2018 Jeep Wrangler First Drive: The All-New Wrangler Sets the Standard, Again

If you buy this Jeep and don’t test its mettle in the wild, your car-cred will be revoked.

The designers and engineers behind the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler must have had a hell of a good time creating this thing. After all, the decisions they make aren’t like the decisions other vehicle developers wrestle with in their studios. How many, for instance, decide to stamp a Torx bit tool size directly onto an aluminum exterior door hinge, in case the owner forgets the size while getting ready to pop the door off for a day of open-air trail bashing? How many will dedicate months to developing a new, faster system for flipping the front windshield forward? While most automotive R&D focuses on “generating feelings of well-being” or “creating a refined embodiment of luxury and performance” or such bullpucky, Jeep engineers instead want to make sure you can still hose out the interior after you bring home all the mud in Moab. 

That’s the beauty of the Jeep Wrangler—it’s not like other cars. Sure, its creators spent time homing in on ideal button placement and speccing out interior materials to generate specific kinds of visual and tactile qualities, but the Wrangler caters to a different kind of buyer overall, and the brand’s devotion to usability and utility feels as much like they’re fulfilling a military contract as providing for consumer needs. 

That’s overwhelmingly the vibe I got while putting the new Wrangler through its paces in New Zealand in early November—weeks before the car was even revealed to the public at a standing-room-only press conference at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show. While we were able to divulge the technical details of the new trail blazer then, I’ve had to hold my tongue on the driving impressions until now. It’s been a challenge, because scrambling around Kiwi’s rougher edges in the car left me wanting to blabber on endlessly about how this whole effort is a case study in not disappointing fans of an automotive legend. This in an age when heritage often feels purely cosmetic, something brand managers pay lip service to while the product guys go about squeezing out authenticity under intense pressure from the accounting department. But nothing about this car is worse than its predecessor. Everything is better; every decision made to strengthen the product both literally and figuratively. 

So what’s that mean for the Jeep nut? The versatile, infinitely customizable machine succeeds on three key fronts. Namely, it’s more capable, it’s more modern, and it’s more drivable. (I.e. it doesn’t suck on pavement.) Any one of those qualities could be forgiven for canceling out one of the others, but Jeep has managed to push this boulder farther up the mountain by making the Wrangler a jack-and-master-of-all-trades. In the Southern Alps of New Zealand, as the mountains around Queenstown are known, I pushed the Wrangler down riverbeds, through boulder fields, into trenches, up steep hills, and then—more relaxed but no less tellingly—along the beautiful twisty roads surrounding Lake Wakatipu.

Let’s start with the nitty gritty, since that’s what the hardcore Jeep crowd savors most. Capability enhancements can be found along many fronts in the new Wrangler, which is available as a two-door Sport, Sport S, and Rubicon—the top model and the ones tested in New Zealand—and as a four-door in the same trims, plus Sahara. Structurally, the Wrangler retains its boxed-ladder frame and solid axles, but it has been bolstered with high-strength steel and aluminum used where it made the most sense, including the doors, hood, and windshield frame—and plastic fenders that are meant to essentially be disposable, in addition to lightweight. This rejiggering shaved off 200 pounds but improved its overall strength. 

Strength also comes in the suspension and powertrain. The Sport and Sahara trim levels have Dana 30 front axles and Dana 35 rears, and the Sahara gets a new Selec-Trac two-speed transfer case with a full-time four-wheel drive mode for continuous power equally distributed to front and rear axles. Rubicon, meanwhile, has next-generation Dana 44s and electronically locking differentials and electronic anti-roll bar disconnects, along with optional Trac-Lok limited-slip rear differential for extra torque and grip in sand, gravel, snow, or ice. Its crawl ratio has improved to 84:1 from 73:1 in the manual transmission and 77:1 from 55:1 in the automatic, generating more torque at the wheel and more precise power application at lower speeds. On the trails and in the boulders, that meant essentially being able to power through a greater variety of challenges than its predecessor could muster, but more importantly, doing it better—and more enjoyably—overall.

Under the hood, Wrangler wrangles a familiar 3.6-liter V-6—now with a stop-start function to boost fuel economy—that produces 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It’s a classic engine, but a new 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four cranks out 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, handily beating the V-6 while also scoring better fuel economy. It’s a mild-hybrid with what they call eTorque tech—a way of improving fuel economy and launch performance, and minimizing the often jarring stop-stop transitions at stoplights and whatnot. There’s also a diesel coming—thanks to popular demand on the part of the Jeep fanbase—but not until some time in 2019. 

