2018 Jeep Wrangler First Drive | Edmunds

2018 Jeep Wrangler First Drive

Fully Redesigned, Thoroughly Improved

The introduction of a new generation of the Jeep Wrangler has always been a big deal. Rabid enthusiasts of this purebred Jeep model gather scraps of confidential information, obsess over every pixelated spy photograph, and debate the possible consequences of change in their beloved off-road mobility machine. Usually there's a strong undercurrent of dread to the discussion, and the talk about the introduction of the all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler has been especially angst-ridden. Car-based, highway-friendly crossovers have been steadily replacing traditional all-terrain, truck-style SUVs. Has this trend compromised the all-new Jeep Wrangler in some way?

All this came to mind as we confronted a rocky gully in the breathtaking wilds of New Zealand with a 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. "That's the trail?" we thought as we began what looked like an impassable climb. But soon we were making steady progress as the stout suspension and tall wheels of the all-new Wrangler effortlessly articulated over boulders, and the 33-inch BFGoodrich KO2 tires found traction even in the particular brand of slimy mud that they have here in sheep country.

Since then we've also sampled the 2018 Wrangler on parched rocky trials in the Arizona desert, and we've driven it on familiar paved highways in suburban America. And it's now clear to us that the thoroughly redesigned 2018 Jeep Wrangler is not only substantially improved as an all-terrain adventure vehicle, but it's also vastly more desirable as practical day-to-day transportation.

At the same time, there will be two, distinctly different 2018 Jeep Wranglers at your Jeep dealer for the next several months, so make sure you buy the right one. The 2018 Jeep Wrangler JK is the familiar, previous-generation Wrangler known to us since 2007. The all-new model, however, will be sold as the 2018 Jeep Wrangler, and it will doubtlessly be known by Jeep enthusiasts as the Wrangler JL to acknowledge its new-generation configuration. The all-new Wrangler JL is the one you want. Got it?

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Familiar Blueprint
On paper, the all-new 2018 Wrangler JL incorporates the same, familiar Wrangler formula. Like a truck, a stout ladder-type frame is supported by solid axles and coil springs. There are two body configurations, two-door (JL) and four-door Unlimited (JLU). Both the JL and the JLU are available with either a convertible soft top or a bolt-on hardtop. The equipment featured in the Sport, Sahara and Rubicon trim levels is familiar. And Jeep is eager for you to know that the windshield still folds down and the doors still come off.

For all this, there is an elephant in the room that no one wants to really talk about, because this new Wrangler has grown bigger and heavier. An off-road enthusiast knows that the basic dimensions of a vehicle tell you a lot about where it can go and how capable it will be out there in the rocks, so it's no surprise the topic of the JL's and JLU's size has been the source of much hand-wringing on Jeep internet forums.

What serious Jeep guys fear most is mechanical compromise that will degrade the Wrangler's brush-busting ability. Their preference is for a short wheelbase, a narrow track, shorter body overhangs, taller ground clearance, and a smooth underbody that won't hang up on the rocks. They want to crawl over rocks, not corner through off-ramps, and they're fearful that any change will transform the Wrangler into a Grand Cherokee. And as they scan the specifications sheet of the all-new Wrangler, they will no doubt hold their breath. But as we learned, the performance of the all-new Wrangler is not what they might have expected.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Trail Geometry
And it's true that the new 2018 Wrangler does indeed take up more garage space. The two-door JL is 2.5 inches longer overall than before, while the four-door has grown by 3.5 inches. The front end of the new JL body hangs 2.5 inches farther out, although the bumper and the frame's front crossmember have been reshaped to maintain the approach angle of the current JK. For all this, the Wrangler Rubicon actually has improved its approach angle by 1.5 degrees thanks to the use of taller 33-inch tires. Meanwhile, the rear overhang is 1.4 inches shorter, and this improves the departure angle of the Wrangler by 4 degrees in both two- and four-door configurations and by an impressive 4.5 degrees in Rubicon trim.

