Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: August 24, 2018
You would be hard pressed to tell but the Jeep Wrangler shown in our photographs is a brand new model for 2018, undergoing the knife with subtle yet impactful differences that accumulate into a more refined SUV that keeps its off-roading soul intact while benefiting from a splash of road manners for better on-road civility.
Dubbed the JL model (replacing the JK), the Wrangler receives new head- and tail-lights that appear more distinctive at night, lighter aluminum doors, hinges, and fenders, and a magnesium swing gate. The front windshield has been raked back for better aerodynamics, the windows are slightly bigger, and the trunk-mounted spare tire has been lowered for improved rearward visibility. The Wrangler has grown larger in every dimension, diverting most of that added space to rear seat legroom in four-door models and thanks to lighter materials, the Wrangler doesn’t take a weight penalty either.
The most significant revisions lie with the interior, where the Wrangler finally feels like a premium offering in top trim levels with a revised dashboard and upgraded switchgear. Sure, the Rubicon model that we drove has manual cloth seats and everything feels more functional than comfortable, but waterproof linings, solid panel seals, covers for the USB and media outlets, and a thinner but more attractive steering wheel adds to the appeal of its $60,000 as-tested price tag. Wranglers now come equipped with 5.0-, 7.0-, and 8.4-inch touchscreens (splash-proof, as they say) which I have tested in other Dodges and Jeeps, and are easy to use with large screen prompts and physical dials for volume and tuning. The colours are vibrant, the graphics are crispy, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the board. Oh, and did I mention that the steering wheel not only tilts, but can now telescope as well? I can finally find a comfortable seating position without having to sit awkwardly straight up.
To add a bit of visual garnish, the locking differential switch panel has been highlighted in red, and the center cluster of buttons and knobs are symmetrically arranged. The Wrangler even comes with optional heated seats and steering wheel, which comes in handy when the doors are off and the air a bit chilly. To my amazement, the Wrangler interior is an easter egg explosion of Willys icons and silhouettes everywhere from the bottom of the windshield to the spokes of the rims, and even after a week with it, I still haven't found them all. The Alpine audio system is decent, with an effective amount of bass that reaches all four corners of the cabin, even when the doors are off thanks to speakers on the center roof section.
Aesthetic revisions aside, the Wrangler comes off as a familiar character in the automotive field, a floating castle riding on top of rugged wheels with the aerodynamics of a brick house. The powertrain hasn’t changed much for 2018, utilizing the same 3.6L naturally aspirated Pentastar V6 providing 285 hp and 260 lb-ft via a standard six-speed manual or optional 8-speed automatic. The V6 also comes with engine start/stop, benefiting fuel economy.
New and optional for the Wrangler JL is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder pushing out 270 hp and 295 lb-ft exclusively through an 8-speed automatic - manual is only available with the V6. Down on horsepower and up on torque, the turbo-four will offer a less linear but punchier and hopefully a more responsive motor.
Our four-door fully-loaded Rubicon came equipped with the V6, so I can’t report on the turbo-four as of yet. Even though the naturally aspirated engine lacks low-end grunt, has a vague mid-range, and emits an uninspiring high-rpm wail, it is the linearity and predictability between the gas pedal and forward propulsion that keeps me content. It drives pretty much like every other Wrangler before it: capable and confident off the road, but shaky and anxious on the road. You do feel the gargantuan weight of the Wrangler hinder acceleration, and the V6 will chug and struggle to catch its breath when trying to overtake at triple digit speeds. Don’t kid yourself, the Wrangler is not a very quick SUV, and straight line races aren’t its forte, or its mission. We’re still waiting on news of a rumoured hybrid model, so stay tuned for that, and a 3.0-litre turbodiesel model is coming to Canada next year which promises to deliver a colossal 442 lb-ft of torque. Colour me excited.
Now I wasn’t able to subject this Wrangler Rubicon to the elements in off-road scenarios, like water fording or rock crawling, so this is purely an on-road street test of Jeep’s most hardcore variant. I know, it’s a shame since this Rubicon comes with some nifty features and superhuman abilities to conquer terrain that most people would never think possible. Alas, we have our money on the fact that a good handful of Rubicons will never see anything but asphalt, so this test will be as relevant as ever. The Rubicon trim adds exceedingly sturdy Dana 44 front and rear axles which are wider than before, tightening up the turning radius making three-point turns and correcting parking angles effortless. Rubicons also receive unique fender flares and wheel openings, the carried-over Rock-Trac two-speed transfer case, an electronic sway bar, beefier BFGoodrich All-Terrain 33-inch tires (the same rubber you will find on the Ford F-150 Raptor), a retuned suspension, and other other aesthetic upgrades like red tow hooks, Rubicon decals, and a Trail Rated badge.