The big news in the engine compartment, of course, remains that four-cylinder, which quickly became a favorite since it moves the ball forward without compromising Jeep’s credibility. It felt great both under duress and in more relaxed operation, and will likely become a favorite as well among at least the newer buyers, if not the die-hards. (Both models can be cranked via a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic.)

A few more details in this category: Water fording capability stands ar 30 inches, and terrain clearance gets a boost with an approach angle of 44 degrees, a breakover angle of 27.8 degrees—better by 2 degrees—and a departure angle of 37 degrees, up five. Ground clearance is 10.9 inches. The power steering module now includes an electric pump for the hydraulic assist, tighter tuning, and a more powerful steering ram that helps you power your way out of a jam, sometimes with steering force alone. If you do make contact, skid plates and rock rails protect the components and body from damage. During that slow crawl through the boulder field—situated very obviously in a valley still rimmed with glaciers—every move seemed to generate a ghastly scraping of metal on rock, yet the plates and rails did their job, supporting the Wrangler as it pivoted over certain obstacles while slamming spectacularly down on others. It was a wonder that all four of the Jeeps we were testing made it out alive, but they all did, with but a few scratches and not a single broken part.

That’s all raw capability—the manna of both enthusiast off-roaders and those whose work or lives depend on the ability to go where roads don’t. Modernization is an admittedly less urgent enhancement, but one that pays off with its own quality-of-life bennies. Here it manifests itself in two distinct ways: Better designs that eliminate a variety of highly negative “quirks,” and in new and improved safety and infotainment technology. The door removal process has been eased through the use of hinge pins of unequal lengths, so they can be inserted without both being necessarily aligned, and the fold-forward windshield has been simplified to a mere four bolts rather than several dozen in previous versions—a system so infuriatingly complex that few knew you even could fold the windscreen forward. That familiar flutter in the clamshell hood at highway speeds? Gone, thanks to redesigned latches. Roof management has also been hugely improved, via a retractable soft top that can be opened and closed in seconds rather than removed once and never put back on again due to sheer complexity. 

These are just the most visible ways that Jeep honors its fan base, since it was their vocal griping that spurred the changes. Of course, when used in the field, the roof and doors and windshield adjustments are no-brainer mods on the fly, and its baffling that they were so complex in the first place. But that’s progress—and there were of course production and design constraints in previous generations that just made things … harder. No more. Jeep is now a part of the modern era. (BTW, coming in mid-2018: An electric retractable roof.)

That modernization also means, of course, catering to modern expectations in interfaces and safety. In addition to requisite blind-spot monitoring, backup camera, and rear cross-path pedestrian an vehicle detection, the Jeep now has a bright, clear instrument cluster that features a 3.5-inch or 7-inch thin-film transistor (TFT) information LED display. The 7-inch version allows configuration and a variety of data feeds, and the central touchscreen (7-inch or 8.4) now includes the fourth-generation Uconnect system with improved navigation, communication, and entertainment features. Also critical these days: USB ports. Four total—two front, two rear. All of this tech remains waterproof, so you’re still able to wash up after a mud-hop.

But of course mudhops aren’t necessarily on the weekend menu for most Wrangler owners, and this acknowledgement among Jeep engineers proved perhaps the greatest maturation of the machine. After three days in the rough, we re-entered polite society in New Zealand by popping out onto an actual paved road. In an instant, all muscle memory tied to offroad endeavors experienced just minutes before vanished entirely as the Wrangler’s newfound smoothness put itself on display. Part of this comes from the suspension—engineers adjusted the system’s roll center height, raising it and retuning the spring rates for a better ride on the roads, and the body roll and corner handling has been similarly improved, via shock tuning, toughened-up hard points, and stronger body mounts that limit play. Wind, road, and powertrain noise are now on par with any other well-mannered SUV, something that’s immediately noticeable and equally immediately embraced. Again, this is no half-assed redesign. It’s legit, on every front—and worth every penny. 

How many pennies is that? Pricing for the V-6 two-door starts at $26,995, with the Rubicon beginning at $36,995. The four-door starts at $30,495 and the Rubicon four-door at $40,495. It’s a relatively small price to pay for a car that’s so unlike any other...and even more so now.