Road Tests

First Drive: 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Getting it right when you can only get it wrong

MOUNT PROSPECT, South Island, New Zealand — We’re well above 5,000 feet, the sky a wash of cobalt blue and El Greco’s clouds as the helicopter banks hard toward a gray summit amid the endless range of snow-dappled peaks. Closing in, our pilot slows to a hover, gingerly easing down to a “landing site” that looks more like a minefield. The uneven ground is littered with jagged rocks, tufts of slippery grass, and bus-sized boulders—with sheer drop-offs on every side. “You’d never get up here without a whirlybird,” I think to myself as the skids finally touch down, “unless maybe you’re a mountain goat.”

It’s then that I notice four new 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicons parked on tall rocks nearby, a band of brothers in silhouette, their military-inspired profiles as unmistakable today as an original Jeep was back in World War II. Mountain goats, all right—just made in metal.

On the drive in New Zealand, St. Antoine enjoyed lots of “Jeep swimming.”

A decade ago in Zambia, Africa, I was among the first to drive the then-new JK-platform Wrangler. Being a former owner of the previous model, the much-loved TJ, the JK was something of a shock: taller, dramatically wider with a new V-6 replacing the time-tested PowerTech inline-six, and a huge new four-door Unlimited version joining the lineup. Compared to my trim, nimble two-door TJ, the Unlimited JK looked like a battleship. It seemed so … big. Unwieldy, even. Could this giant even squeeze through the narrow Death Valley trails I’d so easily traversed in my TJ?

I needn’t have worried. Despite some knocks from purists (who will always knock any change to the Wrangler), the JK proved a hit. Whereas the TJ sold roughly 80,000 units Stateside in 2006, by 2017 Jeep regularly sold about 200,000 JKs a year.

Now comes the Jeep I first glimpsed high up on that New Zealand mountaintop, the all-new, 2018 JL edition. As always, Jeep engineers and stylists unveiled their new baby with a mixture of pride and nerves. After all, the Jeep faithful are an unforgiving lot. To them, any modifications to the battle-tested Wrangler formula are as contemptuous as adding Alfred E. Neuman’s face to Mount Rushmore. (We’re looking at you, square-headlight 1987 YJ.) The cry is always, “Don’t eff it up by changin’ it!” And in the JL’s case, there are a lot of changes. But put those pitchforks down. I’m one of the Wrangler faithful myself, and after driving the new JL through some of New Zealand’s most spectacular wilds—the same mountainous, river-crossed landscapes that served as the backdrop for “The Lord of the Rings” movies and the forthcoming “Mission: Impossible 6”—I’m here to tell you: The JL is a sublime piece of work, an upgrade over the JK in almost every way.

Although Jeep had only top-range Rubicon models on hand for our New Zealand drives, the two-door JL will be available in Sport, Sport S, and Rubicon trims, and the new four-door Unlimited will be available in those three versions plus a new Sahara edition.

The JL has grown compared with its predecessor, but importantly, it doesn’t feel bigger. Wheelbase has increased 1.4 inches on the two-door and 2.4 inches on the four-door, and overall length has grown 2.5 and 3.5 inches, respectively. Overall height is up an inch, and width is essentially unchanged. The truly important stats, though, are these: Approach, breakover, and departure angles on the Rubicon are all significantly improved, and ground clearance is up almost an inch (the Rubicon now rides on standard 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 all-terrain tires on 17-inch wheels). Water fording is doable up to 30 inches, and the JL can tow as much as 3,500 pounds (when properly configured).

Those are the numbers. Here’s the big picture: The new JL is the best-looking Wrangler in years. “Like you, I’m a big fan of the TJ and the old CJ,” says Mark Allen, head of Jeep Design and the owner of a comprehensively modified TJ. “See the JL’s keystone-shaped grille … and the way the outboard slats wrap around the headlights? That’s pure CJ. Also, while everybody else seems to be raising beltlines, I lowered the JL’s. So every piece of glass is larger. Better visibility.”

Allen then leads me around to the side and points to the roll cage. “The sport bars are now welded to the body and painted in body color,” he says. “Because of some big focus group? Nope. I just like the way it looks.” He also points out a new header bar between the A-pillars, which allows the windshield to fold down while keeping the rearview mirror in place. Wrangler chief engineer Brian Leyes then jumps in: “And the body doesn’t just look good. Overall aero is improved by 9 percent.”

The big roof panel in the new zipperless soft top is fitted to a folding frame that can be lowered with one hand or removed entirely.

The JL sheds more than 100 pounds over the JK, thanks to aluminum in the doors, hood—the Rubicon gets a vented “power hood”—fenders, and windshield frame plus a magnesium-cast rear swing gate. New, high-mounted trapezoidal fender flares allow the Rubicon to accept up to 35-inch tires with no modifications. Daytime running lights encircle the headlamps; Jeep calls it a halo effect. On the Rubicon, you can opt for LED headlights, square taillights, and foglamps. Turn signals are mounted atop the front of the fender flares. The doors now feature the proper Torx bit tool size stamped right into the hinges—making removing and reattaching them a no-brainer. A new half-door will be available sometime in 2019.

Up top, the available three-piece Freedom hard top has been improved with lighter panels and easier-to-use latches. A body-color hard top is optional on the Rubicon (and the Sahara). The optional convertible soft top is now zipper-free. Instead, the rear plastic windows simply slip out of channels they snap into, and then the big roof panel can be easily flipped back and down with a single hand. Brilliant. Finally, later in 2018 Jeep will offer an optional Sky One-Touch power top with a central canvas panel that retracts fully at the touch of a button. None of the Jeeps on hand had the Sky roof, but I predict it will be a hit.

