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2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Test Drive Review
No new car feels so comfortably worn as the Jeep Wrangler, and arguably none has a more fanatical and fiercely loyal group of followers than this 77-year-old American brand. The Wrangler is a sun-loving, rock-hopping, mud-caked happy face on four wheels, which after 10 years—twice as long as most automakers allow a vehicle’s design to remain unchanged—is finally all-new for 2018. While the solid-axle, body-on-frame Wrangler Unlimited has no direct competitors aside from the Toyota 4Runner, the latest model’s performance, practicality, and technology is thoroughly improved. We drove the two-door 2018 JL Wrangler in a separate test. This review focuses on the Unlimited, the four-door version that Jeep first introduced for 2007.
Look and Feel
The easiest way to spot the new JL-generation Wrangler from the outgoing JK generation is the missing Jeep badge above its seven-slat grille. Be aware: Since the JK Wrangler ended production in May 2018, Jeep dealers will be selling new JK and JL Wranglers side by side under the same 2018 model year. If you’re new to the Wrangler fold—and to folding down a windshield—you’ll need to be as intimate with the styling details as the Jeep design team.
That flat windshield with its cute little wipers now bolts to the body frame and is raked back a couple degrees. The hood’s rubber stoppers (upon which rests the folded windshield) integrate the washer nozzles, and on certain models, there are new air vents. Additional vents sit aft of the front fenders. Slick LED headlights enclose circular running lamps nudging into the outermost grille slats, the tops of which kink back toward the hood. The square taillights, outlined in a thick band of LEDs, now look like they don’t belong on a boat trailer. Look closer to spot “T50” on the door hinges, since at some point you’ll loosen those bolts with the included Torx socket wrench to take off the doors for that classic open-air, cares-to-the-wind Jeep experience. In an effort to shed weight, most exterior panels are now made with aluminum. They still attach to the skeletal body and open roll cage like a homemade dune buggy. The Wrangler has more exposed hardware than a Home Depot aisle.
We tested the Sahara, a street-tuned version that comes with step rails, silver-painted accents on the bumper, grille, and headlight surrounds, and 18-inch wheels on a normal set of Bridgestones. The base Sport and top Rubicon ride on knobbier treads over smaller 17-inch rims. Take a giant step inside, and the Wrangler’s upright dashboard and chunky controls exude the ambience of an upscale army barracks. The interior finishes—like the Sahara’s soft leather steering wheel, stitched dash, padded handles, waterproof start-stop button, plastic graining, and switchgear—have a pleasing, heavy-duty feel. The metal knurling on the wide shift knob is beautiful. Unfortunately, military precision doesn’t apply to the quality of the interior’s assembly. Loose trim, uneven panel gaps, and ill-fitting parts are heinous in this modern age, yet most owners will be overjoyed by this big Jeep’s charm. We sure were. Even though our Wrangler flirted near 50 grand, its purpose as a hardcore off-roader couldn’t be more loud or clear.
On-road performance, however, is surprisingly good in Sahara trim. The quieter tires don’t send as much vibration and noise into the cabin, although at highway speeds the wind roared inside on our soft top. With the roof down and the power windows up, the Wrangler didn’t feel any louder. Instead, the ride became more comfortable and livable. Bumps and grooved, patchy pavement from summer road construction were no issue for a Jeep with nearly 10 inches of ground clearance (10.9 on the Rubicon), although you’ll need to firmly grasp the wheel and correct the steering even at low speeds. The Wrangler’s low grip and high body roll require a careful hand, though it’s nowhere near as ponderous as older models. Braking is also secure in pedal feedback and bite.
Sharp responses and snarls from the 3.6-liter V6 make keeping up with traffic a breeze in the Wrangler, whether you're accelerating from a stop or just trying to stay with the flow of traffic. While this engine is carryover, a new eight-speed automatic lets the Jeep breathe easier and lowers its heart rate. The old five-speed couldn’t figure out how best to distribute the Wrangler’s 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The eight-speed is quick to downshift once your foot passes the throttle’s lazy tip-in point, an annoying trait on the road that’s essential for precise maneuvers on a trail. A $1,000 option for all models is Jeep's new turbocharged 2.0-liter four, paired with a hybrid system called eTorque. This replaces the belt-driven alternator with an electric motor/generator connected directly to the engine and fed by a small lithium-ion battery. With 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, this engine boasts the best fuel economy in the lineup at an EPA-estimated 22 mpg city and 24 mpg highway.
We haven’t yet tested that engine, but we did achieve a remarkable 20 mpg over 515 miles with the V-6. Remarkable, that is, for a Jeep. A six-speed manual comes standard with the V6 but is unavailable with the inline-four. Manual-equipped V6s are rated at 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, while our automatic model gains 1 mpg on the city cycle. Regardless of engine, all four-door Wranglers have a 3500-pound tow rating, compared to 2000 pounds for the two-door, although you’ll need to order the Trailer Tow and HD Electrical group ($795) to enjoy that.
An automatically variable four-wheel drive system called Selec-Trac pairs exclusively with the inline-four on the Sahara trim. All Sport and V-6 Sahara models have the Command-Trac system that locks the power 50/50 front to rear when the driver shifts into four-wheel drive high. The Rubicon uses a beefier Rock-Trac setup with locking front and rear Dana 44 axles, and an electronically disconnecting front sway bar. Every Wrangler has incredible chops and an impressive ability to hop, crawl, tilt, and ford whatever lies ahead.
