From road to rocks, we sample the newest Wrangler

Much hoopla has been made over the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL. Enthusiasts around the world and the massive aftermarket scene have been hanging on every word written about the first new Wrangler in a decade – and for good reason. The JL represents the first reworking of the Wrangler since it exploded in popularity thanks to the addition of four doors with the 2007 Wrangler Unlimited JK. Everybody from the hard-core rock crawler to the average soccer mom wants to know how this new Wrangler drives.

Thankfully, the wait is over.

Jeep flew us out to Tucson, Arizona in early December for the Wrangler JL’s first U.S.-based media event. The southwestern territory offers an interesting mix of smooth, flat roads through valleys and bumpy, twisty roads through the rock-strewn hills north of town. And of course, off the pavement lies nothing but inhospitable terrain filled with cactuses, scorpions, venomous snakes, and rocks after rocks with more rocks piled on top. It was the perfect place to test the new Wrangler’s mettle.

Continue reading for our driving impressions.

Behind The Wheel

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751435
The JL rides much better with more suspension soak on bumps while somehow feeling more planted.

The Wrangler’s recipe hasn’t changed despite it being completely new. It rides on a ladder frame, uses solid axles, and rides on a multi-link coil spring suspension. As such, there was only so much Jeep engineers could do to improve the ride. However, it is certainly a marked improvement.

Having driven several JKs over the years, I can say the JL rides much better with more suspension soak on bumps while somehow feeling more planted. The 200-pound weight reduction achieved through a lighter body and stronger frame likely have something to do with that. Small bumps and high-frequency washboards don’t send near as much vibration into the cabin and road noise is dramatically reduced in both the Sahara with its all-season tires and especially on the Rubicon with its new all-terrain tires rather than the mud-terrains on the JK Rubicon. Around town, comfort is drastically better.

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751474
The rear spare tire has been moved down and the hard top’s wiper motor is moved to behind the spare – both of which increase rear vision

Outward visibility is improved, too. Jeep increased the size of every pane of glass for a more open cabin. The rear spare tire has been moved down and the hard top’s wiper motor is moved to behind the spare – both of which increase rear vision. Better still, the Wrangler finally has a backup camera. It also comes standard, regardless of trim. The camera’s resolution, especially on the Uconnect 8.4-inch system, is very clear. That should come in very handy when backup up on the trail.

But the Wrangler JL won’t have too much backing up to do off-road. The steering has been improved for a tighter turning radius. Jeep engineers were telling stories of JKs needed to do three-point turns on tight trails while JL development mules were sailing right around the corner.

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751501
The Jeep development team decided early on that the JL would not lose any of its off-road capability, no matter what the cost.

Of course, everybody wants to know how the Jeep Wrangler JL performs off-road. Not surprisingly, the thing is awe-inspiring. The Jeep development team decided early on that the JL would not lose any of its off-road capability, no matter what the cost. As such, the on-road feel is still more compromised than all other mid-size SUVs and crossovers. But point the Wrangler’s new seven-slotted grille toward the dirt, and prepare to be impressed.

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Drivetrain
- image 751576
The Sahara’s suspension does a commendable job at soaking up large, low-speed bumps, but not as well as the Rubicon’s, which is also aided by larger tires with more flexible sidewalls.

My first taste off the beaten path was in an Unlimited Sahara. That model comes with laughably street-biased Bridgestone Dueler H/T 685 all-season tires, yet with 4WD high engaged, the Sahara easily scaled steep inclines of lose dirt and rock, all without any wheel slip. Naturally, the Bridgestones do a great job on the street and produce zero road noise. The Sahara’s suspension does a commendable job at soaking up large, low-speed bumps, but not as well as the Rubicon’s, which is also aided by larger tires with more flexible sidewalls.

As for the Rubicon, the thing feels unstoppable. I sampled the Rubicon Unlimited with the new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and eight-speed automatic and the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 with the new six-speed manual transmission. Both engines provide plenty of low-end torque and the Rock-Trac transfer case and 4.10:1 axle ratios multiply that torque exponentially.

On the Rocks

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751507
Put the part-time transfer case into 4WD low range, and the Wrangler Rubicon crawls forward with unstoppable might.

I piloted an Unlimited Rubicon with the 2.0-liter for my time on the rock course. Its 295 pound-feet of low-end torque comes at just 3,000 rpm, with some credit due to the new mild hybrid system. The belt-driven starter generator receives power from a battery bank in order to help turn the crankshaft.

Put the part-time transfer case into 4WD low range, and the Wrangler Rubicon crawls forward with unstoppable might. The eight-speed automatic transmission has plenty of ratios to allow for higher speeds in low range, though it’s definitely not indented for on-road use. The large boulders mixed with smaller rocks provided a challenging course, but the BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2 tires (even at full pressure) provided outstanding levels of grip. At only one point did the tires struggle for traction, and that was at a nearly 45-degree incline over slick rocks.

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Drivetrain
- image 751468
The large boulders mixed with smaller rocks provided a challenging course, but the BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2 tires provided outstanding levels of grip

The Jeep’s tight turning radius came into play at the hillclimb’s peak. A nearly 90-degree right-hand turn awaited and the Wrangler Unlimited had only inches to spare for a three-point turn. The JK would have needed more than three points to make the turn.

Being a Rubicon, the underside comes with skid plates and the rocker panels are protected with steel sliders. These were certainly put to the test on the course, where large boulders would have dented the body and punctured the fuel tank.

