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2018 Jeep Wrangler Test Drive Review
Jeep has redesigned and refined the Wrangler for the 2018 model year, making this SUV more appealing to people seeking the image without diluting its unmatched off-roading capabilities.
Remember New Coke? Coca-Cola, and the rest of the product development and marketing industry, learned a valuable lesson from that reformulation of a classic and beloved recipe: Don’t do it. With the redesigned 2018 Jeep Wrangler, Fiat Chrysler makes an iconic SUV new and better than ever, but without screwing anything up.
Look and Feel
Pictured here is the totally redesigned 2018 Jeep Wrangler, though unless you’re a Jeep geek, you might not be able to tell. Whether it looks like it or not, the 2018 Wrangler is completely redesigned and improved in just about every way.
When you buy a new Jeep Wrangler, you choose between 2-door and 4-door body styles in Sport, Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon trim levels. (Note that CarGurus considers the 4-door Wrangler a separate model, the Wrangler Unlimited, and that the Sahara trim is available only in Unlimited form.) Prices start at $26,995 for a 2-door Wrangler Sport, not including a destination charge of $1,195 to ship it from the Toledo, Ohio, factory to wherever you live. A Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon runs $40,495 before adding any options. Go crazy with the extras, and you can spec one up to nearly $55,000.
My test vehicle wasn’t that pricey. It’s a 2-door Sport S equipped with an automatic transmission and the Preferred, Technology and Convenience option packages. Additionally, it has a premium soft-top, upgraded wheels, a Dana 44 heavy-duty rear axle with an anti-spin rear differential, an Alpine premium sound system, all-weather floor mats, and a set of side steps that serve only to make it harder to get into and out of the Wrangler. All in, it came to $38,985.
Black on black is not the best color combination for a Jeep Wrangler. First, it's impossible to see any design detail. Second, the lack of visual contrast is depressing. Third, it shows every single speck of dirt and dust, every splotch of rain, the haze of sea spray, fingerprints, you name it. Don’t bother trying to keep it clean, because you can’t.
I do like the new Wrangler’s looks. I see a blend of JK and TJ here, and while I’d prefer a more rugged wheel design to those on my test vehicle, it’s tough to argue with Jeep’s overall styling approach. The company knows it can’t stray far from the classic recipe, nor would it want to.
Inside, Jeep has revised the Wrangler’s dashboard, with round air vents and round gauges situated on an even plane to emphasize a feeling of width and space. Below them, the engine start button, stereo knobs, and climate system’s fan-speed knob are also lined up in a line. The overall effect is neat and tidy, and it's really easy to find what you’re looking for and use it.
Materials are designed to withstand abuse and facilitate easy cleanup, even if that means cleaning with a hose. Nothing fancy or upscale here, and that’s exactly how it should be.
A 285-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engine is standard and now includes an automatic stop/start system to help improve fuel economy. The V6 is hooked to a new 6-speed manual gearbox, or a new optional 8-speed automatic transmission that costs $2,000.
Soon, a turbocharged, 270-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine will be available. This engine comes only with the 8-speed automatic, and it features a new eTorque mild hybrid feature that supplies electric motor assist when accelerating from a stop and improves fuel economy when the Jeep is coasting, decelerating, and stopped.
After that, a new 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 joins the engine roster for 2019, whipping up 260 horsepower and a whopping 420 lb-ft of torque. Jeep has also discussed an upcoming plug-in hybrid powertrain slated for the 2020 model year, but has not yet provided details for that model.
Jeep also offers three different 4-wheel-drive (4WD) systems for the new Wrangler.
Command-Trac is standard, a part-time system with 2-wheel drive, 4-wheel-drive Hi, 4-wheel-drive Lo, and a Neutral setting for flat-towing capability. My test vehicle had this setup, engaged using a shift-on-the-fly 2-speed transfer case. In 4-wheel-drive Lo, it supplies a 2.72:1 gear ratio.
Rock-Trac is standard for the Rubicon model. It includes upgraded Dana 44 heavy-duty front and rear axles, Tru-Lok electronic locking front and rear differentials, and an electronic front sway bar disconnect. In 4-wheel-drive Lo, it boasts a 4:1 gear ratio.
Selec-Trac is included for the Unlimited Sahara, in a nod to Wrangler buyers who have no intention of tackling the Rubicon Trail and just want a set-it-and-forget-it full-time 4-wheel-drive system. Sahara buyers can get Command-Trac as an option.
Crawl ratios vary depending on system and transmission selection. If you want maximum off-roading capability, get the Rubicon for its Rock-Trac 4WD and pair it with the 6-speed manual gearbox.
You might buy a Wrangler with every intention of spending lots of time off-road, but unless you live in an exceptionally remote area, you’re going to spend even more time driving on pavement. Here, the new Wrangler is significantly improved over the previous version.
