Last December, when I drove the all-new 2018 “JL” Jeep Wrangler in the mountainous wilds of New Zealand, I dubbed it “a slam dunk.” Everything about Jeep’s classic, square-shouldered off-roader had been improved and refined—from comfort to performance to efficiency to safety. I flew home to the United States with a notebook filled with favorable impressions of Jeep’s latest revision. Yet, for me, two questions remained: (1) how does Jeep’s new Wrangler drive on-road—I’d done very little asphalt work in New Zealand, where almost all our driving was on trails or over terrain with no “road” at all—and, (2) because I’d done had almost zero wheel time in the two-door version while overseas, how would the short-wheelbase version stack up compared with the four-door Unlimited and past editions of the Wrangler?
Recently I was able to answer both questions when a two-door JL Wrangler Sport showed up on my doorstep for a week. Being a previous owner, many years ago, of a Wrangler “TJ,” I personally prefer the tidy dimensions and timeless profile of the two-door. The Unlimited offers a clear advantage in terms of cargo capacity and passenger-carrying ease, true, but the two-door just fits my wish-list better.
My tester arrived in Sport trim, the entry-level model, with a V-6 engine (a 2.0-liter turbo is available) and wearing a base price of $28,190. It was no stripper, though. The sticker revealed more than $10,000 in options. Upgrading from the standard six-speed manual to the 8-speed automatic costs $2,000. The Customer Preferred Package ($3,200) adds such essentials as A/C and power windows plus nicer 17-inch wheels, keyless entry, and power mirrors. The Tech Group ($995) includes a 7-inch color touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Among the individual options: an anti-spin rear diff ($595), tubular side steps ($695), Alpine premium audio ($1,295), and a Premium Sunrider soft top ($595). Total tab: $38,395. That’s a massive leap over the appealing entry price, but I have to admit: With the possible exceptions of the side steps and the upgraded audio system, I’d want all of that gear on a Wrangler Sport of my own.
I hadn’t traveled 50 feet after climbing behind the wheel when I felt a strong sense of déjà vu. The two-door Wrangler is a different animal than its four-door Wrangler sibling, and even though the ride and steering were leaps and bounds better than what I was used to in my old TJ, the two-door JL still feels tall on its wheels and much less planted than the Unlimited. That said, it’s mostly just a sensation, not a serious detriment. The shorter 166.8-inch wheelbase simply makes the two-door more skippy over bumps in the road, while the steering needs constant adjustment to keep the front end on your intended path. It’s a difference, not a big deal. With five minutes I had bonded with the two-door and was cruising along as if we’d been friends for years. In fact, when I had to make a U-turn in the middle of a tight residential street, I was pleasantly reminded why I prefer the shorter Wrangler. The new model’s turn radius is just outstanding. The rig almost seems to turn within its own length; just cut the wheel and it whips around 180 degrees in no space at all. Fantastic.
The 3.6-liter V-6 with 8-speed auto is the powertrain combo I’d buy myself. The engine is smooth and torquey and pairs beautifully with the transmission. And whether it’s due to the engine hardware or the better-lined optional soft top or both, the cabin is impressively quiet during city driving. It’s a big upgrade over the Wranglers of yore in terms of NVH and driving refinement. Also a huge step up: the dash and its various controls. I’m so regularly bombarded with Space Shuttle-like instrument displays testing today’s automobiles; it’s a blissful relief to drive behind a panel as well-thought and user-friendly as the Wrangler’s. The climate controls are analog and couldn’t be simpler to operate. The window switches are in easy reach just behind the shift lever. Convenient AUX and USB ports lie behind a flip-up cover at the bottom of the center stack. And the upgraded 7-inch color UConnect display is superb—quick in response, effortless to navigate, full of useful displays and controls. It’s not often lately I’m able to operate all the features of a new car with so little frustration. Standing ovation, Jeep team.
On several occasions I had more than one passenger along and the shortcomings of the two-door layout did reveal themselves. It is more of a pain to fold the passenger seat forward and climb into the back than it is simply to step through the Unlimited’s rear doors. Two things on that point, though. First, sliding the front-passenger seat forward is a breeze; just grab a lever at the top of the seat and the seatback bends down while the seat bottom rolls forward. Easy. Second: When I owned my softop TJ, I dropped the soft top on delivery and didn’t put it up again for three years. Granted, I live in sunny Los Angeles, but a lot of two-door Wrangler owners drive their Jeeps top-down most of the time. You wanna ride in the back seat? Just grab the roll bar, climb up on the rear tire, and step in. Done!
I understand the appeal of the bigger, more versatile Unlimited. But after driving the new two-door JL for a week, I’m still sold on the shorter Jeep’s merits—including ease of parking and that fabulous turning radius (I should mention the standard rear ParkView camera, brilliantly tucked into the spare-tire carrier, which makes backing up a cinch). And the two-door looks like the Jeep George Patton would recognize.
I’ll say it again: a slam dunk. Trouble is, now I think I want another two-door Wrangler of my own.
|2018 Jeep Wrangler 4×4 Sport Specifications|
|ENGINE||3.6L DOHC 16-valve V-6/285hp @6,400 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||18/23 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||166.8 x 73.8 x 73.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.0 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||115 mph (est)|