This Wrangler feels slightly stiffer than before and body roll is readily apparent but not as butt-clenching as before. Still, such a high center of gravity doesn’t lend it any favours when driving spiritedly, and you will need a slow-in fast-out approach if you want to take corners quickly. On the bright side, the Wrangler does feel more confident during side-to-side maneuvers at speed, and on-road comfort has improved with less vertical motions and more composure, settling quickly after undulating surface changes.
But it’s the tires that become the Rubicon’s weakest link in civility, and aren’t that great for daily use. At low speeds, the tires behave normally and are tolerable, but once you get past 60 km/h the wheels struggle to stay straight, shimmying and squirming the steering wheel away from you as you constantly correct its trajectory like Apollo 13 without gimbal lock. I was heading down Highway 401 when the left tire reached a slightly raised piece of asphalt, causing the whole chassis to become epileptic and suddenly void of front wheel traction. The quivering steering wheel unnervingly flung out my grasp as I struggled to countersteer and keep the Wrangler from veering into the vehicle beside me, and luckily had the Jeep settled down before any collateral damage. Keep in mind that this was at a speedy 100 km/h.
Such is the sacrifice for this kind of rubber. If you plan on living with the Wrangler on a daily basis, skip the Rubicon and opt for the Sahara model that comes with smaller and more comfortable tires. To add on top of that, at highway speeds there is a great deal of wind noise bombarding the front windshield like a maelstrom of artillery fire, making it difficult to keep a quiet conversation going. Best to take another vehicle for those lengthy road trips - the cochlea can only handle so much.
What I believe to be the most unique and charming feature of the Wrangler is the removable doors and roof. There are three different roof configurations: a first-ever electrically-powered convertible top that operates with just a push of a button (no Torx wrenches or engineering degree necessary), a regular soft-top, and a three-piece hardtop which our four-door Rubicon came with, and is supposedly lighter and easier to remove than before. Spoiler alert: it’s still heavy.
Taking the four doors and front roof section apart are easy with simple screws and a provided Torx wrench, but it’s the one-piece in the back (rear roof, windshield, and entire C-pillar section) that proves to be challenging to lift off the frame for one-man job. It requires some friendly assistance unless you’ve got arms the size of the Hulk, and even then it’s tricky, as most of the weight is back-end biased so best to play it safe, as replacing shattered windows and scratched body panels surely won’t come cheap. The front windshield can also be lowered if you so choose, and now only require the removal of four bolts as opposed to the crippling 28 bolts from before.
The operation only takes around half an hour if you’re familiar with the steps required, but it’s rewarding to not only see but drive the final result, nevermind the baffling mid-removal realization of how little is actually holding the roof and doors to the frame other than a few nuts and bolts. On the bright side, when everything is off, the naked Wrangler will accelerate faster!
Talk about a special and peerless driving experience though, with wind coming in from all sides and seeing the lane markings whizz by in clear view right next to your feet, and the only thing keeping you from becoming roadkill are the seatbelts. This really is a true open-air experience that not even drop-top convertibles can match. Thank goodness that body roll has improved this time around or else any loose objects in the cabin will quickly become road debris, but best to keep that phone stowed in the glovebox anyways.
Jeep had to tread carefully when redesigning their iconic Wrangler. It is their pillar, their rock, their shining light that keeps the brand stable and secure, but they have moved heaven and earth to appease both enthusiasts and critics with a subtle upgrade on the face but critical alterations beneath it. Nothing about it is revolutionary, but overall it is a more honed Wrangler that hasn’t lost its characterful soul from gaining better road manners, imperative in keeping this iconic off-roader alive and breathing in this ever-changing automotive landscape.
Model: 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4X4
Paint Type: Firecracker Red
Base Price: $48,745
Price as Tested: $58,650
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,785 / 1,875 / 1,868
Curb weight (kg): 1,912
Engine: 3.6-litre V6
Horsepower: 285 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, 4X4
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 12.9 / 10.2 / 11.7
Tires: BFGoodrich KO2 All-Terrain