For example, thanks in big part to the new 8-speed automatic transmission, the V6 engine feels quicker and more refined, with better isolation from noise, vibration, and harshness.
The steering is improved, too. Although it remains slow and vague, necessities in serious off-road-ready vehicles, it feels much better on center when you’re driving on the freeway.
Ride quality remains bouncy, but the Wrangler’s underlying structure is obviously stiffer, helping to eliminate some of the rattletrap feel of the old model. The brakes are excellent, the pedal offering better feel and modulation than ever, which is helpful both on and off the pavement.
Still, though, this Jeep can get pretty sloppy pretty quickly if you’re not careful. It’s got a tall center of gravity and tires designed for dirt, which is why the stability control system kicks in with the slightest provocation. Also, with the soft-top all buttoned up, the wind noise is just ridiculous on the highway.
One of the key goals of this redesign was to improve the Wrangler’s fuel efficiency, and the EPA says that the V6 engine with the automatic transmission should get 20 mpg in combined driving. I got 18.6 mpg on my test loop, though to be fair to Jeep, I drove half of it with the Sunrider roof peeled back, negatively impacting the Wrangler’s already questionable aerodynamics.
Another key goal was to retain the Wrangler’s unparalleled off-roading capabilities. After all, few vehicles dare tread where Wranglers can, especially right off the assembly line.
If you know what you’re doing in the dirt, you’re likely to be impressed by the new Wrangler, especially the 2-door model. Why’s that? The 2-door has a shorter wheelbase and a tighter turning radius, making it as maneuverable as a billy goat on tight and technical trails.
Plus, my test vehicle wore impressive Kevlar-reinforced 245/75R17 Goodyear Wrangler tires. I’ve gotten a flat tire while driving a Wrangler, from a rock slicing into the sidewall. That’s no fun, especially if level, paved surfaces are in short supply.
Aside from this, though, a Wrangler offers an impressive 41.4-degree approach angle, a 25-degree breakover angle, and a 35.9-degree departure angle. If that’s not good enough, an optional winch-ready steel front bumper is available for the Rubicon, and it features removable end caps to further improve the Wrangler’s approach angle.
Minimum ground clearance measures 9.7 inches, and a Wrangler can ford 30 inches of water. Hill Start Assist is standard, and Hill Descent Control is included with the automatic transmission, each providing an extra measure of confidence when picking your way up and down steep hills.
Jeep also offers an Off Road screen for the driver information system, which makes it easy to reference important data related to the vehicle and its position on the terrain. And, if you get the upgraded version of the Wrangler’s Uconnect infotainment system, you can reference important vehicle data and track your off-roading prowess using the Off-Road Pages feature.
Near where I live in suburban Los Angeles, off-roading terrain is difficult to come by, even though the Santa Monica Mountains are essentially right in my backyard. Land is privately held or owned by government entities, and any trails or fire roads that do exist are almost always chained or gated. The few spots where I can sample traction in dirt might challenge a crossover SUV, but not a Wrangler.
Therefore, I headed to the far western reaches of the Mojave Desert in search of wide-open space. Here, the Wrangler tackled sandy washes, rocky trails, and a mountain requiring 4WD Lo. No task I could administer before darkness fell fazed the Jeep, and its tight 34.5-foot turning radius proved critical during a tricky 120-degree kink in a trail atop a hill.
Obviously, a Wrangler is well equipped for serious off-roading, and it had no trouble traversing the terrain that I felt comfortable tackling. What I can tell you is that based on my limited experience, this Jeep feels unstoppable, inspiring perhaps too much confidence in a novice off-road driver like myself.
Form and Function
Improved on-road driving dynamics make the new Wrangler easier to live with, and so does the interior. It is completely redesigned, but you can still remove the carpeting and hose it out if necessary, thanks to the floor drain plug. Storage space is decent, and both the center-console box and glove-box door can be locked.
The front seats are comfortable, wrapped in cloth unless you specify leather when buying a Sahara or Rubicon. Jeep doesn’t specify the cloth upholstery as water- or odor- or stain-resistant, but it must be, right? This is a Jeep, after all. It’s going to get wet, smelly people and pets will sit on it, and something is bound to spill. Anyway, the driver’s seat has a height adjuster, and while the front passenger’s seat does not, it isn’t necessary.
If you’re going to carry more than one person on a regular basis, get the Wrangler Unlimited. Two adults will fit into the 2-door’s back seat, but getting in and out isn’t easy, and legroom is tight.
Around back, the 2-door offers scant trunk space behind its rear seat, and in my test vehicle the Alpine sound system’s subwoofer filled the hidden compartment under the cargo floor.
Jeep doesn’t provide cargo capacity numbers for the Wrangler. Let’s just call it restrictive unless you fold and tumble the back seat. Also, you should know that with a soft-top roof, it’s a real pain in the butt to load things into a Wrangler. With the available hardtop roof, you can easily flip the rear glass up after opening the side-hinged tailgate.
