Tucson, Arizona — Just recently unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show in early December, the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler already sits atop the wish-lists of fans of the legendary 4x4 around the world. Needless to say, nowhere was the excitement more at fever pitch than at FCA Canada’s official launch of the eighth generation of one of the most iconic vehicles to have roamed the planet since the 1940s.
Its Jeep bonafides immediately apparent!
We’d already seen the first official images of the new Wrangler before alighting in the Arizona desert for the launch, but a fuller in-person inspection revealed some elements that make this JL model different than the previous edition (known as the JK).
Truth be told, the design of the 2018 edition is in in many ways very similar to its predecessor’s. It’s in the details that you start to see the new Jeep distinguishes itself. In front, for example, the grille still includes seven vertical slits, but they now take on a rectangular form, while the round headlamps now fit inside the two outside slits – a nod to the CJ model. There’s also the inclined upper end, inspired by the YJ model. The light clusters can now be fitted with LED lights, and the headlights adopt attractive luminous loops – a signature that identifies the Jeep as such. Note that the Sport version settles for conventional headlights.
From the side, a very discrete edge etched into the body gives an added hint of muscle to the vehicle, which by the way has gained in fenestration. In back, the window is larger (we heartily approve!), enabled by lowering the placement of the spare tire, and the licence plate slot has been moved to within the bumper. The design of the position lamps has also been updated on the higher trims – meaning it is not included in the base model of the Wrangler.
About those trims: the Sahara, with its chrome and its dressier wheels, focuses on elegance, while the Wrangler Rubicon is more aggressive in nature, as exemplified by its oversized wheel arches that harbour standard 33-inch wheels (we’re told 35-inch tires can be fitted under there as well, without modification), and its off-road vibe is enhanced by a few black exterior components.
The Wrangler on a diet
This new edition of the Jeep Wrangler had to be more fuel-efficient, as does any new model being produced these days, we should add. One way to get there is to lighten the load, and this the engineers at FCA dutifully did. The 2018 Wrangler still makes use of a ladder frame, but it’s the beneficiary this time around of high-resistance lightweight steel. As well, several of the body’s components, like the doors, hood, rear hatch and even the windshield frame, are now of aluminum.
As a result the vehicle is some 90 kg lighter than its predecessor. Add to that two improved powertrains and voilà, you have yourself a Jeep Wrangler that’s stingier on fuel than before.
Speaking of powertrains… there’s newness under the hood!
To start, the 2018 Wrangler retains its 3.6L Pentastar V6 as its base engine. Generating 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, this naturally aspirated 6-cylinder can be had with either a 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic transmission. Added to the mix this year is stop/start technology, sure to save owners even more at the pump.
But as the current trend is toward fewer cylinders, an all-new 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo engine delivering 270 hp and improved torque of 295 lb-ft has been added to the list of options. This is the same engine, by the way, that powers the Alfa Romeo Giulia, though with a few adjustments touching on the cylinder head. Only the 8-speed automatic gearbox is available with this engine, which also introduces eTorque technology, a hybrid system that enables not just engine stops at red lights, but also electric power assist, extend fuel shut-off, transmission shift management, intelligent battery charging and regenerative braking.
In the next year, The Wrangler will also be offered with a 3.0L EcoDiesel V6 with an output of 260 hp and delivering 442 lb-ft of torque. It will also be mated with the 8-speed automatic, though this one will be adapted to be able to manage that monstrous amount of torque. And there’s more: believe it or not, a plug-in hybrid Wrangler is also in the works, for some time in 2020!
A more refined Wrangler?
Unsurprisingly, the improvements made to the interior of the 2018 Wrangler are both significant and immediately apparent. Materials used are of high quality, the assembly more precise than ever. Obviously, the enhancements are more in-your-face when you choose the Sahara or Rubicon version; the leather and real metals add to the refinement quotient. But even the base model Wrangler Sport is clearly better-appointed, even if it does have to make do with some hard plastic surfaces and old-school handles for opening/closing the windows.
The rectilinear dashboard, for its part, takes its inspiration from various models of years past. Suffice to say that functionality is the main focus here; the ventilation commands are judiciously placed just above the buttons for the electric windows in the centre, a necessary ergonomic choice since the doors can be removed. Also noteworthy is the presence of the fourth-generation UConnect system (not available with the small screen), which operates faster and benefits from clearer graphics. Jeep is offering a choice between three screen sizes: 5, 7 or 8,4 inches. The instrument panel has also been revised and now includes a screen giving access to a host of useful information strategically placed behind the steering wheel.
Hats off the engineers who finally have integrated a telescopic column to the steering; the wheel itself is pleasant to the grip. The seating, however, is average at best. It’s more contoured than before, but it’s still some padding short of being able to really protect passengers from road irregularities.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the very few “dismantleable” vehicles currently on the market. If the mood strikes you can take off the doors, lower the windshield and of course remove the roof. The new model makes all these operations that much easier. Removing four bolts is all it takes to be able to lower the windshield, the doors are relatively simple to remove, and the soft roof is a bit easier to fold back, but the big improvement is in how much easier it now is to handle the hard top. The rear panels and those above the passengers can be pulled off in no time. Jeep has also introduced the Sunrider option, basically a foldable canvas that transforms the hard-top Wrangler into a convertible in just seconds.
At the wheel
Two main objectives animated the manufacturer when developing this new Wrangler: improving its off-road capabilities (no surprise there), and, more importantly, making driving it on the road a more pleasant experience.
When venturing far from the asphalt, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler is just about unmatched, as was confirmed by our brief session taking a Rubicon version rock climbing. With two available 4x4 systems, improved Dana axles, a new two-speed transfer case, power locking of the axle and the Trac-Lok limited-slip differential, the Wrangler was like a child at play.
Still, the iconic Jeep had no choice: it had to be a tamer beast on the road. After a number of kilometres behind the wheel, I can confirm that the 2018 edition 4x4 is unquestioningly more docile than before. The suspension is much better at filtering the road’s imperfections, and the transparency of the automatic transmission is a definite asset. The new turbo engine also shines when passing on the highway, thanks to the torque available to it at low RPM.
We also had the chance to drive a Sport 2 version powered by the V6 and a manual gearbox. In this case we were happy to note that the gear knob doesn’t vibrate like it used to. Purists may squawk, of course, but in my opinion it signifies if anything that the new gearbox is more precise.
More expensive nonetheless
Remodeled from end to end, the new JL will hit the market side-by-side with the JK this year; the latter, older model is, after all, still a big favourite of Jeep lovers everywhere. Be warned, however, that the new 4x4 comes with an inflated price tag. The 2018 Wrangler Sport 2-door comes with a starting price of $33,945, while the previous model came in at $27,945. This gap is repeated all the way up the trim ladder.
Given that, it will be interesting to see how consumers react when faced with the repositioning of the Jeep Wrangler in terms of its pricing. The love that Jeep fanatics feel for their beloved Wrangler, however, tells me that the manufacturer won’t have too much trouble selling the new JL version of its flag-bearer model.