2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Review: Taking a Winter Dip in the Renewed Off-Road Icon

Its popularity already at a high, this all-new Wrangler is a giant leap forward in civility—but it still prefers leaping into mud, rocks or water.  

Taking a Winter Dip With the 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Like a lot of northerners this time of year, I’ve been praying that winter has petered out, and that New York’s sidewalks—disgusting enough at any time—have seen their last snowfall of the season. And then the 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon showed up at my door, like a brat in a bright-red snowsuit, begging me to come outside and play.

I obliged with a day of off-roading at New York’s Monticello Motor Club, whose roughly 350 acres of trails were snowbound from a recent nor’easter—including several storm-felled trees that blocked access to some trails. Conditions were frankly not ideal, even for this Rubicon, the most hardcore trail boss in the all-new Wrangler—internally named “JL”—lineup. Yet the Jeep (and its drivers) had a ball anyway, drawing a hoon’s version of snow angels—maybe snow A-holes?— in the deep drifts. [Let's never call them that again. —Ed.] Chris Duplessis, Monticello’s track director and our favorite rally champ, naturally coaxed some picturesque, snowy roostertails out of the Jeep. Yet low-speed obstacle crawling is the Jeep’s true calling, and this Wrangler is even better for those impromptu commando missions. 

Chris Szczypala

Wrangler Rubicon, feeling unstoppable on Monticello Motor Club's off-road trails

2018 Wrangler's Rubicon trim brings the best off-road goodies

Versus the Wrangler Sport, Sport S and Sahara models, the Rubicon adopts beefier Dana 44 axles front and rear, whose durability is essential for any serious off-roader—including owners who want to run taller-than-stock tires that put major stress on components. Even this Rubicon now comes standard with 33-inch tall tires (up from 32s) on black wheels, with knobby, BF Goodrich K02 All-Terrain rubber. Those “new generation” Danas include a 4.10 drive ratio that improves the Jeep’s low-speed crawling ratio and creeping ability on trails, no matter which transmission you choose: The eight-speed automatic, operated via a cool, Louisville Slugger-sized shift lever, or the new six-speed manual that’s unfortunately only offered with the familiar Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6. That eight-speed ably replaces a crapulent old five-speed, and lifts fuel economy to 18/23 miles per gallon city/highway in both two-door and four-door Unlimited models, up from 17/21 mpg before. (The manual-trans V-6 model is good for 17/25 mpg).

Chris Szczypala

Reworked seven-slot grille harkens to Jeep CJ's of old. Steel bumpers optional.

That familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar engine makes 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque here. But a new 2.0-liter turbo—related to the engine in the Alfa Romeo Giulia and Stelvio—becomes the Jeep’s first available four-banger since 2006. The four-cylinder delivers 270 horses and 295-pound feet of torque, the latter peaking at just 3,000 rpm. That's both more-accessible and more overall torque than the V-6, whose lesser 260 pound-feet doesn’t peak until 4,800 rpm. 

That torque gets another low-end boost from FCA’s new eTorque mild hybrid system, with its 48-volt battery, start/stop function, and regenerative braking. No word on mileage yet, but that extra grunt, efficiency, and technology bring a $1,000 upcharge versus the V-6. But the real torque king arrives next year: an optional 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel with 260 horsepower and 442 pound-feet.

Chris Szczypala

By next year, Wrangler will offer a diesel in addition to a gasoline V-6 and mild-hybrid turbo four.

Once muddied up, it was bathtime for the Jeep. The Wrangler joined the Polar Bear Club, breaking up a scenic sheet of ice over a small pond (sorry, nature lovers) and flirting with its official fording limit of 30-inch water. There’s 10.9 inches of ground clearance under the rear differential’s “pumpkin.” And the Jeep’s approach angle—that handy guide to how steeply the Jeep can climb or descend without grinding its front bumper—has actually improved by two degrees.

Come warm weather, owners will enjoy a literal breakthrough: You can finally fold down this Jeep’s windshield—or remove and erect its optional soft top—without a shop manual and some anger management techniques. Removing four simple bolts allows the windshield to drop flat, compared with the 28 fasteners of old. My Jeep’s hardtop featured a pair of removable, quick-release panels over the front seats; that entire hardtop can be lifted off as well.

Chris Szczypala

Man, you could really use a bath. Just not deeper than 30 inches

On this day, the only obstacle that flummoxes the Jeep is a wall of boulders that’s just too covered in snow and ice for us to get enough traction and reach the top. But the Jeep ably climbs daunting grades through a good 18 inches of virgin snow. With the Wrangler sitting in one deep, rocky stream bed, I need to lock the front and rear axles (which requires shifting a second manual lever into low-range 4WD) to clamber up the steep bank. Ah, and here’s the locker switch, now a simple, ergonomically-friendly toggle—up for just the rear axle, down for both axles—that Jeep designers moved to the center dashboard from its former place as hard-to-locate switches buried near the driver’s left knee. Standard steel skid plates—and the Rubicon version’s standard rock rails—kept me from damaging the rocker panels, or worse, critical powertrain components.

