Jeep Wrangler designer Mark Allen used to be a road racer. Then he got a taste of off-roading.
“The trouble with road racing is the waiting around between sessions,” he said as we sat in the front seat of a 2018 Wrangler Sport somewhere in the Arizona desert. “When you go off-roading, you’re driving all the time.”
I’m a road racer, but I get it. At the opposite end of the automotive spectrum from high-speed track days in your (name of production hot rod here) is hitting the trails with your buddies to conquer nature.
And just as the rear-wheel-drive Mazda Miata is the populist road racer of choice, the all-wheel drive Wrangler is king of the outback.
Michigan off-road playgrounds like the Mounds, Rocks and Valleys and Bundy Hill are crawling with Wranglers of every shape and size. There are four-door Saharas, two-door Sports and rad Rubicons outfitted with snap-on accessories: engine air snorkels, roof lights, huge 37-inch tires. They crawl, sprint, scratch and climb over the muddy, tangled landscape like 11-year-olds at a riverside family retreat.
The good news this Christmas is Allen and his merry band of Jeep elves are introducing the first all-new Wrangler in a decade.
Due in early 2018, it’s the most mature Wrangler yet. Like Hulk on a desert rampage then showing up as Bruce Banner for work on Monday, the new Jeep is weekend hell-raiser — and a civilized, weekday commuter.
I tested the refined Wrangler on Arizona’s Saguaro Ranch north of Tucson and the little tank is as tough as ever.
Saguaro is an outdoor battlefield of rock, dirt and thorny cactus. It’s a different sort of battlefield than the original, 1941 Willys Jeep encountered in World War II, of course, but the Wrangler retains many of that warhorse’s defining attributes — including a drop-down windshield. It’s easily removed like every other door and window.
“They originally made (the windshield) drop for two reasons,” says Allen. “One, for easier shipping. And two, because sometimes you had a guy with a howitzer in the back seat.”
For 2018 howitzer not included. Otherwise, the Jeep is armed to the teeth for off-road battle including skidplates, locking differentials, 31-inch tires, plastic fenders (to brush aside those sharp Saguaros) and body-on-frame architecture.
I assaulted rocky hills, narrow canyons and washboard-rough trails. Last summer, I took on a similar ecosystem in Ford’s F-150 Raptor pickup, another all-wheel drive armadillo designed to do double-duty as an off-road sprinter and rock crawler — at double the price of Wrangler. Wrangler can’t hang with the twin-turbo V-6 Ford on the fast flats, but its narrower track, 44-degree front departure angle and short wheelbase provide superior maneuverability through the vertical stuff.
No less treacherous a battlefield is the current regulatory environment. Jeep and Ford generals have adopted similar strategies to survive prickly, green bureaucrats.
For better fuel economy Wrangler follows the F-150 in saving 200 pounds by fixing a full aluminum skin to a toughened, high-strength-steel spine. This slimmed bod is then mated with an array of engine options including the reliable 3.6-liter V-6 and a new hybrid turbo with 4,295-pound-feet-of-torque. A diesel arrives in 2019.
Starting with a 2-mile-per-gallon savings for the V-6, the Wrangler will see significant fuel savings across the board. These upgrades won’t come cheap, however. The price tag for a base Wrangler Sport climbs $2,500 and about $5,000 for the four-banger (hybridized by a 48-volt lithium battery under the back seat). That’s not chump change for a base $28,000 vehicle.
For your money, however, come manners that introduce caveman Wrangler to polite, 21st-century society. After beating up on nature off-road, Wrangler won’t beat you up on-road.
This is a thoroughly modern beast with state-of-the-art ergonomics: big-screen Uconnect infotainment system, digital instruments, full-door storage nets/armrests, A/B pillar grip handles, and rear heat and air conditioning. The latter — combined with the Wrangler’s longer wheelbase — makes the back seat a pleasant place to be. Just watch that you don’t hit your head on the rollbar on entry.
In other words Wrangler is now as refined as the rest of Jeep’s lineup. And what a lineup.
Michigan Jeepsters have long made the trek to Arizona to test their mules on Sedona’s gorgeous, treacherous rock canyons — crawling over boulders like the legendary pink Jeep Wrangler tourmobiles.
They will notice that Arizona is now overrun with more varieties of Jeep than desert cactus. Sure, iconic Wranglers abound, but there are also subcompact Renegades, compact Compasses and Cherokees, and mid-size Grand Cherokees.
Japanese models still dominate the shrinking sedan market, and German makes are still the lords of luxury. But the SUV revolution has made Jeep a trusted, volume carmaker out here. Heck, the locals figure, if a Wrangler can survive the Rubicon trail, then the family should be safe in a Grand Cherokee. Ironically, Jeep’s rock-tough design has too often come with rock-bottom JD Power reliability rankings. Fix that, and the sky’s the limit for the Jeep brand.
Jeep this year is pushing sales of a million vehicles in the U.S. alone, and 1.6 million across the planet. That may be less than half the sales of the Chevy, but consider that GM’s megabrand is also selling more than 700,000 pickups and 700,000 cars a year. Jeep just sells utes.
It’s the new face of American autos. Or the old face if you consider Papa Wrangler.
The World War II vet that sired a brand has changed little over the years: Same seven-tooth grille. Same round eyes. Same square fenders. Same spare tire on the back.
Knocking around Wrangler-stuffed Tucson, few noticed my new model. But the physical changes are notable. Jeep’s signature, soft-top roofs are much easier to remove or snap back into place. The grille — and windshield — are subtly swept back for better aerodynamics. The greenhouse grows an inch thanks to lower door sills which – combined with a rear-view camera in the spare — makes for batter visibility (it ain’t easy peering around a rollbar and tire).
My favorite addition? A “T50” stamped on the door hinges so you know which Torx screwdriver to use in the Wrangler’s tool-case to remove the doors.
When I’m road racing, I want doors. But if I’m off-the-grid, I want to see how close those boulders are next to me.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.
2018 Jeep Wrangler
Front-engine, all-wheel drive,
3.6-liter V-6; 2.0-liter
turbocharged, inline-4 cylinder
with battery assist
6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic
4,175 pounds/4,485 pounds (Rubicon
2-door/4-door V-6s as tested)
$28,190 base ($38,190 2-door/$38,540
4-door Rubicons as tested)
285 horsepower, 260 pound-feet
torque (V-6); 270 horsepower,
295 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)
0-60 mph (NA); 3,500-pound towing
EPA mpg est. 18 city/23 hwy/20 mpg
combined(V-6 automatic); turbo-4 TBD
Upgraded creature comforts; capability
like nothing else on the market
Pricey; reliability concerns
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★