Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: May 11, 2019
The “Jeep wave” is a real phenomenon. As I piloted my 2019 Jeep Wrangler through the dense urban jungle, I received a countless number of these gestures from fellow Wrangler drivers passing by, from the subtle head nod to the fully committed hand wave. Initially I tried to keep a tally, you know, for science purposes, but I helplessly lost count within the first 24 hours. It didn’t help that my Wrangler was draped in a bright shade of green aptly named “Mojito!” but the fanbase, enthusiasm, and zealotry that has amassed behind this charming off-roader is undeniable.
The new Jeep Wrangler, dubbed the JL model, was brand new for 2018 (and carried over mainly unchanged for 2019) with subtle yet impactful differences that accumulated into a more refined SUV. It kept its off-roading soul intact while benefiting from a splash of road manners and better on-road civility. The Wrangler received new head- and tail-lights that appeared more distinctive at night, lighter aluminum doors, hinges, and fenders, and a magnesium swing gate. The front windshield was raked back for better aerodynamics, the windows slightly bigger, and the trunk-mounted spare tire lowered for improved rearward visibility. The Wrangler grew larger in every dimension too, diverting most of that added space to rear seat legroom in four-door models and thanks to lighter materials, the Wrangler didn’t take a weight penalty either.
The most significant revisions with the JL lay with the interior, where the Wrangler finally felt like a premium offering in top trim levels with a revised dashboard and upgraded switchgear. However, quality issues continue to plague our Wrangler experiences, even on our fully loaded Sahara Unlimited that is barely caressing 3,000 km on the odometer. We noticed some of the interior panels rattling, and the leather stitching on the steering wheel coming loose in multiple areas. Even the center glove box latch broke after a few uses. The Sirius XM Radio connection would also cut out briefly when driving over speed bumps and road cracks, and even though the latter wasn’t consistent, the accumulation of these minor issues don’t exactly reflect the rising price that these modern Wranglers command.
There’s a new roof option, dubbed the Sky One-Touch powertop. It’s a power-operated soft-top that retracts all the way up to the rear passenger headrest with a simple push of a button, and folds up just like in the Fiat 500 Convertible. It takes about 18 seconds but can be operated up to 96 km/h. Not only does this offer an excellent way for owners to get some sunshine, but there’s none of the hassle of removing the roof just to get some open air. We gave it a whirl, and discovered that you can actually keep the roof open at any fixed gap. So if you only want to flood the front seats with sunshine, you can do so. Or you can let the gates open for both rows. When fully retracted, the wind buffeting is excellent as well and doesn’t turn the cabin into a turbulent mess.
With the standard hardtop roof, we have heard of many owners struggling with roof removal, citing the weight to lift it and lack of storage space for it (think condo dwellers), but this new powertop is a convenient remedy. On the other hand, the Sky One-Touch roof is fixed and cannot be removed, though you can still take off the rear quarter panels that house the windows. It is also the most expensive roof option, costing $3,995. We didn’t notice any difference in cabin insulation or noise compared to the hardtop, and we also can’t comment on how well it might hold up against water leaks. If you want to read more about our hardtop Wrangler experience, including our time disassembling the doors and roof, you can check out our full Wrangler JL Rubicon review here.
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. Underneath all the sheetmetal, it’s still the same body-on-frame mid-size SUV with a two-speed transfer case and solid front and rear axles. 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.
The big news is the new and optional 2.0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged four-cylinder, sourced from the Alfa Romeo Stelvio but with an eTorque mild hybrid system, which we were finally able to test. The RAM 1500 also utilizes this eTorque function, and is essentially a 48-volt battery pack that adds supplementary torque to the crankshaft, allows for start/stop during engine idle (which is so smooth and seamless that you won’t even notice it operating), and recuperates energy for recharging the battery when decelerating and braking. It can shut off the engine and take over when coasting or decelerating as well.
Pushing out 270 hp and 295 lb-ft exclusively through an 8-speed automatic (no manual available with this engine), it’s down on horsepower compared to the V6 but up on torque. There’s more character to the four-cylinder surprisingly, and it’s more eager off the line even though it comes with a 16 kg weight penalty over the V6. Despite being slightly less linear, there is way more punch in the mid-range and I actually found it more responsive. With the hybrid system filling in the voids where there would normally be turbo lag or interruption in power during gear shifts, the 2.0-litre performs fluidly and flawlessly as it runs through each of its eight gears. It’s as smooth as a four-cylinder can get, but that doesn’t mean the V6 is out of contention.
Real world fuel efficiency benefits of the 2.0-litre aren’t exactly stellar, and have not been proven to be better than the V6’s. We averaged 11.0 L/100km in purely city driving, comparable to our time with the V6. You also can’t get a manual transmission with the 2.0-litre. The coolant lines running underneath the body that prevent the eTorque battery from overheating aren’t exactly out of harm’s reach either. Hitting a rock or two seems like it could easily damage the system. The four-banger also recommends premium 91-octane fuel, requires more frequent spark plug changes, has two cooling systems, and will undoubtedly have more carbon build up thanks to the combination of both direct injection and the new Exhaust Gas Recirculation valve. Not everyone wants to introduce more moving parts and complexities to their Wrangler, and if you ever foresee yourself taking it off-road, I’d stick with the simpler and theoretically more durable V6 instead. It’s been on the market for 7 years now and should hopefully have had most of its kinks worked out.
The Wrangler still drives like every other Wrangler before it: capable and confident off the road, but shaky and anxious on the road. This Wrangler JL feels slightly stiffer than before and body roll is readily apparent but not as butt-clenching. 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 but even on the flattest of concrete roads, the Wrangler will reveal even the slightest of bumps and cracks via vertical movement.
On-road manners have improved but are still questionable, as the tires and off-road-ready suspension setup prove to be the Wrangler’s weakest link in civility. 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. Coming from any modern vehicle with electric power steering, it will take some initial adjustment and fine-tuning of muscle memory, as it requires wheel adjustment every few seconds. The frequency increases as the road gets bumpier and the wind gets stronger.
The Sahara trim that I drove wasn’t as bad the Rubicon we drove last year with its gargantuan 33-inch all-terrain off-road tires, but you will still have an easier time grabbing a toy out of a toddler’s hands than keeping the Wrangler pointed directly ahead. There is a considerable on-center dead spot in the steering, making it difficult to accurately place the front wheels where you want, and it takes quite a bit of rotation to get it to turn. There isn’t any sort of linear or organic build up in the steering weight either. To add on top of that, wind noise bombards the front windshield like a maelstrom of artillery fire, preventing drivers from engaging in any sort of conversation at highway speeds. Best to take another vehicle for those lengthy road trips.
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 outside but critical alterations beneath it. Overall, it is a more honed Wrangler that hasn’t lost its characterful soul from gaining slightly better on-road manners, but nothing about this new model is revolutionary, and it’s not the easiest nor the cheapest ($60,000 for a loaded Sahara for chrissakes) mid-size SUV to live with on a daily basis. Be that as it may, there are few SUVs that instill the same amount of terrain confidence as this Jeep, even if both your hands are constantly micro-correcting the steering wheel every few seconds. Just don’t forget to wave.
Model: 2019 Jeep Wrangler (JL) Sahara Unlimited 4X4
Paint Type: Mojito!
Base Price: $46,745
Price as Tested: $62,170
Wheelbase (mm): 3,008
Length / width / height (mm): 4,785 / 1,875 / 1,868
Curb weight (kg): 1,987
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four with eTorque mild hybrid system
Horsepower: 270 hp @ 5,250 rpm
Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-Speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, 4X4
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 10.9 / 10.0 / 10.5
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 11.0