The JL’s cabin is thoroughly updated to meet the demands of the “always connected” 21st century: Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, abundant USB ports, navigation, and SiriusXM with traffic. The fourth-gen Uconnect system even offers an optional 4G Wi-Fi hot spot so you can surf websites right from your camp table. The attractive space also includes a dash painted to match the seat stitching, available keyless entry and standard push-button start, and the ability to call up a whole bunch of vehicle info (such as pitch and roll) on the display screen. A new optional 8.4-inch hi-res touchscreen with pinch and zoom is the largest ever offered on a Wrangler. And, yes, it’s been “mist tested” to endure at least a nonmonsoon amount of rain and keep right on displaying. (As always, the interior can be hosed out and drained via plugs in the floor.)

Jeep will offer two engines at launch: the same 3.6-liter DOHC V-6 found in the JK (now with engine stop-start) and a new 2.0-liter turbo four. The V-6 comes standard with an all-new six-speed manual shifter, with a new optional eight-speed automatic (standard on the turbo four). Coming in 2019 is the engine Jeep enthusiasts have long clamored for: a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 making 260 horsepower and—start drooling—442 lb-ft of torque. The diesel will include engine stop-start and be available only with the eight-speed auto. Can’t wait.

In New Zealand I first got to sample a manual V-6 JL Unlimited. It’s a happy combo, the 285-horsepower six revving smartly amid the transmission’s well-spaced gears. That said, having owned a manual TJ—the optional automatic for my ’97 was a three-speed—I’m not sure I’d go manual today. As I discovered when trying one later, the eight-speed automatic is just so sweet. With more ratios, it seems always to be in the right gear. It’s smooth and smart, shifting well on its own. And on one really challenging boulder climb (in the rain!), we effortlessly surmounted a course that would’ve been 10 times more difficult with a clutch pedal.

The big news underhood is the new 16-valve, direct-injection, twin-scroll turbo four. It makes less power (270 horses) than the V-6 but considerably more torque (295 lb-ft at just 3,000 rpm). It’s also uncannily quiet (I once walked right past it and didn’t even realize it was running) and well-mannered. Like the V-6, the turbo completed the rock climb without breaking a sweat. And on some limited highway sections (most were off-road), it was subdued, pulling well from low revs, never strained. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. It’ll be interesting to sample one back in the “real world.”

This new JL is a slam dunk. It’s more comfortable on-road, more capable off-road, safer, easier to configure, better-looking, better-performing, and more fuel-efficient.

On-road, some suspension changes, including retuned springs, contribute to a solid, confident feel I never experienced in my TJ. Body roll is minimal, and the ride is controlled without being unduly harsh. I didn’t get an opportunity to try the two-door on pavement, but off-road it handled rough terrain with none of the “pogo bucking” of older, shorter-wheelbase Jeeps. It was, in fact, completely comfortable. (And, I must say, the two-door really looks fantastic.) The turning circle is improved on the JL, enabling it to snake through tight mountain bends that the JKs along with us could only manage by stopping, backing up, and re-turning into the corner.

The beautiful new cockpit includes a dash painted to match the seat stitching, the ability to call up info such as pitch and roll on the display screens, electronic diff locks (the red square at lower center), and a sizable new touchscreen.

JL Rubicons are equipped with a standard Rock-Trac 4×4 system with a 4:1 4LO ratio, Tru-Lok front and rear locking differentials, Dana 44 front and rear axles, and electronic sway-bar disconnect. The new Sahara, meanwhile, will offer the Wrangler’s first-ever two-speed transfer case with full-time AWD. With the automatic, the Rubicon’s crawl ratio is an amazing 77.2:1 (even better with the manual), meaning it can creep like a sloth over just about anything in its path. The Tru-Lok diffs, easily accessed via dashboard switches, are a godsend when the terrain gets slick and muddy (as it did on our drive), while disconnecting the electronic sway bar (via a dash button) over rough roads does wonders for reducing (or even eliminating) big jostles and head toss.

This new JL is a slam dunk. It’s more comfortable on-road, more capable off-road, safer (Jeep boasts more than 75 security features), easier to configure, better-looking, better-performing, and more fuel-efficient than its predecessor—for hardly any more money. Jeep says the Rubicon two-door manual V-6 will likely start around $40,000. Expect the turbo four-door Rubicon Unlimited (available only as an eight-speed) to go for about $43,500.

The folks at Jeep have accomplished the seemingly impossible. Somehow, the new JL Wrangler manages to be more advanced and sophisticated than the JK while at the same time radiating a more classic and old-school vibe. For Jeep fans, that’s a very good thing, indeed.

2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Specifications

ON SALE January 2018
PRICE $40,000 (base, est)
ENGINES 2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbo I-4/270 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm;
3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6/285 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 2- or 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 18/23 mpg (city/hwy) (4-door, 3.6L auto)
L x W x H 166.8 (188.4) x 73.8 x 73.6 in (4-door)
WHEELBASE 96.8 (118.4) in (4-door)
WEIGHT 4,175-4,485 lb (4-door, 3.6L auto)
0-60 MPH 7.5 sec (est) (4-door, 3.6L auto)
TOP SPEED 115 mph (est) (4-door, 3.6L auto)

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