A total of four different tops are available for the new Wrangler: a standard vinyl Sunrider soft-top, a premium fabric Sunrider soft-top, a removable hardtop, and exclusively for the Wrangler Unlimited, a hardtop with a Sky One-Touch power retractable roof panel. Each top design includes removable rear quarter windows, allowing for windows-down and open-all-around driving but with the roof in place to protect against the sun.
My test vehicle had the premium fabric Sunrider soft-top, and it is much easier to use than before.
Release two latches above the windshield, toss the forward part of the roof back, and you’ve got a huge sunroof to enjoy. Or, keep the top in place, and remove the rear window and rear quarter windows for shaded bimini-top motoring. The roof also collapses and locks into place behind the rear seat for a full convertible experience.
You can still remove the Wrangler’s doors, and it's easier than ever. Every Wrangler comes with a Torx bit set and a wrench, and the aluminum doors can be taken off in minutes. Roll or power the windows down, remove the outer hinge bolts, remove the inner hinge bolt, and disconnect the electricity to the available power door locks and power side mirrors. Then lift, remove, and store.
The windshield still folds down, too. Useful for off-roading situations in which sun glare creates visibility problems, this feature is improved for 2018 in terms of both simplicity and safety.
First, you need to pop the end caps from the wiper arm bases, and then use the Torx bit set and wrench to remove the wipers from the vehicle. Then, unscrew the bolts holding the covers at either base of the windshield, and on the left side disconnect the power source to the wipers. Then, remove the four bolts holding the windshield to the upper portion of its frame, lower the glass to rest on the rubber hood bumpers, and secure it to the hood using a strap.
All of this sounds pretty complicated, doesn’t it? Well, compared to previous Wranglers, each process is much easier than before.
Although it's more sophisticated than ever, the new Wrangler is not a technological tour de force. Mainly, it impresses in terms of available infotainment systems.
Jeep installs modern, next-generation Uconnect infotainment systems with 5-inch, 7-inch, and 8.4-inch display screens. They boast quicker start-up time, faster processing power, and high-resolution graphics, and Jeep also supplies USB ports in the 2018 Wrangler.
Upgrade to the 7-inch version for smartphone integration including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. For navigation and subscription-based SiriusXM Guardian connected services, you’ll need the largest system with the 8.4-inch screen. My test vehicle also had the optional 8-speaker Alpine premium sound system, and it is loud.
Additional technology features include an optional 115-volt power outlet, extra-cost passive keyless entry with push-button engine starting, and available LED headlights, fog lights, and taillights. Looking for even more sophistication? Jeep can’t help you, and frankly that’s rather refreshing.
Safety has never been a Wrangler hallmark, whether you mean crashworthiness, rollover resistance, or available driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies. For 2018, Jeep makes strides to improve on this front, though the new Wrangler still lags behind other midsize SUVs.
A reversing camera is standard this year, housed within the tailgate-mounted spare tire. Jeep also supplies four standard airbags, including new side curtain airbags in addition to driver and front passenger supplemental restraints. Jeep has also engineered the Wrangler for improved side-impact and small overlap frontal impact crash protection.
As an option, owners can install a blind-spot information system with rear cross-traffic alert. Available SiriusXM Guardian services include SOS emergency calling, as well as easy access to roadside assistance. Finally, when the windshield is folded down, key structural elements remain in place to protect occupants in the event of a rollover accident.
Jeep still does not offer automatic emergency braking for the Wrangler. It simply would not be practical in a vehicle designed to perform like this one can.
In terms of value, you cannot touch the Wrangler’s capabilities at its price, which makes it a raging bargain to a hardcore off-road enthusiast. To a status-seeking suburbanite engaging in occasional battles with Mother Nature, the newly refined Wrangler remains a compromise in terms of daily drivability.
Either way, it’s going to be awhile before dealers feel the need to discount the new Wrangler JL. Lots of Jeep enthusiasts have been waiting a long time for this vehicle to arrive, and until their demand is satisfied, you’re not going to negotiate much, if anything, off the sticker price.
At the same time, Jeep has priced the Wrangler to compete in the heart of the midsize SUV market, which means it seems like a deal even when it’s not.
For what it’s worth, I want a new Wrangler parked in my own driveway. Added refinements, new safety engineering and features, and improved on-pavement driving dynamics have sanded down this Jeep’s rough-and-tumble details, making it far more palatable as a daily driver. Yet at the same time, the 2018 Wrangler hasn’t lost the iconic design, the unique utility, or the unmatched adventuring capability that Jeep has always stood for.
I was a teenager when MTV first broadcast music videos on cable, and back in the olden days, a band called Talking Heads put out a video for a song called “Once in a Lifetime.” One of the lyrics, a repetitive one at that, is the line “Same as it ever was.”
That describes the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL. It's the same as it ever was.
And at the same time, it's improved in every conceivable way.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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