2018 Jeep Wrangler First Drive – Finally Modern, Still Not Soft

2018 Jeep Wrangler

It’s always risky trying to soften up an object that’s known for being badass in order to better please the larger market.

After all, who wants to see a movie in which Danny Trejo and Norman Reedus debate Wittgenstein over a game of backgammon while sipping on tea?

That’s the challenge Jeep faced with the 2018 Wrangler – how to modernize it in terms of on-road behavior and creature comforts while not losing any of its off-road capabilities. The company had to keep the toughness while also softening the roughest edges. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but based on a first drive, Jeep pulled it off.

Thanks to a seemingly never-ending slow drip of leaks, it feels like we’ve known the next-gen Wrangler’s official details for eons now. Never mind that I took my turn behind the wheel just about exactly one week after the official wrap came off at the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Full disclosure: Jeep flew media out to a lovely resort at the base of a mountain near Tucson, Arizona and fed us several excellent meals, including snacks at a stop that doubles as a theme park/movie set. They also set up an off-road course and offered Wrangler hats. I did not take one.

Just to recap – the new Wrangler offers two engines at launch. One is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 270 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque; the other is a 3.6-liter V6 making 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. The four has a system that functions sort of like a mild hybrid (more on that later) and pairs to a new eight-speed automatic transmission, while the V6 is available with either the auto or an all-new six-speed manual.

Jeep has a diesel option in store for 2019 – it’s a 3.0-liter mill that makes 260 horsepower and 442 lb-ft of torque. It will pair solely with a new eight-speed automatic and have engine stop/start. A plug-in hybrid model has been promised for 2020, with no further details available.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

There’s four trims – Sport, Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon – and two- or four-door layouts (no Sahara on two-doors). You can get a power softtop, two hardtops, and a regular softtop. The Wrangler is also available with a fold-down windshield, removable doors, and removable side panels, all of which leads to a headache-inducing amount of combinations for doors, windshield, and roof.

Just like Jeep to offer buyers a million different ways to customize, right? That’s not even factoring in the likely lengthy aftermarket catalogs from Mopar and others.

The first set of keys I got my hands on paired with a hardtop V6 automatic four-door, and we set out towards the break stop on a path that was mostly on-road – a mix of freeway, city streets, and deserted desert back roads.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Improvement in on-road behavior is immediately apparent. It’s still a little tippy in terms of body roll, but the steering wheel actually feels connected to the front tires and the tires to the pavement. Ride is comfortable when the Jeep is pointed straight, and far fewer steering corrections are needed to keep it tracking as such.

Grunt from the V6 is good enough for around-town duties, although you still won’t be blowing anyone’s doors off. If you need to pass, though, you’ll be fine.

Acceleration from the four-banger is a similar story – in fact, I couldn’t tell from the seat of my pants which engine offers quicker acceleration, although the numbers suggest it would be the four.

Speaking of the four, the so-called eTorque system isn’t exactly a mild hybrid setup, but with auto stop/start, an electric power assist system, extended fuel shut-off, regenerative braking, and systems that manage both transmission shifting and battery charging, it’s clearly intended to improve fuel economy. I asked if Jeep will ever offer the four with a stick, even if it means sacrificing eTorque, and I was told that if consumers want it, they might.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

The automatic fades into the background – no noticeable hard shifting. As for the manual, well, the shakes and vibrations are gone, but long yet satisfying throws remain. The clutch has a decent takeup point, but that didn’t keep me from stalling it when I first put it into reverse. Fancy feet, I do not have.

Speaking of reverse, it’s relocated (up and to the left) to make for easier rocking when off-roading.

Ah, off-roading. The Wrangler’s bread and butter. Jeep set up a challenging off-road course and let us do as many loops as we wanted (time permitting) in automatic-trans Rubicons of each engine type. Thanks to things like Dana 44 front and rear axles and a Rock-Trac 4×4 system with a 4.10 front- and rear-axle ratio, as well as front and rear lockers (controlled via switch) and a sway-bar disconnect switch, the Rubicon handled rock piles in the desert with aplomb, even when a slick rock led to a skidplate being smacked.

