On the Road Review: Jeep Wrangler Sahara Unlimited

American drivers have numerous iconic automotive models that they have enjoyed for decades. They include Corvette, Mustang, Camaro, Challenger plus another lifestyle vehicle that is a fresh redesign for 2018 — the venerable Jeep Wrangler. More in a minute about this connection.

Facing fuel efficiency and weight concerns, as well as aging components not conducive to modern technologies, FCA-Chrysler/Jeep sent engineers and designers on a very strategic mission three years ago — reinvent the Jeep Wrangler for the 21st century, while not changing any of the attributes that make the Wrangler so popular. Reinventing bread without wheat might have been easier.

And just to keep the faithful flock engaged during the model transition, Jeep is selling the previous generation JK right alongside the new JL Wrangler. After driving the newest JL Wrangler in Sahara trim, it would be difficult to go back to the older design.

In rapid order, here are some of the notable changes.

The JL Wrangler is lighter, by hundreds of pounds (varies by model, but up to 600 pounds) as plastic panels, aluminum suspension and body pieces and more high-strength steel is employed elsewhere to add up to less mass. New Dana solid axles front and rear, plus revised skid plates and more compliant suspension tuning, keep off-roading performance high within the Wrangler’s portfolio.

Yet, as dedicated Wrangler aficionados may protest, growing sales are coming from new Jeep customers who wanted enhanced cabins with more amenities. The new Wrangler delivers. Available or standard items include auto-climate system, 7-inch or 8-inch U-Connect screens with apps and navigation, 7-inch TFT programmable color display in the center cluster, push-button ignition and keyless access, Apple/Android compatibility, optional AWD system to go with two 4WD systems, heated steering wheel, remote starting, multiple connectivity ports, A SkyTouch power soft-top plus a rugged folding convertible top, rear back-up camera, blind-spot detection and cross-traffic alert, LED lamps, larger brakes and stronger Dana axles, as well as a long list of accessories and optional gear to personalize each of the four Wrangler trim levels.

Controls and switchgear are also improved for tactile feel, however the power window switches remain on the center dash so that you can remove the doors, still fold the windshield, and go completely topless.

Back outside, new wheels, a revised seven-slot front grille — with look-at-me LED headlamps and DRLs available — plus a raked windshield that further aids aerodynamics by even a few degrees, all help the Wrangler to push the EPA mileages estimates to 18/23/20 mpg. Seven hundred miles in the new Sahara handily beat the EPA highway estimate.

This was possible because the former five-speed automatic gives way to a new FCA-corporate eight-speed automatic that is a slick performer, knocking off almost a whole second in acceleration times compared to previous 3.6-liter powered Jeeps. Nice. As you read this, the Wrangler will become available with a new 2.0-liter turbo-four engine, with more torque than the V-6, while a turbo-diesel four-cylinder debuts later this fall. Both engines promise even better fuel economy. Also coming late this fall (maybe spring 2019) is the long-promised pickup version of the Wrangler. Jeep built a whole new assembly plant in Toledo to handle the anticipated worldwide growth in Wrangler sales.

Impressions: the cabin is quieter despite the road noise from the soft-top — at least up to 55 mph. Steering feel and the unusually familiar Wrangler handling dynamics remain, while the rear cargo area seems larger (the tailgate is taller) and the rear seat splits to fold. The drivetrain is more fun to exploit, visibility seems better (especially with the rear camera) and every buyer can appreciate the enhanced fuel economy.

Even Mercedes sees merit in these off-road specific/capable trucks, as its long-in-the-tooth Galendewagon has also been revamped. Pricing jumped too, but the big G-wagon is both more capable and more civilized — what buyers asked for, and are prepared to pay for.

Same here for the Jeep. Same pricing seems to be at play too, as retails have climbed. Base JK model two-door, $23,995. Base JL two-door, $27,495. As sampled Sahara 4X4, $37,345 before $10,000 in options and destination fee. Trim runs from Sport, Sport S and Sahara to Rubicon.

Here’s the kicker: the iconic Wrangler is just as much a lifestyle decision as it is transportation — perhaps more so. For $47,000 you can buy a nice Mustang GT or Camaro SS convertible, or a tarted-up Toyota 4Runner, or a decent pickup truck. Wrangler buyers are saying no-no; sales are up 28 percent YTD, as the new Wrangler is outselling Camaro, Challenger, Mustang and Corvette — combined.

Flashy, still fun and now a modern, more fuel-efficient off-roader, the new Wrangler is poised for a long successful run.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.

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