUV from 70 years ago, perhaps the new Wrangler’s toughest mountain to climb is the resale market: Picking up a 10-year-old Wrangler and customizing it to fit your needs is still the road many buyers go down rather than walking onto a dealer’s new-car lot. But the new-ish 3.6-liter V6 and new editions such as the Hard Rock and Willys trims give shoppers pause before they run out to buy older, secondhand models.
Forced into early retirement before his 1988 debut bout against "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase for the Intercontinental Championship belt, Aaron is a syndicated automotive columnist in newspapers spanning the Louisiana and Gadsden purchases and the Northwest Territories. When he's not writing about cars, he's driving them. And when he's not driving them, he's probably eating or sleeping because you need to do that too.
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2015 Jeep Wrangler Top Comparisons
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2015 Jeep Wrangler
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