Good on and of road, the new Wrangler combines classic Jeep character and cleverly deployed 21st century tech. By James Taylor
LIKE BLUE MOONS, Halley’s Comet and England World Cup semi-final appearances, a new Jeep Wrangler doesn’t come along every day. This new JL-series is the fourth Wrangler since the name first appeared in the late ’80s, although the spirit goes back much further: the roughest, toughest, traddest Jeep can trace its roots back to the original CJ (Civilian Jeep) series, itself an evolution of the original war-hero Willys.
Jeep hasn’t deviated from the Wrangler’s apple-pie recipe. It’s more capable than ever off-road, with loftier ground clearance, shorter overhangs and latest-gen locking diffs.
And it still looks like a Jeep at 1000 paces: same cutesy round headlights (now adaptive full-LED units), seven- bar grille cut-outs, separate bumpers and angular arches. The windscreen still folds flat, the doors are still removable, and so is the roof, as either folding fabric or a three-piece hardtop, and there’s a choice of short-wheelbase two-door or lengthy four-door.
What has changed is a desire to make the Wrangler more refined than it’s ever previously been, with Jeep cranking up comfort, noise suppression, interior toy count and safety kit to broaden its appeal to urban customers.
On tarmac it’s now quiet at a cruise, adeptly muffling the wind noise and its 2.2-litre turbodiesel (a 2.0 petrol will also be available), even in the soft- top version. The interior is positively luxurious compared to Wranglers of old, especially in road-orientated Sahara trim. Materials are a nimble balance of hard-wearing durability and soft-touch premium, and three different sizes of smartphone-fluent touchscreen can be specced above the new centre console, which is both thoughtfully laid out and populated with kitschy, chunky details.
You can tell the designers had a ball, inside and out, not least with the 10 (or is it more?) ‘Easter eggs’ hidden in the car to reference the original Willys – a silhouette on the windscreen surround here, a ghosted outline of the original’s steering wheel spokes there… It’s all very civilised for a rock- scrambling mountain goat of a car, until you pick up speed and find yourself sawing at the outsized steering wheel simply to keep the Wrangler proceeding in a straight line as the tyres’ giant sidewalls and treadblocks debate in which direction they’d like to go. Reach your first corner, ease the steering wheel towards the apex and you’ll wobble your way around without much in the way of physical feedback to help, wearing an expression somewhere between enjoyment and alarm. It’s fun, though, and you quickly get used to the handling foibles, which are more moderate on the Sahara version’s road-spec tyres than the Rubicon’s chunky boots.
The Rubicon is the factory’s ultimate off-road Wrangler iteration, with a lower low-range ratio, heavier-duty axles and an electronic disconnect for the front anti-roll bar, so it can paw its way over practically any boulder in its way.
Which isn’t to say the Rubicon is the only Wrangler that has serious off-road ability. We drove the Sahara, regular tyres and all, on a steep off-road course that would have been unpassable in a regular road car: deep ruts, tree roots and generously sized rocks with tyre- worryingly pointy edges, all made slippery with rain. In low range it scampered over the lot with ease. UK prices and exact specs are yet to be finalised, but based on prices that have been announced for other markets we’d expect the Wrangler to start at around £42k for a two-door in base Sport trim, up from a starting price around £38k for the outgoing model. Don’t expect a fully loaded Rubicon to be cheap.
How much you’ll like the Wrangler depends how keen you are on its Springsteen-soundtracked, modern- day-cowboy shtick. If you weren’t a fan of the old one, you’re unlikely to fall for the latest generation, despite its admirably improved refinement.
At the other end of the scale, Jeep has given die-hard fans no reason to turn away; a good move, given the arrival of the new Mercedes G-Class and – eventually – a new Land Rover Defender. Everything that people liked about previous-generation Wranglers is still there, it’s chock-full of character and neatly incorporated innovations, and is just as capable off-road while making useful strides forward in economy and safety.
In a world where almost every new car is attempting to imitate an SUV, the Wrangler remains an authentic original 4x4, and an immensely likeable one.
JEEP WRANGLER SAHARA 2.2 ATX
Go anywhere, have fun getting there
Prices TBC, but won’t be cheap
Better all-round than the old one, and just as likeable
★ ★ ★ ★ ★