Part of the increased overall length for the all-new 2018 Wrangler stems from an extended wheelbase. The two-door JL has a wheelbase that's been stretched by 1.4 inches, and the four-door JLU's wheelbase is longer by 2.4 inches. The JL's 1.4 inches make way for a new eight-speed automatic transmission, a significant upgrade from the previous five-speed automatic. The JLU's 2.4 inches accommodate the new automatic, then add an extra inch to deliver 38.3 inches of legroom for the rear passengers, not to mention a more comfortable seatback angle. In both the two-door and the four-door models, the longer wheelbase also improves the 2018 Wrangler JL-series dynamically, enhancing cruising stability, cornering capability and everyday ride comfort. For much the same reasons, the Jeep engineers fitted Dana axles that are an inch wider to both the two-door JL chassis and the four-door JLU chassis, increasing the track dimension front and rear from 61.9 to 62.9 inches. Meanwhile, the Rubicon model gets heavy-duty axles that are 1.5 inches wider.

All this will sound bad to outdoorsy Wrangler enthusiasts, especially those who prefer the four-door edition. Yet they'll discover that the new front axle for the two-door JL and four-door JLU features a more acute steering angle, so the turning radius remains the same as before despite the long wheelbase and wide track. Meanwhile, the Rubicon's new wider axles enable it to deliver a turning radius that's actually a foot tighter than the previous generation. In addition, revised packaging for the underbody improves the breakover angle of the JLU by 0.3 degree compared to its previous JKU counterpart. Moreover, careful styling of the new bodywork limits the increase in overall body width of the JL and JLU to just 0.1 inch. All this means that the new two-door JL and four-door JLU will be able to scoot through the same size gaps in the brush as did the former JK and JKU, so you can drive off road with the same enthusiasm, too.

The all-new 2018 Wrangler JL and Wrangler JLU also stand an inch taller than before, although much of this comes from the use of taller tires, a change that the off-road faithful will certainly appreciate. The top-dog JL Rubicon now rolls on 33-inch 285/70R17 BFGoodrich KO2 All-Terrain knobbies instead of the previous 32-inch BFG tires. Meanwhile, even the JL Sport in its most basic configuration now rolls on 31.5-inch tires (245/75R17) instead of the previous 29-inch rubber (225/75R16), and this improves ground clearance by 1.4 inches. For the four-door JLU on its P255/75R18 tires, ground clearance remains the same as that of the previous JKU model, but the JLU Rubicon's 1-inch-taller tires improve ground clearance by 0.8 inch over the previous JKU Rubicon. And few will complain that the new tires are nearly an inch wider on the entry-level Sport (245 mm vs. 225) and more than an inch wider on the Rubicon (285 mm vs. 255).

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Powertrain Choices, for a Change
The 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL and JLU offer two engine choices, and an additional diesel option is coming for 2019. The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 is familiar, but it has evolved with higher cylinder compression for improved response and a stop-start system for improved fuel economy. It makes the same 285 horsepower and 268 pound-feet of torque as before, and it feels the same as before, too. Its fuel economy is 19 mpg combined (17 city/23 highway) when backed by the standard six-speed manual transmission and 20 mpg combined (18 city/23 highway) when paired with the optional eight-speed automatic.

Your other engine choice is the 2.0T, a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, and we think it is the better way to go. This 270-hp turbo four-cylinder makes a smidge less power than the V6, yet its twin-scroll turbo delivers 295 lb-ft of torque low in the engine's powerband for improved drivability compared to the V6. When we were delicately creeping up steep, rocky slopes in the Arizona desert with a 2.0T-equipped Wrangler JL, the impact of greater torque was readily apparent in the automatic transmission's low range, yet even a loaded JLU four-door proved to be eager on paved suburban highways. The turbo four-cylinder engine will no doubt outperform the V6 at altitude, too.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Vastly Better Gearing
As before, the V6 engine's base transmission is a six-speed manual. But this is an all-new transmission, and the new rod-operated shift linkage has shorter throws and also keeps the dramatically shorter shift lever from whipping around while you're driving in the dirt. In addition, the clutch action requires less effort, too. Optional is the eight-speed automatic originally introduced by the Ram 1500 pickup, a far better bit of hardware than the five-speed automatic it replaces here. (When the 3.0-liter turbodiesel is introduced for the 2019 model year, it will be matched with this eight-speed automatic, too.)