Form and Function
While the Wrangler’s Lego brick exterior is faithful to its Willys forebearers from World War II, this is no pint-size runabout. At 188.4 inches, the four-door Wrangler is a full 3.5 inches longer than the outgoing model, with the wheelbase stretching an extra 2.4 inches for more rear legroom. Space isn’t an issue for the Wrangler, with the swing-out tailgate exposing 32 cubic feet of cargo space—and 72 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. Wondering where you'll pack all those pins and bolts when the doors and windshield stay missing? Under the cargo floor is an organized tray with precisely drilled holes to store each one. Visibility is excellent in most directions save for the thick B-pillar, as the Wrangler is one of few new vehicles where the driver can see all ends of the hood.
The analog gauges, large knobs for the audio and climate control, and traditional crank handbrake make the newest Wrangler a cinch to operate compared with so many modern crossovers. There are electronics, but they’re executed well and not overdone. Switches behind the steering wheel allow easy adjustment to volume, seek, mute, and switching audio sources. You’ll have to acclimate to the window switches on the center console, but you’ll like the netted door pockets and deep, lockable center cubby storage. And while the doors don’t offer much crash protection, they certainly slam with a reassuring “clack!”
The three available roof options really do it right. Wranglers ordered with the Dual Top group ($2,195) can accommodate both the three-piece Freedom hardtop ($1,095 in black or $2,095 for body-color on Sahara and Rubicon) or the Sunrider soft top (standard; a quieter “Premium” version costs $595 in black or $795 in tan). Without it, you can buy a conversion kit from Jeep to install the corresponding roof rails should you change your mind. The hardtop includes glass windows, rear defroster, wiper, and two removable panels for the front seats. It’s the best option for cold climates.
For 2018, the manual soft top is easier to disassemble. Instead of zippers and straps, the rear and quarter-panel plastic windows attach to the roof with rubber rails. Pop out a few tabs and the windows slide out along rubber rails. The roof is also under tension points with new springs and struts that make it simpler to fold back. Putting it back together is a five-minute ordeal to ensure every last weatherproof seal and fold is perfectly snapped in place. But after a few tries, you’ll be ably to do it quickly. A new electric roof—called Sky One-Touch Power Top, the first in a Wrangler—will soon be available. It combines the hardtop’s rails and rear glass with an accordion-folding soft top and pop-out rear quarter glass windows. Not even a custom Bentley convertible has this many roof choices.
While the five-inch touchscreen is adequate on Sport models, flanked with hard buttons on either end and paired with a 3.5-inch monochrome display on the gauge cluster, the new Wrangler’s optional technology is right there with the best. The Sport S and Sahara upgrade to a seven-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and SiriusXM. Opt for the Electronic Infotainment System group ($1,495) for the 8.4-inch screen, a seven-inch display for the gauge cluster that can cycle through directions, audio, off-road info, and more from the steering wheel buttons, and navigation with live traffic. This package also bundles an eight-speaker Alpine stereo with a waterproof subwoofer that’ll let everyone in the adjacent lanes know you’re having an outdoor party. Like all Fiat-Chrysler vehicles with this infotainment system, the Wrangler’s setup is quick, high-res, and intuitive with voice controls, 4G WiFi, an onboard owner’s manual, and seven USB ports for the front and rear (including micro USB, which is almost never found in a new car).
Our Sahara included a toasty heated steering wheel as part of the Cold Weather group ($595; includes heated front seats and remote start for automatic models). We also enjoyed standard push-button start with keyless entry. All these niceties make the Wrangler more enjoyable as a daily driver.
The Wrangler’s safety record, unlike its off-road credentials, is checkered. There’s a big price to pay for being able to personally disassemble a vehicle with a hand-cranked socket wrench. Protection: There isn’t much of it, as the Wrangler is the only new car on sale without head curtain airbags. Data is sparse, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has not tested a 2018 JL Wrangler Unlimited and only partially tested the 2018 JK for a frontal crash. In that test, the Wrangler scored just three stars and two stars (out of five) for driver and passenger, respectively. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated a 2017 Wrangler Unlimited as its top “Good” for small and moderate overlap front crash tests (which are not the same as the government’s full overlap) but “Marginal” in its side-impact tests. No driver assists are available except a backup camera (which is now required on all new cars), rear parking sensors, and blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alerts. Safety electronics are not really the issue. Structurally, the Wrangler is a compromised vehicle that leaves its occupants at a higher risk of injury. At least the optional LED headlights are powerful and far-reaching.
The 2018 JL Wrangler Unlimited Sport starts at $30,995. The Sport S ($34,195), Sahara ($37,845), and Rubicon ($40,995) will encourage higher spending beyond their base prices. Ours cost $47,955 with a $1,445 destination charge. Add tax and hot demand—there are usually no incentives and little haggling—and you can easily walk out the door for more than 50 grand. Used models are nearly as expensive because of the Wrangler’s spectacular resale value. These trucks depreciate as slow as a Porsche.
If you value this Jeep’s iconic style, incredible four-wheel drive capability, and the tight-knit community it fosters, then the Wrangler makes total sense. But if you can’t stomach the poor on-road control, comfort, and safety features as compared to mainstream SUVs and crossovers, it’s not for you. But that’s the Wrangler’s most charismatic selling point. It’s proud to be unlike anything else.
Clifford Atiyeh is a reporter and photographer who has spent a good portion of his life driving cars he doesn't own. He is vice president of the New England Motor Press Association and committed to saving both manuals and old Volvos.
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