Wrangler Unlimited

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2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Test Drive Review

The Wrangler changes with the times by offering exciting new powertrains, but it always retains the fun and functionality that make it a favorite among its loyal fans.

7.7 /10
Overall Score

The Jeep Wrangler is an icon. Sports cars like the Ford Mustang and Chevrolet Corvette may often be described as icons, but they can’t hold a candle to the Wrangler’s bona fides. It harkens back to the original Willys Jeep and has evolved through the years to be an instantly recognizable fixture of the American motoring landscape.

What makes this all the more incredible is how the industry has changed through the years. The best-selling SUVs on the market are all based on car platforms, and emphasize efficiency and comfort. Yet the rugged, comparatively inefficient Wrangler, which also rides like a truck, is still popular.

Part of that comes from being different from everyone else, but another part is Jeep’s commitment to continually update the Wrangler to meet the demands of its buyers. The four-door 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited accomplishes both, by now offering a Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid (changing with the times) and a potent Hemi V8 (beating to its own drum). Both powertrains are exclusive to the four-door Wrangler; neither is available with the two-door Wrangler body style.

Look and Feel

7/ 10

Key to the Wrangler Unlimited’s icon status is its seemingly unchanged styling through the years. The trained eye can tell you all about the notched grille, inset headlights, and scalloped air extractors behind the front fenders. But when people see a Wrangler, they see circular headlights, a seven-slat grille, exposed bolts and hinges, and protruding bumpers and fenders. It looks like a toy truck for adults, and to some, it is.

Depending on the trim level, the Wrangler can take on different looks, with painted or exposed fenders, soft top or hardtop, and other individual styling touches, but it all comes back to those core elements that make a Wrangler Unlimited incapable of being confused for anything else on the road.

Getting behind the wheel of the Wrangler, it's readily apparent this will not be as comfortable as a car-based SUV, like a Honda Pilot. And let’s face it, you’re not buying a Wrangler for comfort. You sit upright, there’s not a lot of legroom, and the seats are adjusted using somewhat awkward ripcords. For the right type of driver, this is charm, not inconvenience.

Trims for the 2021 Wrangler Unlimited are the Sport, Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon. There are also a number of special editions, including the Willys, 80th Anniversary, Freedom, Islander, and High Altitude.

The Wrangler Sport is as near to bare-bones as you can get in a vehicle in 2021. It has manual door locks, black plastic fenders and bumpers, cloth seats, and manual side mirrors. The Sport does come with pushbutton start, manual front-seat adjustments, a 5-inch audio display, and a USB and auxiliary audio input, though.

The Sport S adds some basic creature comforts, including power windows and locks, power heated side mirrors, air conditioning, and remote keyless entry. But for the most part, the Sport S opens up availability to options and packages, including a Cold Weather Package (heated seats, heated steering wheel, remote start), and the Technology Group (touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto). If you want a rugged Wrangler, but want some of the features you’d expect in a car in 2021, go for the Sport S and check some options boxes.

The Sahara is the more street-oriented Wrangler trim. It adds dual-zone climate control, upgraded premium cloth upholstery (leather is still optional), convenient side-steps, larger brakes, and a 7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. For an actual near-luxury Jeep, check out the High Altitude. It features a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, leather seats with a unique quilted stitch pattern, the larger 8.4-inch touchscreen, gloss black 20-inch wheels, and body-color bumpers.

The Rubicon is ideal for the aspiring off-road enthusiast, or anyone that just wants to get where other SUVs dare not venture. It boasts beefed-up suspension and running gear, as well as two-piece fender flares. It also comes with many of the power options and creature comforts of the Sahara trim. We drove the Rubicon 392, which builds on the Rubicon trim. Its most notable feature is its Hemi V8 (covered in the next section), but the major visual distinction is the raised hood flanked by “392” badging. It features a large hood scoop, designed to channel water around the engine (if you’re fording into a river), as well as provide clean air to keep the big V8 cool.

Performance

9/ 10

The Wrangler’s powertrain lineup has grown through the years to include gas and diesel, mild-hybrid power, and now the Hemi V8. But most will likely go for the standard 3.6-liter V6, making 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. This engine routes power through either a six-speed manual transmission or eight-speed automatic. All other powertrains come exclusively with the automatic transmission. This includes a mild-hybrid eTorque variant of the 3.6-liter V6, the 270-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine, and the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6. The latter produces 260 hp and a stout 442 lb-ft of torque.

All engines route power to one of three four-wheel-drive (4WD) systems. Command-Trac comes standard on the Sport and Sahara and is your straightforward 4WD with low range. Select-Trac is optional on the Sport and Sahara and offers an “Auto” full-time 4WD mode. The Rubicon comes with the Rock-Trac, and also features front-and-rear locking differentials. The Rubicon also features a front sway bar that can disconnect with the push of a button. These are all key elements for difficult off-roading.

Jeep has also introduced a plug-in hybrid, dubbed the Wrangler 4xe. We’ll cover this in a separate review, but it’s worth noting this groundbreaking variant here. It will make 275 hp, and allow for up to 22 miles of electric range, according to the EPA.

Perhaps knowing they’d build up some environmental goodwill with the 4xe, Jeep also went in a completely different direction with the Rubicon 392. As the name suggests, it comes fitted with 6.4-liter V8 engine (the "392" name comes from the V8's displacement in cubic inches), cranking out 470 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. That much power in a Wrangler turns it into an off-road supercar. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 leaps away from any stoplight, and it has tons of power for getting up to highway speed and overtaking. Just as crucially, all that extra power pays dividends on the trail, where it can help you get through mud, sand, and rocks with ease.

The 392 is more than just a big V8 stuffed into a Wrangler. It features beefed-up frame-rails, a 2-inch lift with Fox shock absorbers, and upgraded brakes. But you’ll hear the 392 before you see it, thanks to its dual-mode performance exhaust. It emits an incredible rumble and has an off button so you can stay friends with your neighbors. But if the roar of this V8’s exhaust doesn’t put a smile on your face, medical professionals may need to check your pulse.

Form and Function

8/ 10

Jeep offers cloth tops and hardtops for the Wrangler, but it offers multiple options for each. The basic setup is the zipper-less Sunrider soft-top. The “zipperless” part is important, as older Jeeps featured zippers that would rust or stick, yielding raw fingertips when trying to put the top up or down. Jeep also offers a premium black cloth soft top as well as a classic-looking tan soft top.

The Freedom top is a three-piece hardtop with removable panels over the driver and front passenger. This is available in black or body color and is also available with insulated panels to reduce road noise.

Our Rubicon 392 featured the Sky one-touch power top. It appears to be a body-color hardtop from the back and sides, but the roof is a power-retractable canvas panel. It takes 18 seconds to open or close and operates at speeds up to 60 mph. Though it may be blasphemy to Jeep purists, it’s a convenient way to take advantage of the open-air Jeep experience—especially for older owners who may not be able to routinely retract/remove the roof.

The cabin is all-function, with a small center console bin and glovebox, but effective in-door cargo nets. The cabin also features drain plugs so that it can be hosed out. The Wrangler Unlimited provides 31.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. With the rear seats folded, it provides up to 72.4 cubic feet of cargo space. That’s on par with smaller and less expensive crossovers. Those numbers can also be deceiving, as wheel-wells and roll-bars make it harder to fit in larger items.

Tech Level

8/ 10

The Sport comes with a very basic 5-inch screen that’s used to operate the radio and maybe some vehicle settings. We’d recommend at least going for the 7-inch Uconnect screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This is optional on the Sport S and standard on other trims. You can also opt for the sharp 8.4-inch Uconnect screen. Both of the larger screens have crisp graphics and easy-to-read layouts. Jeep combines this with radio toggles on the back of the steering wheel, which are very intuitive.

Our Rubicon 392 also featured a color TFT screen in the center of the instrument panel, between the traditional tachometer and speedometer. Our test model also had a clever off-road camera. Jeep takes similar hardware to the backup camera and nestles it right in between the slats of the front grille. This provides the driver a clear view of the trail ahead. It also has its own washer-sprayer, which will come in handy when off-roading in muddy or dusty trails.

Safety

7/ 10

Perhaps at one time, the exposed roll cages were impressive safety features, but the auto industry has made incredible advancements.

Modern driver-assistance features like forward-collision warning and lane departure warning are standard even on relatively affordable cars like the Toyota Corolla. On the Wrangler, they are optional, and few are to be found. You can get forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, parking sensors, and blind-spot monitoring, but they are all optional. And there is no available lane-departure warning feature. You do get a backup camera with dynamic guidelines, but otherwise, it’s pretty basic, especially in the base configuration.

The Wrangler is also available with a live tire-pressure monitoring system, which can come in handy when off-roading. We spent some time with the 392 driving through some sand dunes, which requires “airing down” your tires for better traction. We could monitor the tire pressures in real-time to ensure we were within safe operating limits.

Cost-Effectiveness

7/ 10

As you might have guessed, the 4xe is the most efficient variant of the Wrangler Unlimited. It returns an EPA-estimated 40 MPGe, or miles-per-gallon equivalent. This is the agency’s format for evaluating the efficiency of an electrified vehicle. Once the electric power is exhausted, the 4xe returns 20 mpg combined. Though we cover the 4xe in a separate review, it’s worth noting these stats in one of the newest examples of the Wrangler Unlimited.

The Wrangler EcoDiesel returns 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, 25 mpg combined, and the gas 2.0-liter turbo returns 21 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, 22 mpg combined. The automatic version of the gas V6 returns 19 mpg city, 24 mpg highway, 21 mpg combined. With the manual transmission, the gas V6 returns 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, 19 mpg combined. Our V8-powered Rubicon 392 returns just 13 mpg city, 17 mpg highway, 14 mpg combined. In our week of combined city and highway driving, we observed an average fuel economy of 12.5 mpg.

Pricing for the 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited starts at $32,075 for the base Sport trim level. The Sport S starts at $36,515, and the Sahara starts at 39,170. The Rubicon starts at $42,720, while the Rubicon 392 starts at $42,720. With the integrated off-road camera ($595), Sky one-touch roof ($2,000), and other options, our Rubicon 392 test model clocked in at $78,545 MSRP.

With the wide variety of powertrains and equipment, the Wrangler Unlimited is a blank canvas. You can outfit it as a bare-bones Sport or the flashy High Altitude ($50,075). In between, there are a number of special editions, like the Willys, Islander, Freedom, and 80th Anniversary. More than that, there is an entire industry dedicated to aftermarket parts to optimize your Jeep for whatever you desire.

At a time when electric cars and autonomous vehicles are all the buzz, the Wrangler might seem like a dinosaur. But even the many popular car-based SUVs out there will never capture what Jeep has in the Wrangler. It’s an expression of freedom and the launching pad for adventure. With the new Rubicon 392 and plug-in hybrid 4xe, Jeep has not only expanded what's possible in a Jeep but managed to evolve with the times and listen to its dedicated fanbase.

Updated by George Kennedy

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