Meanwhile, the 2.0T four-cylinder is not available with a manual transmission. Nevertheless, the eight-speed automatic has its advantages, both on road and off. To begin with, we understand that the 2.0T with its automatic will be more fuel-efficient than the V6 automatic by a couple mpg, although EPA figures have not yet been released. Second, this automatic incorporates a 48-volt eTorque system. Similar to a mild hybrid setup, eTorque employs a large belt-driven generator that also acts as a starter. The unit collects energy during any kind of deceleration event, akin to regenerative braking from a hybrid powertrain. It uses the added electrical capacity to extend the engine-off period during stop-start events and smoothly restart the engine as the Wrangler starts to roll. This makes for noticeably smoother getaways from stoplights and a far better driving experience with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine than you might expect. Finally, the eight-speed works very well once you've left the highway since the crawl gear ratio and cruise gear ratio can be more effective, while the closely spaced intermediate ratios put the engine's powerband in its sweet spot more of the time.

The two-door JL and four-door JLU both feature part-time four-wheel drive, and they incorporate a lever-action transfer case with a 2.72-to-1 low-range gear. Meanwhile, the Rubicon trim level gets a beefier version with 4.0-to-1 low-range gearing. New this year is a third option, for the four-door JLU only. It's a lever-action transfer case that adds a 4-Auto position alongside the usual 4-Hi and 4-Lo settings, and this allows the transfer case to automatically engage four-wheel drive whenever the Wrangler's sensors indicate that traction conditions warrant it. The low-range gear is 2.72-to-1, and like the other transfer-case alternatives, there's a neutral position for flat-towing your JL behind a motor home.

When it comes to axle ratios for both the two-door JL and four-door JLU models, Jeep has split the difference between the former 3.21-to-1 and 3.73 alternatives and settled on 3.45 as the base offering. Because of the way the new transmissions are geared internally, the 3.45 setup features a better overall ratio for off-road crawling than last year's optional 3.75 setup for the JK. The 3.45 setup also delivers more fuel-efficient cruising on the highway in top gear than last year's standard 3.21 setup for the JK. As a result, the 3.73 ratio is no longer available as an option, although it will resurface as the standard setup for the 2019 diesel powertrain.

The JL Rubicon combines both the V6 and 2.0T powertrains with a standard 4.10 axle ratio and 4.0-to-1 transfer-case ratio, and these measures put the 2018 JL Rubicon on another crawl-ratio planet compared to the JK Rubicon. When the manual transmission is in place in the JL, the overall crawl ratio is now 84.2-to-1 instead of 73.1-to-1; when the automatic is in place, the overall crawl ratio is 77.2-to-1 instead of 58.9-to-1. Of course, the size of the tire is itself the final gear ratio in the crawl-ratio equation, so the switch to 33-inch tires from the former 32-inch tires makes the overall ratio a little taller, although it's a tiny effect. You could put 35-inch tires on a JL with a manual transmission or 37-inch tires on a JL with an automatic and still have a better crawl ratio than today's box-stock JK Rubicon. Routine axle regearing in order to swing taller tires might cease to be a thing in the world of JL off-roading.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Yes, but I'm Just Driving to the Beach
Plenty of Jeep owners rarely dirty their tires, and even dedicated off-roaders use a Wrangler to commute to work. No matter who you are, you'll be happy that the 2018 Jeep Wrangler is hugely improved on the daily convenience front. For example, outward visibility is improved because the window sills for the front glass are an inch lower, while the rear window is wider and extends lower. The top of the spare tire also has been dropped to improve rear visibility, and a standard backup camera now sprouts from the center of said tire. It's ridiculously easy to see out of this thing.

There are now grab handles on each windshield pillar to aid ingress, and the front passenger gets a big grab handle on the dash as well. We found the seats to be far more accommodating than before, and they can be equipped with a tri-level heating function. And when you get the heated seats, a heated steering wheel is part of the package, too. The steering wheel now telescopes, and the examples in nicely optioned JLs bristle with controls for the new 7-inch central information display, which has more screens than your local cineplex. Dual-zone automatic climate control is available, and the controls are unexpectedly attractive and easy to use, not to mention unique to the Wrangler.

The cupholders in the center console serve double duty as bins for your mobile phone. There are two USB ports in the console that talk to the optional 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen AM/FM/XM/HD entertainment system, now in its fourth generation and which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There's a micro USB port and an old-school aux jack up front, too. Backseat denizens have access to two eyeball-style rotating air-conditioning vents, two cupholders, two additional connected USB ports, and a 110-volt power outlet, all of which sprout from the rear of the center console. Yes, a two-door JL has all this stuff, too.

