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First Drive: 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara

Ready to storm the crossover shores

TUCSON, Arizona—With editor-at-large Arthur St. Antoine having spent plenty of time with the new JL Wrangler Rubicon chasing hobbits down in the Shire, it only made sense for me to hop into one of the more conventional variants on hand. And so I hopped into a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited, which struck me as the variant most likely to be chosen by the vast majority of people who buy Wranglers not for rock crawling but things like Costco parking-spot trawling.

While the Wrangler made no claims to the a significant share of the mass SUV market prior to arrival of the four-door JK Unlimited, it's the model that's powered most of its growth—Wrangler sales jumped almost 50 percent from around 80,000 to almost 120,000 when it was introduced in 2007, and the JK's popularity exceeded the TJ's even during the depressed recession years of 2008-'10, peaking in 2015 with more than 202,000 sold in the U.S. alone. With SUVs being far more popular in 2017 than they were in 2007 thanks to the rise of the crossovers, the competitive landscape is more complicated—and the potential customer pool is much larger. Enter the JL Sahara.

The mid-range Wrangler is mechanically identical to the entry Sport—both can be had with your choice of 3.6-liter V-6 or 2.0-liter turbo four, regardless of door quantity, and both engines are mated to an eight-speed automatic, though the V-6 can be had with a six-speed manual. Where the two differentiate are fancy frills like power windows and door locks, which the Sport goes without; on the two-door Sport, you can even skip the A/C. And while the stripper special is the one I'd likely drop my Bitcoin gains on, the 2018 Wrangler I spent most of the day in was a well-equipped Sahara Unlimited with a 2.0-liter turbo under its hood and the new retractable Powertop.

On a variety of roads around the Tucson area, including a bit of washboardy dirt road, the Sahara Unlimited felt less like a Wrangler and more like, well, a modern crossover. There's still a little on-center play in the steering, but it's otherwise smooth and well weighted. The suspension offers a surprisingly smooth and composed ride with reasonable levels of noise, while the brakes don't offer any surprises in either direction. (A brief stint in a two-door Sahara later in the day offered much of the same, but with the expected loss of directional stability due to the shorter wheelbase.)

What was surprising was the performance of the 2.0-liter turbo-four. Aided by a linear throttle with a smooth tip-in, it made the Sahara happy to get going and offered plenty of pull at any speed. The eight-speed automatic did almost all of its work in the background like a good auto is supposed to, its ratios and programming well matched with the engine's powerband. It's enough of an improvement over the V-6, which is fine, that it's worth having to forego the manual.

As for the Powertop, it's a nifty bit of kit that I can see having been inspired by one of its distant cousins, the Fiat 500C, as like the Cinquecento's, only the central piece retracts. With the full doors in place, it's not an entirely open-air experience, but you get a lot closer once you remove the cargo area side panels with simple twists of easy-to-operate latches. Half-doors should become available in 2019; in the meantime, you can also just yank them off. Unfortunately, no such luck for the rear glass of this setup.

But you can fold the windshield, which is no longer a semi-Herculean undertaking requiring the better part of an hour and a half. The number of bolts that have to be removed has shrunk from 28 to four, and some of the Jeep staff boasted about being able to complete the task in about five minutes.

General creature comforts are much improved as well. Interior material quality and fit is as on par with even the fancier Grand Cherokee and some bits almost felt premium, while the latest Uconnect iteration offers a much higher and crisper resolution than before. Several annoyances of the JK were expunged in the refinement process, such as the push-button door handles and non-stay doors. With the JL, you can easily open the (much lighter aluminum) door with one hand by simply pulling on the handle, and you won't have to worry as much about it crushing your shins afterward.

The Sahara off-road experience was kept to a basic dirt trail on the approach to a hilltop site where Jeep had some Rubicons prepared for us to hop into (the turbo-four is excellent for crawling, offering the sort of predictable and smooth power delivery needed to keep everything shiny without worries about atmospheric loss at altitude). I wouldn't take the Sahara on the technical rock trail they picked out for us to crawl over simply because you'll be charging sans lockers, but it's not unhappy in moderate off-pavement. It'll certainly get you and your surfboard down to the sand at San Onofre without complaint, which is as far off-road as most of these will ever go. And make sure you check the box for the optional limited-slip rear differential if you get snow or plan going to it.

Despite all of its additional refinement and polished looks, the 2018 JL Wrangler will not be mistaken for anything else by anybody. Given the number of compromises removed in the redesign process, I hope Jeep has some shovel-ready plans to expand the footprint of its Wrangler plant in Toledo, Ohio. The JL Wrangler is an excellent all-around vehicle that also meets all purist expectations and stays true to the brand. Jeep will sell every last one that it can roll off the line. After all, there's not much reason to get a functional but nondescript compact-midsize crossover for the Costco crawl when you can have this Wrangler instead. If you're going to be stuck behind a slowly reversing Prius, you might as well sit there with a smile.

2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara Specifications

ON SALE January 2018
PRICE $35,000 (est)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/270 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD/4WD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 19/24 mpg (city/hwy, est)
L x W x H 188.4 x 73.8 x 73.6 in
WHEELBASE 118.4 in
WEIGHT 4,380 lb
0-60 MPH N/A