Here’s the thing about Wranglers: they’re addicting. Despite my friend’s eagerness to sell theirs many years ago, they do miss their Jeeps constantly. In their weaker moments, they sift through used car sites in the hopes of finding a newer model at some ridiculous bargain. It is, of course, a pointless exercise; the moment they go for a test drive, they simply rediscover the Wrangler’s flaws.
Jeep appears to be privy to their problem (also the problem for many Wrangler owners), because it’s promising that the latest Wrangler is finally one you can live with. Better visibility, a smoother ride, progressive interior technology – it’s all part of the package. So says Jeep.
To put these claims to the test, we spent a week with the 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited. Few vehicles can challenge the Wrangler off-road, and even fewer stumble into its unique segment. The closest rivals include the likes of Land Rover Discovery and the Ford Everest. None of these SUVs can take off their tops (or fold their windshields), but if the new Wrangler isn’t any better on-road, that might not matter.
There’s little to distinguish this generation Wrangler’s exterior from its predecessor, so we won’t spend any time picking it apart.
Inside, however, the changes are blunt. Even the most highly optioned Wranglers couldn’t escape the feeling of cheapness. Plastic panels, monotone colour schemes, and outdated convenience features could sap the life out of any good drive. One look at the Grand Cherokee’s plush quarters told us Jeep could do better with the new Wrangler – and it has.
The Wrangler’s cabin is intuitive, high quality, and eye-catching. The hideous old dashboard bulge is gone, replaced by a flat, vivid panel that lends a substantially airier feel to the front cockpit, complemented by increased legroom for rear passengers. Four adults fit comfortably, and a relatively low transmission tunnel affords space for a fifth in a pinch. Our tester’s leather and suede wrapped seats are upgrades to the standard cloth set, but the shape is ergonomic for either configuration. Cargo space is quite generous.
Rubicon models come standard with a 7.0-inch UConnect infotainment screen, though an 8.4-inch display is optional (paired with a nine-speaker Alpine sound system). A prominent LCD driver display sits between an analogue tachometer and speedometer, showing speed, telemetry data, off-road information, media, and more. UConnect continues to be one of our least favourite infotainment systems, there’s no clear visuals, snappy response to inputs nor a user-friendly layout. Drivers can use steering wheel controls, voice commands, physical buttons on the centre stack, or the touchscreen to adjust vehicle settings, affording plenty of redundancy based on personal preference.
Driver aids are limited to blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alerts and parking sensors, but the Wrangler’s improved visibility means navigating city streets and highways is a breeze. If there’s anything we’re missing from the JL’s list of available niceties, it’s adaptive cruise control. Such a feature would only be relevant for automatic equipped models, but it’s a big help for long highway trips.
Under the Rubicon’s vented hood is a 3.6-liter V6 engine mated to a six-speed manual or available eight-speed automatic. A two-speed manual transfer case sends power to the rear wheels or all four wheels at a 4.10 gear ratio. Might I add, the Wrangler Rubicon has plenty of punch for rural or highway driving – provided you don’t rush into a high gear.
Off-road, the V6 is equally satisfying. Motoring up steep inclines or negotiating deep ruts is all in a day’s work. Facing the most challenging off-road conditions, the Rubicon can disconnect its sway bars to allow for greater wheel articulation and lock its front and rear differentials to use available power more effectively. During our week with the rig, which included a test on some tricky obstacles, we never required these lifelines.
If there’s one issue Jeep hasn’t resolved with the new Wrangler, it’s wind noise. At highway speeds, air finds its way into the nooks and crannies of the soft-top to make a whooshing noise. The simple solution is to opt for the hard top, but such a choice all but eliminates spontaneous, open-top motoring. Removing a couple Freedom panels from the fixed roof just isn’t the same.
The best thing we can say about the latest Wrangler’s on-road behaviour is that it is ordinary. You really can drive this vehicle just like any other SUV – a promise no preceding Wrangler could make. Is it more composed than a Land Rover or Grand Cherokee? No.
Until now, a punishing ride and sloppy handling was simply the price to pay for the Wrangler’s incredible off-road capability and unquestionable cool. After a week with the 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, it is clear Jeep has found the solution.
The new Wrangler is every bit as capable as its uncompromising ancestors, yet it also affords premium amenities and ride quality to rival traditional SUVs. The Land Rover Discovery can hang with the Wrangler on most trails and introduces luxury touches beyond the scope of Jeep’s current parts bin, but the Discovery is over budget for most mass-market shoppers. At a much more palatable price tag the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk trades some of the Wrangler’s off-road tenacity for long-haul comfort. If you aren’t in love with the Wrangler’s look, and can apply another few thousands to the cause, the Trackhawk is an excellent alternative.