You won’t hear Jeep calling the all-new 2018 Wrangler a hybrid too often, but it is.
Not just because it blends classic style with modern technologies, but because it can be equipped with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with electric motor assist named eTorque, which Jeep apparently thinks sounds more badass than “hybrid.”
It does, and it’s just one of the many radical changes made to Jeep’s most traditional truck, which has undergone its first full redesign in 11 years.
Another is fitting aluminum body panels to a high-strength steel frame, reducing the Wrangler’s weight by up to 200 pounds in the names of performance and efficiency.
The boxy shape of the body makes it unmistakably a Wrangler, but it’s deceptively aerodynamic. A kinked grille, raked windshield and tapered greenhouse give it a relatively sleek look if you squint, despite that windshield being perfectly flat, so you can fold it down onto the hood to get closer to the great outdoors.
It’s all fronted by a keystone-shaped grille inspired by the legendary Jeep CJ’s, complete with round headlights encroaching into the outside slats. But now those lights are high-intensity LEDs with a strip bisecting them that adds a techy edge to the Wrangler’s timeless image.
For most, that image involves having the top off, which is now easier to accomplish in three different ways. The removable hardtop (Freedom Top) has lighter roof panels; the soft top (Sunrider) is spring-assisted and no longer uses infuriating zippers for the rear window sections, so you just slip them out and back in; and for the truly unambitious, there is a power sliding fabric top (Sky One-Touch) that’s basically a gigantic sunroof, but gives you the alfresco gist.
An interior rethink brings color, stitched upholstery and real metal trim to the Wrangler’s dashboard, which was previously a plastic black hole. Heated seats are available, and the tilt/telescope steering wheel, shift levers and even the turn signal stalk all move with a kind of machined precision that wouldn’t feel out of place in a luxury SUV -- at least one fitted with drain plugs in the floor.
The new Wrangler isn’t much bigger than the one it replaces, but does have a slightly wider and longer wheelbase, which adds enough room to the back seat of the 2-door for adults to fit fine and be provided with air vents, cupholders and USB ports. It might as well be a limousine.
The list of electronic features includes a digital display in the instrument cluster with pitch and roll gauges for off-roading, WiFi, a ‘sound bar’ speaker system mounted over the seats, a back-up camera located in the center of the tailgate-mounted spare tire, and a blind spot monitoring system.
Absent are any active driver aids, such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency brakes, but the Wrangler is excellent to drive the old fashioned way. The on-road ride quality has been improved to the point that you don’t have to suffer using it to get to work during the week as a trade-off for having it to play with on the weekend. The comfort and handling are almost carlike, which is no small feat given its underpinnings.
Like the World War II-era Willys MB it traces its roots to, the new Wrangler has solid axles front and rear. But this time around they can be equipped with a full-time all-wheel-drive system in the dressed up Sahara model, making it that much more like a crossover. It’s a nod to the model’s new customer base, who may do a little rock climbing at the gym, but not out in Moab in their trucks.
For those who do, and there are many, a part-time system is standard fare on 4x4s. Hardcore Rubicon models feature the strongest set of lockable Dana axles ever offered on a Wrangler, a full set of locking differentials, a detachable front sway bar, a vented hood, fenders mounted 2 inches higher than on the other models and a set of 33-inch tires that contribute to higher ground clearance (10.8 inches) than the previous edition, which was hardly a lowrider.
Four-door Wranglers make up the bulk of sales these days, so they’ll hit showrooms first when deliveries begin early next year. The first batch will come with an updated version of the 3.6-liter V6 that has been the exclusive engine for the Wrangler over the past six years, and the choice of a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission.
The first diesel engine offered in the Wrangler in the U.S. is slated for the 2019 model year, but the eTorque will arrive by next summer. It’s worth the wait.
The gas-electric power unit is rated at 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of twist, the latter a high-water mark for the Wrangler (which can now wade through up to 30 inches of the wet stuff, by the way, so bring a towel). You can get it only with the automatic transmission, but enough people are already asking about a manual that the folks at Jeep say they’re thinking about it.
It’s not the kind of hybrid that can provide pure and silent electric drive, but the AC motor is connected to the crankshaft via a belt that enables fuel-saving stop/start functionality and allows it to lend the engine a hand under acceleration.
Stomp on the go pedal, and the eTorque kicks you back. The response from the electric motor is immediate and strong, and it fills the gap as the four-cylinder spools up. A stock Wrangler has never had so much spirit on the street. If I were running Fiat Chrysler, I’d try to jam this little gem in every vehicle I could fit it in, from the Fiat 500 to the Dodge Ram 1500. (Don’t be surprised to see it show up in a few.)
The official fuel economy figure hasn’t been determined yet, but I saw an indicated 26 mpg during a highway drive, which would beat the V6’s 23 mpg EPA rating, and it can tow up to the same 3,500 pound load.
It does the job off-road, too. On a hilly, boulder-covered path that would give the Rubicon’s namesake trail a run for the money, the eTorque’s linear low-speed power delivery was a boon, and it never lacked oomph. With the doors off, the sound of the Honeywell turbocharger whistling away under heavy throttle was an added treat.
I’m far from a wheeler, so I’ll leave the detailed dissections of the Wrangler’s mountaineering skills to people with much dirtier boots than mine. But I’ve been off-road in previous editions, and from the solid chassis to the quick steering and the way it gently steps over huge things, this one is more effortless to drive in every way.
While I’m sure the eTorque will be harder to modify than the simple V6, plug-and-play types should have no regrets with it, though that will depend on how much it costs, which has yet to be revealed. The starting price for the Wrangler is now $28,190 for a 2-door with the V6, and $31,690 for a 4-door. That’s over 2 grand more than the outgoing models, and the premium holds all the way up through the trim levels.
Given the added levels of refinement and capability, that seems like a bargain. But if it’s still bigger than your budget, Jeep is going to keep making the old, cheaper Wrangler for several more months until it shuts down its production line to get it ready to build the Wrangler-based pickup truck slated for 2019. Talk about a hybrid.
Actually, it turns out there is another one of those on the way in 2020, and Jeep is proudly using the “H” word to describe it. It’ll be a plug-in hybrid, in fact, that’s able to travel on battery power alone for short distances. Details are otherwise non-existent, but it’s interesting new territory for the Wrangler that I'm looking forward to exploring.