Jeep leap: Rugged new Wrangler gets 21st-century update

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — For the Jeep Wrangler’s first big remake in a decade, nothing has changed ... and everything has changed.

The Jeep unveiled Wednesday at the Los Angeles Auto Show is the familiar, boxy, seven slot-grille descendent of the World War II Willys Jeep. But underneath, the Wrangler has been upgraded to a thoroughly 21st century machine with a mild-hybrid, turbocharged engine (and plug-in hybrid due in 2020), large touchscreen console display and 200-pound weight-loss program.

“The Wrangler is more,” says Jeep boss Mike Manley of his brand’s icon. “More technology, more safety, more capability. The only thing that isn’t more is its weight.”

The 2018 Wrangler comes with a choice of two- and four-door models and a multitude of badges. There’s the Sport, Sport S and rock-climbing Rubicon. The four-door model also gets the posh Sahara trim.

You’ll know them in the rear-view mirror by their subtle facial surgery.

Heritage is everything in these World War II-inspired beasts, and designer Mark Allen reached back to the first post-war production Jeep — the 1944 CJ — for visual inspiration. That vehicle featured a keystone-shaped face and larger headlights which encroached ever so slightly into the waterfall grille. The 2018 copies the form. The narrower face means the round running lights under the headlights disappear — and re-appear as square, horizontal beacons on the leading edge of each front fender.

The Jeep logo? Gone from the fascia and relocated on the side quarter-panel along with model badge. “As God intended it,” says veteran designer Allen.

Also as God intended, the Wrangler’s roof, glass and doors (the size of the required Torx screwdriver is helpfully stamped into the hinge) can be completely removed to bring its occupants closer to nature. The front windshield flops forward onto rubber stops (with just four turns of the screw compared to the previous generation’s 28). It’s a detail borrowed from its war heritage.

“It was necessary for two reasons,” explains Allen. “One, for shipping. And two, because there was a guy with a howitzer in the back seat.”

A key goal for the ’18 Jeep was better visibility and engineers obsessed over detail. Wrangler gains an inch of greenhouse space with a lower beltline. Rearward visibility is opened up by dropping the rear wiper to behind the standard, trunk-mounted spare tire. And secured in the middle of the spare is a rear camera, its shroud contoured to minimize the chance that mud and muck obscures the lens.

Less conspicuous is the construction of all body panels from aluminum. Together with a new, body-on-frame skeleton, the Jeep sheds 200 pounds. Stylists also made subtle changes to the front hood and windshield rake for better aerodynamics. The lightweighting and aero tweaks help increase fuel economy from the holdover 285-horsepower, 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 by an estimated 3 mpg city.

Even better fuel economy comes from a premium 2.0-liter, mild-hybrid turbo-4. Its electric component gets its juice from a 48-volt lithium ion battery. The 295 pound-feet of torque generated by the hybrid bests the V-6.

A 3.0-liter diesel variant with massive, 442-pound feet of torque is due for 2019, and Jeep boss Manley teased at the Wrangler's LA Show unveil that a plug-in electric powertrain is coming for 2020.

All engines are driven by eight-speed automatic transmissions, with the base V-6 paired to a 6-speed manual.

Trail-rated, the Wrangler features a “Command-Trac” four-by-four system with a two-speed transfer case that alternates between two- and four-wheel drive when necessary. The rad Rubicon model gets a “Rock-Trac” system with beefier axles and lockable front and rear axles. It also comes standard with big, knobby 33-inch tires. Interior drain holes take care of puddles after fording rivers. The drivetrain is protected by four skid plates and 10.9 inches of ground clearance. Jeep claims an industry-best 44-degree approach angle. Real-world translation: There aren’t many places the Jeep can’t go.

Wrangler comes with both powertop and soft-top roof options. The former can be rolled back up to 60 miles per hour. Opening the greenhouse entirely to the elements is now accomplished with slip-on sleeves rather than the cumbersome, time-consuming zippers of yore.

To make Wrangler as user-friendly on-road as off, the Jeep’s interior has been “insanely improved” — in the words of interior designer Ryan Patrick Joyce — with better ergonomics. The interior is festooned with USB and 12-volt charging ports, the arm rests run the length of the doors (as do the Wrangler’s unique cargo nets) and the rear seats get standard air conditioning.

Passengers benefit from three console touch-screens — standard 5-inch, and available 7- and 8.4-inch displays running the award-winning UConnect infotainment system. Smartphone users will dig the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto app connectivity, and WiFi hotspot.

“Wrangler owners like to do more today than they did the previous day,” said Manley. “We were a social network before there were social digital networks. We had a lot of input from ... owners around the world in terms of what they would like to see.”

A neon-green Wrangler that will be on display in LA shows off the model’s Lego-like list of bolt-on Mopar features. They include an engine air-snorkel (for better breathing through 30-inch deep water), spotlight, 17-inch bead-lock wheels, winch-protection guard, rear cargo trays and much more.

A compact-sized SUV, the Wrangler anchors an all-ute Jeep lineup that includes the subcompact Renegade, compact Compass and Cherokee, and mid-size Grand Cherokee. Assembled in Toledo, the 2018 Wrangler is sold in some 200 countries. Pricing has not been announced. It busts into showrooms next January.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.