Rubicons equipped with the automatic transmission have a respectable 77.2:1 crawl ratio, which proved more than enough for the course Jeep provided. However, Rubicons with the V-6 and six-speed manual combination have an ultra-low 84.2:1 crawl ratio – nearly double the torque multiplication on the automatic-equipped Sport and Sahara models. That means first gear and low range in the manual Rubicon is insanely powerful. At idle, the Jeep crawls at 1.0 mph and feels like it could bull the Eiffel Tower off its base. You’ll need to shift into third gear in order to go anywhere fast.

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Interior
- image 751541
The gearbox is much more refined than the JK’s old six-speed.

As speaking of the new six-speed manual, the gearbox is much more refined than the JK’s old six-speed. The throws are shorter and gates more pronounced, leading to a more satisfying driving experience. It’s no sports car, but the manual is far less truck-like. That’s thanks to the new cable connections that mate the shifter to the transmission.

The electronic locking front and rear differentials are much easier to use, too. The dash-mounted toggle switch allows for a straight-forward, one-touch engagement of either the rear locker or both front and rear lockers. A separate button turns the off. The same is true for the electronically disconnecting front sway bar. A single button turns the system off and on – all without any confusion. Indicators in the gauge cluster further help indicate what’s going on.

On-Road With The Rubicon

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751433
The softer suspension made for a more comfortable on-road experience and the gearbox was a joy to shift

I was able to snag a few miles of on-road driving time with an Unlimited Rubicon with the V-6 and six-speed manual. The softer suspension made for a more comfortable on-road experience and the gearbox was a joy to shift. The clutch is light and has an early pick-up, making the upper half of its travel useless. The steering feels better than the outgoing Wrangler JK, but still has some on-center vagueness. The same is true for the Sahara model I drove, as well. Still, the driving dynamics are far improved and easily recognizable.

On-Road With The Sahara

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751476
Bumps are handled with more composure and road noise is almost eliminated

Most of my time with the new 2018 Wrangler JL was inside an Unlimited model with the V-6. It’s clear Jeep engineers sweated over improving the ride and overall quality of the experience. Bumps are handled with more composure and road noise is almost eliminated. The power-retractable top shows no signs of flapping in the wind, but there is some wind noise generated at the top of the windshield. It’s not bad, though, and certainly better than the JK.

Perhaps the best improvement in my book is the improved throttle response with the V-6. Even though the 3.6-liter is basically unchanged from its time in the Wrangler JK – power specs and all – the throttle is more responsive on the road. Before, the JK required what felt like three-quarter throttle just to get moving. Now, a light touch is all that’s needed. Slip the transfer case into 4WD low range, and the throttle response gets less touchy, which is exactly what’s needed when bumping down some rock-strewn road.

Observed Fuel Economy

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751521
The EPA estimates the Unlimited V-6 automatic to get 18 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 20 mpg combined

My on-road driving time in the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara with the part-time Command-Trac transfer case, V-6, and automatic transmission saw an impressive 25.9 mpg combined over a 25-mile highway and short city trek. That’s much improved over the JK thanks to the eight-speed automatic having three more gears than the JK’s slushbox and the JL’s new, more aerodynamic design.

The EPA estimates the Unlimited V-6 automatic to get 18 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 20 mpg combined. With the manual transmission, those numbers drop to 17/23/19, respectively. Sadly, estimates for the 2.0-liter turbo-four are still unpublished, though I suspect an improvement over the V-6.

For those wanting all-out fuel economy, the upcoming Plug-In Hybrid will be availing in 2020. Those who love torque and the smell of diesel fuel will love the addition of FCA’s lovely 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6. Fuel economy stats on those two are still unknown, of course.

Final Thoughts

Driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL Exterior
- image 751505
The new Jeep Wrangler JL is miles better than the outgoing JK in every measure, especially behind the wheel

The new Jeep Wrangler JL is miles better than the outgoing JK in every measure, especially behind the wheel. It’s easier to live with on a daily basis, which most Wrangler JK owners will love to hear. It’s quieter, the seats are more comfortable, it’s easier to see out of, the V-6 feels more powerful thanks to an improved throttle response, and the fuel economy is certainly better.

The 2007-2017 JK moved the Wrangler from being an off-road toy and utility vehicle to something people could daily drive through the week and still have fun on the weekends with. The new 2018 JL keeps that spirit alive while improving the ease of daily living and maintaining the Jeep’s iconic off-road reputation.

References

Jeep Wrangler.

2018 Jeep Wrangler
- image 742104

Read our full review on the 2018 Jeep Wrangler.

2017 Jeep Wrangler High Resolution Exterior
- image 687100

Read our full review on the JK-gen 2017 Jeep Wrangler

Watch the 2018 Jeep Wrangler's Powertop Top in Action
- image 752259

Watch the 2018 Jeep Wrangler’s Powertop Top in Action

Watch the 2018 Jeep Wrangler's Freedom Top in Action
- image 752258

Watch the 2018 Jeep Wrangler’s Freedom Top in Action

Watch the 2018 Jeep Wrangler's Soft Top & Windshield in Action
- image 752131

Watch the 2018 Jeep Wrangler’s Soft Top & Windshield in Action

A Detailed Look At the 2018 Jeep Wrangler's Dashboard
- image 752115

A Detailed Look At the 2018 Jeep Wrangler’s Dashboard

The 2018 Jeep Wrangler's Three Infotainment Systems Interior
- image 752000

The 2018 Jeep Wrangler’s Three Infotainment Systems

The 2018 Jeep Wrangler Come With its Own Tool Kit
- image 751893

The 2018 Jeep Wrangler Come With its Own Tool Kit

What Separates the Rubicon from the Wrangler's Other Trims
- image 751706

What Separates the Rubicon from the Wrangler’s Other Trims

The 2018 Wrangler's Cargo Area is Ready For Anything
- image 751679

The 2018 Wrangler’s Cargo Area is Ready For Anything

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: