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by Patrick Rall in December 2017
Last week, I had a chance to spend a few hours driving around Arizona in the all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler. Known as the Wrangler JL, this new Jeep has all of the off-roading abilities as its predecessors, with a smoother on-road ride, more interior space, and more interior gadgets, making it an all-around better SUV without compromising any of the qualities expected from hardcore Jeepers.
The 2018 Wrangler JL (not to be confused with the outgoing 2018 Wrangler JK) made its grand debut just last month; we learned about the slightly enlarged footprint, the heavy use of aluminum in the body, the new-to-the-Wrangler 8-speed automatic transmission, the new interior technology, and the first ever Jeep hybrid powertrain. We were promised more capability — but also a smoother ride on paved roads.
Some Jeep fans immediately proclaimed that FCA had ruined the Wrangler, insisting that the roomier, more upscale interior and better on-road driving would make for a terrible off-road machine. They insisted that the company had softened the Wrangler too much.
Surprisingly (or not), those critics were wrong.
I spent the better part of five hours driving the redesigned Jeep on both paved roads and in the harsh Arizona wilderness. I found that a roomier interior, upgraded electronics and seats, and a smoother on-road ride doesn’t prevent the all-new 2018 Wrangler JL from being just as incredible in the roughest off-road condition as the outgoing JK models.
I began with a two hour drive in a four-door Sahara with the turbocharged 2.0L hybrid drivetrain. I was most excited to drive the new Jeep with the turbo-hybrid mill, as this is the most talked-about engine in the JL lineup. The V6 diesel coming for 2019 should be the most exciting engine for the new Wrangler, but for now, the 2.0L turbo-hybrid is the big news.
With 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, the “eTorque” system has a little less horsepower than the Pentastar V6 (285 hp), but it has significantly more torque (260 for the V6). The mild hybrid system is designed to assist the most during low-end acceleration, so the JL Wrangler’s premium engine option feels noticeably stronger.
In some cases, a small, turbocharged engine like this one suffers from a touch of turbo lag when accelerating from a stop, as the engine takes a second to build the boost needed for peak performance. There is no turbo lag with the Jeep, though, because the electric assist of the mild hybrid system compensates for that first second or two of lower power.
When launching the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL hard from a stop, the combination of the turbo-hybrid engine and the 8-speed automatic transmission affords this rugged SUV impressive acceleration. There is no lag on the low end, and the torque really gets the new Wrangler moving in a hurry through the mid-range, as boost levels and torque output climbs. Along the same lines, when cruising on the highway at 60 miles per hour, pushing the throttle to the floor of the new Wrangler with the turbo-hybrid drive allows it to quickly accelerate to speeds well beyond any posted limit in America.
FCA hasn’t announced the official EPA fuel economy numbers for the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL with the turbo-hybrid drivetrain, but in terms of on-road performance, this new 2.0L is a winner. Based purely on performance (both on- and off-road), the turbocharged eTorque drivetrain would be my pick were I going to buy one of the new 2018 Wranglers.
Most importantly, the 2018 Wrangler JL with the turbo-hybrid drivetrain doesn’t exhibit any of the negative attributes of most hybrid vehicles; most notably, the squishy brake pedal that comes with most regenerative braking systems is not present. The greatest compliment that I can give a hybrid is that it “doesn’t feel like a hybrid,” and that is true of the new Wrangler. In every way, the new JL with the 2.0L turbo-hybrid feels like any other Wrangler – just with more power through the mid-range.
My road test vehicle for the afternoon was a true base model – a Sport two-door with the Pentastar V6 and the six-speed manual transmission. As the 2018 Wrangler JL goes, these two Jeeps are the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. The Sahara had leather seats, a premium infotainment system, and every other premium option that you could want. The Sport had cloth seats and wind-up windows.
Seriously – you can still get the Wrangler with manual wind-up windows.
Even though those vehicles were polar opposites, the ride quality was similar and having driven several JKs in the past year, I can attest that the ride quality of the JL is better than that of the outgoing model.
Now, don’t get me wrong; the all-new Wrangler still rides like a Wrangler. The suspension is stiff, you can feel the road through the chassis, and you can most certainly hear what is going on outside regardless of the top design. However, the JL ride quality is smooth enough that anyone familiar with the JK will notice the improvement in on-road driving dynamics. The wider stance is said to provide better handling, and while that was hard to appreciate when driving through rural Arizona, we were able to experience the tighter turning circle of the new Wrangler. Even the toughest of the new Wranglers – the Rubicon – had a slightly more refined ride on the paved roads.
In short, the ride quality of the JL has been improved enough to please those JK owners who thought that the ride was just a bit too rough, but at the same time, this Wrangler still provides the “connected to the road” feel that so many SUVs erase with excessively-soft suspension.
Your grandma might still insist that the JL is too bumpy, but Jeep has improved road manners enough to make a difference – but not enough to kill the character of America’s most off-road-ready SUV.
To show that the redesigned Wrangler was just as tough as the JK in rough conditions, the mid-point of our day with the JL was the Arizona wilderness. A collection of different Rubicons were available to take out to the local trails.
The off-road course was a combination of loose, deep sand, and steep, rocky hills, with scouts along the way to guide us through the most intricate sections. Many portions of the course were steep and rock-lined enough that most mid-sized SUVs could never dream of making it from one end to the other. In fact, I would be surprised if any other vehicle in the current Jeep showroom could handle the rock crawling that we did in the JL, but even with drivers who had obviously never done any off-roading, the Jeep Wrangler proved to be practically unstoppable.
Whether it was a two-door or four-door with the turbo-hybrid four-cylinder or the Pentastar V6, the redesigned 2018 Wrangler handled the rocky desert course with ease. I used the electronic sway bar, front and rear locking differentials, and the Rock-Trac 4x4 system, while the rocky course put the Rubicon’s standard underbody skid plates to the test. (These are also optional on the Sahara.)
As an interesting note, I wanted to point out how well the turbo-hybrid 2.0L did when off-roading. The way in which the mild hybrid system bolsters initial torque allows the Wrangler with the small engine to perform just as well as the Pentastar V6. Even when you come to a complete stop on a steep, rocky incline, when you climb back into the throttle, the 2.0L engine is quick to get power to the wheels. In fact, the two engines performed so well on the off-road course that we had to check when switching vehicles to see whether we were driving a 4-cylinder or V6 model. In other words, the new Wrangler is the best off-roading hybrid on the market – how’s that for a unique claim?
Finally, the road leading us out of the off-road area was rougher than any road the average SUV owner will ever traverse, allowing us to test the new Wrangler at a bit higher speeds. When playing in the extreme off-road conditions, we were just creeping along at low speed, but when we got onto the roads, we could put the suspension of the new Jeep to the test at higher speeds. As you might expect, the Wrangler handled the rough dirt roads nicely, so for those prospective buyers who don’t plan to go any off-roading – but who do spend time on rough, unpaved roads – the Wrangler feels more at-home than any other SUV sold in the USA.
The all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL is better in every way. The roomier interior and the newest UConnect system makes for a much better daily driver, especially when coupled with the improved ride quality on paved roads. At the same time, the JL Wrangler has become a better vehicle on the road without any compromise in off-roading abilities and the first-ever hybrid drivetrain in a Jeep offers a great combination of power and efficiency.
This new Jeep is good enough in every way that it will appeal to off-roaders as much as the JK did, while being more attractive to those shoppers who aren’t as concerned with hardcore off-roading as they are in having the capabilities of the legendary Wrangler.
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