Chris Szczypala

Wrangler encourages Ulrich to pursue a second career as an L.L. Bean model

2018 Jeep Wrangler is just as capable, way more livable

I can picture what Zen masters of rock-hopping and mud bogging are thinking: Yeah, we know this Jeep is well-nigh unstoppable. What you won’t know, until you experience this Jeep for yourself, is how livable it’s become. The quivering structure, gale-force wind noise and crappy HVAC system? All banished. The pathetically slack steering, Richter-scale column shake, torpid handling, and shimmying over bumps? Also remarkably improved. For the first time in history, the Wrangler isn’t a chore to drive on pavement. 

And as Eric Adams noted on his own Wrangler drive in New Zealand—hey, it’s not the Catskills, but whatever—the Jeep may be suddenly civilized, but nothing about it is wimped-out or watered down. It’s still as purely authentic an off-road tool as you can buy. That's even more remarkable when you consider how many legitimate off-roaders have either gone extinct (Nissan Xterra, Toyota FJ, all the Hummers) or been so compromised as to be unrecognizable (Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota 4Runner).

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Psst, naked pictures of a Jeep

First, the Jeep’s steel frame is now fully boxed and noticeably more rigid, including a big jump to 80-percent high-strength steel. Yet the frame alone is 100 pounds lighter. A new five-link front suspension, revised geometry, and redesigned body mounts deliver much better noise and bump isolation. No one will confuse the Jeep with, say, a Mazda CX-5 or other car-mimicking SUV...but you won’t confuse it with a Woodstock-era school bus, either.

There’s still generous play in the steering, but the Wrangler feels vastly more planted and confident at speed. On the return from Monticello, I steered the Jeep down long highway grades, in vicious crosswinds, at better than 80 mph, with no white knuckles whatsoever. The clamshell hood, now held in place with two easy-acting front latches, didn’t flutter and wobble, thanks to a pair of vents that let air pass through.

Chris Szczypala

New hood latches are a breeze; hood vents tame breeze, prevent clamshell hood from fluttering at speed

A useful passenger grab-bar atop the glovebox helped my height-challenged sister clamber aboard. Oh, and let's not forget the creature comforts, though many are optional: leather upholstery, touchscreen navigation and remote start; wi-fi, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto; heated front seats and steering wheel; a back-up camera (useful when you’re got that spare tire hanging off the back), blind-spot monitor, and cross-traffic detection. (The excellent UConnect infotainment screen is waterproof, along with four USB ports, so you can still theoretically take a hose to the interior). A heated steering wheel on a Wrangler? Maybe I’ll skip the mittens the next time I hit the woods. 

Such suspect indulgences would have infuriated my late father, who never met a bare-bones truck—from Jeep Wagoneers to International Harvester Travelalls—that he didn’t like. Some Jeep fans might feel equally put off by my tester’s $49,570 price. (Say it with me, and don't go easy on the f-bomb: $50,000 for a fucking Wrangler?) Yet there's no need to spend anything like 50 grand. A two-door Wrangler Sport starts from barely half that, at $28,190, and a four-door Unlimited Sport begins at $31,690. Even this Rubicon 4x4 starts from $38,190. Let's put it this way: Have you priced out a Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz G-Class lately?

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Bare bones no longer, as there's now UConnect infotainment, Wi-fi, heated seats, you name it

While people associate Wranglers with baked deserts and snowy mountaintops, it’s actually an ideal truck for city dwellers, especially with the JL generation's quantum leap in comfort, quiet, and handling. Measuring just 166.8 inches long in two-door shorty guise, it’s a snap to park and maneuver in close quarters. That’s three inches shorter than a Mini Countryman, by the way, and 10 inches shorter than a Honda Civic sedan

Even the Jeep’s notoriously lazy turning circle is a significant 12 inches shorter than before, which allowed me to make an easy U-turn on a Brooklyn street. The Jeep feels impervious to potholes and other pavement atrocities that play hell with conventional cars. Yet the Jeep’s tall body and armor-plated attitude also make it a mini-Hummer in other driver’s eyes: In New York, everyone from timid Prius owners to chaotic Uber pilots gave the Wrangler a wide berth. 

Chris Szczypala

Redesigned chassis, suspension and body only boost Jeep's heroic off-road skills

15 years ago, the Wrangler seemed to be fading, finding as few as 64,000 buyers a year. Incredibly, even as other hardcore SUVs have disappeared—or in part because there are no like-priced alternatives—Wrangler sales have exploded since. The Wrangler reached a record 203,000 sales in 2015 (boosted by popular four-door versions) and topped 190,000 the past two years. And that’s for a model nearing the end of its life cycle. Considering that success story, I’d argue, vociferously, that this Wrangler is an early contender for next year’s North American Truck of the Year Award. Sure, the redesigned Ram 1500and Chevy Silverado are high-volume, spotlight-hogging pickups, but neither one represents a quantum leap in its category like this Jeep.

Or maybe I’m just biased. I’ve owned two Wranglers in my day, pressed into winter service when I lived in Detroit and had to garage my sports cars. For all their flaws—so many flaws—I loved those old Jeeps. This Wrangler JL charmed me all over again, yet it’s a ridiculously better daily driver than the ones I owned. In fact, when it came time to hand back the Jeep, I didn’t want to let it go; for me, that’s a reliable sign of a winning car or truck. Or, let me put it this way, especially if you’re sick of winter: Driving the new Wrangler, you might be happy if it snowed in July.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.