Wrangler Rubicon models have a switch panel below the AC interface that controls the e-locking front and rear differentials as well as the disconnect system for the front anti-roll bar. Alongside this you can add an optional panel with four switches that can be individually customized via the touchscreen to be latching or momentary, always hot or keyed. Associated wiring drops can be found on either side of the firewall as well.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

The Ultimate Convertible(s)
And then there's the top. The 2018 Wrangler JL's soft top still comes in standard and premium versions as before, but they both go up and down much easier. There are no zippers, and instead you simply unclip and slide out the rear and side windows. You can stop there if you like, so you can keep the reinforced soft top (now with five rigid bows) in the up position for front-to-back shade in safari mode — a neat new feature that we love. Lowering it from there is easy: You simply release the two latches on the windshield header, then release one new latch inside the rear window. The Sunrider feature remains, too.

As for the bolt-on hardtop roof, there are now two of them. The familiar one features composite materials, which makes the removable Freedom Panels some 20 percent lighter. The Sky One-Touch power roof is new, and this hardtop variant is available only for the four-door JLU in Sahara trim. This hardtop incorporates a power-operated fabric sunroof that retracts all the way behind the second row of seats. You can even take things a step further since this hardtop's rear panels are removable.

Maybe you like the idea of driving the 2018 Wrangler JL with the windshield folded down. When you tried this with the Wrangler JK, the process of lowering the windshield involved two dozen bolts and an hour of time. Now there are just four bolts, and they're behind the sun visors so it takes less than five minutes to drop the glass. The tool kit that's supplied to accomplish the windshield trickery also can be used to remove the two bolts that retain each door's hinge pins. Now made of aluminum, the doors are much easier to lift off, especially if you roll down the window so you can reach through and pull the door free with the new handhold under the armrest.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Weight and Money
As you've noticed, there's a lot of new hardware in the all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL and JLU. As a result, the Jeep engineers put the JL-series on a diet. The weight reduction begins with the frame, which weighs 100 pounds less than before, even though the new use of high-strength steel actually improves structural rigidity. The hood, windshield and doors are all made of aluminum, and even the outer skin of the rear tailgate is aluminum. The structure of the swing-style gate itself is now magnesium, yet it can bear a heavier spare tire.

All this represents a savings of as much as 200 pounds, yet most JLs still weigh about 100 pounds more than the JKs they replace. Larger tires and wheels (times five), the eight-speed transmission, wider axles and all the extra content inevitably tip the scales, lightweight materials notwithstanding.

So much change doesn't come cheaply, either. The average base price of a 2018 Jeep Wrangler has risen about $3,000. A two-door 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sport V6 with a manual transmission, vinyl top and roll-up windows (yes, these still endure) goes for $26,995, exactly three grand more than its 2017 counterpart. The four-door 2018 Jeep Wrangler Sahara (the Sahara is now sold only in four-door JLU configuration) starts at $37,345. On the top end of the scale, the base price of a four-door 2018 Jeep Rubicon Unlimited V6 with a manual transmission will start at $40,495. Tack another $1,195 onto all of these prices to cover the obligatory destination charge.

We don't yet know the price of the V6's optional eight-speed automatic transmission, and the cost of the 2.0T engine with its standard eight-speed automatic transmission is also still a mystery. Same goes for the cost of options such as the Sky One-Touch power roof and the Rubicon's winch-rated steel bumper, plus other add-ons we don't even know about yet. Point is, the day has come when you might find a Wrangler Rubicon with a $50,000 price sticker on your Jeep dealer's lot.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Time to Trade Up
Production of the 2018 Jeep Wrangler and 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is just now getting under way. Some examples might show up soon near Toledo, Ohio, the site of Jeep's main production facility, while other dealerships across the country should be getting them in January and February. Expect heavily optioned V6-powered examples to show up first, with less expensive models and examples powered by the 2.0T eTorque engine surfacing later.

Three thousand extra dollars is a lot more money, but the 2018 Jeep Wrangler is also a lot more Jeep. The all-new Jeep Wrangler is more capable off-road even as it offers powertrains that deliver much-improved highway cruising. Detail changes make it more enjoyable and more practical on a daily basis, while the interior is significantly more attractive, functional and up-to-date. We'd have been shocked if the price didn't rise much.

Jeep's engineering team has had to walk the razor's edge to improve the legendary Wrangler without arousing the anger of the Jeep faithful. But now that we've driven the 2018 Jeep Wrangler in a wide range of conditions in both New Zealand and the United States, we're here to tell the skeptics on the internet forums that the all-new Wrangler is better than anyone could have imagined.

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