TUCSON, Arizona—Looking at the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler here in the desert made my heart beat just a little quicker—Jeeps have that effect on me. But not everyone feels that way; in fact, millions of automotive purchasers have no interest in Jeeps. Yet I’ll wager they all know what a Jeep is. That’s brand power.
Jeep, Apple, Coca-Cola—some names are simply known worldwide. But Jeep could be considered unique among them, since it started its life as an instrument of war, in 1942. It didn’t even have a name then; it was simply stamped “GP,” which stood for general purpose vehicle.
Need more proof of the brand penetration I’m talking about? Jeeps are now sold in 200 countries worldwide, selling 1.4 million units in 2016 (of all models). It’s built in Mexico, Brazil, Italy, Egypt, India, and China. These sales continue to expand, and now make up almost half of FCA’s global sales.
This new 2018 Jeep is designated the JL, and it takes the reins form the previous-gen JK, in production since 2007. That’s a fairly long interval in the car business, so much is expected of this new Jeep. The upside of that 10-year run is that FCA had lots of time of analyze its current model’s shortcomings and make changes that will excite Jeep faithful into purchasing a new one.
When you redesign an automotive icon, the danger isn’t in what you change, but in that you changed it all. That’s why, after 75 years, Jeep bodies stay very much the same. The new design – eight generations later – is still instantly recognizable, with the keystone-shaped seven-slot grille, round headlights, and square tail lamps.
Past that, the body has grown, giving it a wider stance. The windshield is raked back nine percent over the last gen, and so is the grille; apart from the better aerodynamics, I hope the sloping windscreen will attract fewer bug strikes.
Frankly, the last really big change to a Jeep body occurred with the introduction of the four-door. That move was considered sacrilege by some; today, though, it’s a major part of the lineup, and frankly makes the on-road performance of the Jeep very liveable.
The balance of exterior changes is slight (e.g. new wheel choices) and most are part of several new option and technology packages. And that’s the point: a Jeep should remain a Jeep.
Though this is the Wrangler’s first complete interior upgrade in 10 years, the basic setup inside is the same. What are changed are the materials, control options, and layout.
The main gauges and centre stack are described as “heritage-inspired.” I translate that to mean simple and functional, and indeed most controls are where you would intuitively expect them to be.
But this generation has added an emphasis on larger, more obvious switches and dials, while excess plastic has been replaced with metal-plated accents and real bolts on the shifter, grab handles, and around the frame of the infotainment screen.
Door panels are soft to the touch, and the armrests are longer, while new materials include leather on the steering wheel; cloth- or leather-bolstered seats; and accent stitching.
Weatherproofing looks to be better, and the fourth-generation Uconnect system is improved. It comes with a standard 7-inch screen, and optional 8.4-inch upgrade. The important climate and volume controls and media ports are all just under the screen.
At the bottom of the stack are large electronic locker switches; and some new blank toggles that can be wired to accommodate aftermarket accessories like light bars.
The key design element of the Jeep – body-on-frame construction – is improved, but the same. But hung on it are many new aluminum body panels. These include lightweight doors, hinges, hood, fenders, windshield frame, and a magnesium swing gate on the rear. The net effect is that the new body weighs 200 lbs less than the old; and the rigidity overall is better.
Not overly noticeable is the rake of the windshield and grille. They’re leaned back nine percent versus the previous version for better aerodynamics, and the windshield can also now be folded down by removing just four bolts (versus 28 bolts on the old design).
In fact, many of the features on this Jeep take the old gen’s and just simplify the tech, making them easier to use and much more enjoyable. Take the power soft-top, for example. Just as described, one button-push opens the whole roof to the open air, and one button-push closes it. A back-up camera has been added, nicely located in the centre of the rear-mounted spare tire.
Off-road-ability arguably defines Jeep. Three 4WD systems are offered, which has been the norm, but even in its mildest form, its 4WD is plenty capable. In the wildest setup – with front and rear lockers, a disconnecting sway bar, downhill speed control, and rock-crawling gear ratios – the off-road prowess of the new Jeep continues uninterrupted.
For 2018 the 3.6-litre V6 is the standard engine. It makes 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, more than enough for on- or off-road performance. But its fuel consumption has been improved and to the joy of many it can still be paired to a six-speed manual. Otherwise the choice is a new eight-speed automatic transmission.
The second engine is an optional 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder. It’s rated at 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, and comes with the eight-speed automatic only. Its fuel economy is even better than the V6, even though it’s off-the-line performance is faster, which some purchasers will want.
Other new tech includes stop-start technology; and a redesigned brake system that shortens stopping distance and improves pedal feel while increasing rotor and lining life.
After spending the day driving this Jeep on-road and off-, I’m willing to make a bold statement: this newest generation of Jeep has achieved the best balance of on-road comfort and off-road capability in the history of the brand. So far, anyway.
On pavement this Wrangler is sure-footed, quiet, steers easily, accelerates confidently, and does not beat you up like many of its predecessors did. Certainly the longer wheelbase of the four-door version has a lot to do with this improved ride comfort.
Meanwhile, depending on how it’s outfitted, the off-road versions (like the Rubicon) still climb like a mountain goat.
In Canada the two-door Sport Wrangler starts at $33,945, while the two-door Rubicon is $46,345. Looking at the four-door lineup, the Sport will start at $41,745. The mid-range model is the Sahara, which retails at $45,745, and the price-walk tops out with the four-door Rubicon at $48,745.
Interestingly, in Canada sales of the two-door – arguably the more rugged off-road-ready body style – account for 30 percent of Wrangler sales, versus just 20 percent in the U.S.
You either love Jeeps or you don’t, but either way you definitely know and recognize them. That’s why this brand, with all its models, will continue to grow worldwide.
Part of its success is the myth or legend of Jeep, but its off-road abilities are very real. Frankly though, many, many Jeeps will never go off-road, and from a sales perspective that’s just fine.
All models will be on dealer lots by the end of January 2018.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.