Off-road setups vary a bit based on trim and powertrain. You can get a Selec-Trac full-time four-wheel drive system with a full-time, two-speed transfer case or a Command-Trac system that also has a two-speed transfer case. Both have a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio, and the latter comes with solid Dana front and rear axles with a 3.45 rear-axle ratio. The Command-Trac and Rock-Trac systems offer full-time torque management, and a limited-slip rear diff is available.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Everything worked well on the trail (I took two turns, one with each engine), although of course we had spotters telling us where to place our wheels, when to engage or disengage each system, when to put the automatic in manual mode and first gear, et cetera. It should also be unsurprising that while the trail was challenging, it wasn’t impassable – no OEM would face its vehicles with obstacles they can’t overcome, for obvious reasons.

Dropping the windshield added to the cool factor, though it reduced visibility along the hood while obviously vastly improving it in all other directions. Popping the doors off allowed for easy sight of wheel placements but, as a passenger in a door-less Wrangler, I nearly went tumbling into the cactus. I didn’t, thanks to seat belts – wear ‘em, kids.

Jeep demos showed the removable side panels come off quickly and the power soft-top (which works at speeds up to 60 mph) appeared to work well. Hardtops still need tools and some time to come off. So is the case with the doors and windshield, but it looks to be a quick and easy process.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Returning from the off-road in a two-door, I could feel how the shorter wheelbase affected handling, but even in two-door form the new Wrangler JL is better behaved on-road than the outgoing JK.

Road, tire, and wind noise are louder than on most SUVs, regardless of top (as expected, they’re louder with the softtop), but less obnoxious than before and not at a level that makes it difficult to converse. The noise never annoys, and I’ve been in sporty compact sedans/hatchbacks with hardtops lately that are louder (ahem, WRX and Focus RS) on the highway.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Perhaps Jeep’s biggest challenge was on the inside. The JK interior was laughably outdated, and not in any charming, retro way. This new cabin is attractive, sprinkled with nods to Jeep history (such as a Willys drawn into the driver-info center and Jeep silhouettes etched in each shifter), and offers up easy-to-use switchgear. Modern amenities like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, and there are three touchscreen sizes from which to choose – five, seven, or 8.4 inches.

Push-button start (on all models), UConnect infotainment, navigation, two USB ports, subwoofer, tilt/telescope steering wheel on all trims – the JL offers the usual modernity. That goes for safety features, too, such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-path detection, and rearview camera. Heated seats are available, too, along with heated steering wheel. So much for roughing it.

Jeep has added a cargo-management system and doubled the size of the center console, and the brand claims the available silver interior trim is real metal, not paint. We were also told the interior can still be washed out (and the water drained, thanks to plugs in the floor plan and a removable carpet). Even little things have modernized – the doors now close themselves!

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Styling-wise, the look is evolutionary, not revolutionary. The Jeep logo moves back to the sides and in a nod to CJ-era Jeeps, the headlights merge into the grille slats. The beltline lowers by an inch, while Rubicon fenders are two inches higher than on other trims. Aluminum is used for the hood, front fenders, and doors. LED headlights and fog lamps are available, and they make the updated JL easy to spot at night – in fact, it was easier to tell the JL apart from the JK once the sun dropped and the lights went on.

We drove pre-production models, so build quality was not something I can truly comment on yet. But given the pricing Jeep has laid out, it had better be good, especially with a new Land Rover Defender coming at some point soon.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Taking the big-picture view, that’s my biggest concern with the new Wrangler. It’s as good as it’s going to get on-road – basic physics demands that any vehicle that’s so off-road focused will never be perfect on the highway – and the interior is finally more or less up to par. However, the cash outlay may be a little steep for some.

Consider: The two-door Sport starts at a reasonable $26,995, but the Rubicon requires $36,995. That’s a big jump. For the four-door Sport, you’re looking at $30,495, while the Sahara is $37,345, and the Rubicon $40,495. All have a $1,195 delivery and destination fee. Fuel economy numbers are not yet finalized.

That means the JL won’t be cheap. It doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it. If you’re looking for a great on-road SUV, look elsewhere. But if you’re a hard-core off-roader or someone who just wants the Jeep’s style, the JL’s on-road behavior and interior quality are both finally good enough that you won’t feel punished for your choice.

[Images: ©2017 Tim Healey/The Truth About Cars]