By Nick Smirnis
It’s been ten years since the Jeep introduced the Wrangler JK, so it is a somewhat momentous occasion to see the words “new” and “Wrangler” next to each other. But the new Wrangler JL is here and I had the opportunity to drive it in Marana, Arizona.
Normally, vehicles enter a period of nonproduction, then receive a major update followed by two or three “face lifts” throughout their production cycle. But the Wrangler is no normal vehicle. No other vehicle has higher demands from after-market modifiers or more legacy to live up to, and nothing else out there seems to suffer the same scrutiny when it’s time for a new generation. As such, I won’t refer to the Wrangler JL as the 2018 Jeep Wrangler, since the vehicle sits well outside many conventions of the automotive industry. Most of the changes discussed here will remain true to the Wrangler for the foreseeable future.
Before I get into the Wrangler JL’s extensive exterior changes, I should mention that this is the most capable off-roading Jeep ever made. It has the steepest ever approach and departure angles, best power to weight ratio and the Rubicon trim level even comes with 33” tires to appease would-be modifiers. More than that, the rock rails on the Rubicon are designed to accommodate 35” tires with no modification, but a 2” lift by Jeep’s modification house (Mopar) is manufacturer-approved and warranty-friendly. You might be picking up on a trend here: Jeep is trying to limit the number of things the die-hards can complain about. And it’s pretty obvious that when it comes to actual performance the new JL is superior in every category. Simply put, Jeep wouldn’t make it if it wasn’t an improvement, they’d just continue tweaking the JK.
Fender interior dimensions or approach and departure angles are improvements that can be measured in inches, but some of the other changes are more substantial. For 2018, Jeep is offering the first ever 4-cylinder turbo for the Wrangler. That means less weight and more power, creating better efficiency on-road and better climbing ability off-road. The turbo engine is paired to a recently introduced 8-speed automatic transmission. The Pentastar V6 is still standard on all new JKs in a 6-speed manual configuration or optional 8-speed automatic. This won’t be the manual familiar to JK owners however; the new manual transmission boasts shorter shift throws by 50 perecent, best-in-class crawl ratios, and a generally improved feel.
For comparison, the standard Pentastar V6 produces its familiar 285 hp and 260 lb-ft, while the 4-cylinder produces just 270 hp, but a significant 295 lb-ft of torque. The turbocharger is a twin scroll sequential design. Boost is mitigated by an electronically controlled wastegate; Jeep has designated it as “low inertia.” Turbo lag off-road was nowhere to be found when I test drove the 4-cylinder Rubicon in very harsh conditions. On the other hand, the turbocharger doesn’t do much for top end acceleration, but that’s not what the Wrangler is made for. The main criticism from Jeep enthusiasts is the complexity of the turbocharged engine for potential on-the-fly repairs.
For true Jeep enthusiasts, it’s all about the six-speeds, the powertrain and the off-road capability, but some of the stylistic choices may also strike a chord. The design team cites the CJ5 as the chief inspiration behind the exterior updates. Keeping the iconic silhouette, the first noticeable difference is the larger diameter front headlamps which are available in both Halogen and LED versions. The outermost slats of the classic Jeep 7-slot grille are intersected by the new headlamps in homage to the CJ5. A beefier steel bumper with a winch mount is available on Rubicon models to match its duel vented “dome” hood.
A lower belt line across all new JL’s means larger windows and drastically improved outward visibility. The lower belt line contributes to the JL’s stout aesthetic, while accommodating the full-sized spare at the rear of the vehicle several inches lower than the outgoing JK. Decent rear visibility is actually possible for the first time ever on a Wrangler. Another major change is that the turn signals and running lights have been moved to the fenders, which are essential to the aerodynamics and aesthetics of the JL series. Body color is optional on Rubicon models and standard on Sahara models for these fenders.
Balancing standards in efficiency while maintaining the Jeep’s signature look was a challenge throughout the design process. A more raked windshield and some very crafty (and removeable) aero elements can be seen across the Wrangler line. There is now a step rail on all non-Rubicons that sits just a few inches below the door sill. However, these are actually cleverly disguised aero elements which can be easily removed by just about anyone. Moreover, the step rails share the same profile as the rock rails on the Rubicon, meaning they do not interfere with ground clearance on any model.
The most unique features that make the Wrangler what it is are the doors and roof (or lack thereof). The doors are now easier to remove than ever thanks to a new grip, and the windshield also folds down much easier than previous generations. Once you begin to expose the bones of the vehicle, one major difference becomes apparent: There’s no more steel tube superstructure and no more frustrating zippers. When you open up the Wrangler JL, you expose a high strength steel superstructure that comes standard in body paint color. To protect the occupants of the vehicle, a new hard foam lining shadows the inner edge of the frame. This is a huge leap forward from the previous design, which notoriously retained moisture and was impossible to clean. The new pared-down superstructure can be wiped dry both inside and out.
Improvements to the roof configurations are numerous. The soft top which unlatches near the rear-view mirror and folds back like a boat’s bimini top into the rear cargo area is particularly impressive. This means that it can be done from the driver’s seat at a stoplight provided that the quarter windows were removed prior. Another completely new feature is available only for 4-door models-- the powered soft top. It has the same exterior perimeter as the regular hard top, but the entire center of the roof is canvas that collapses back, creating an “ultimate sunroof” feeling despite the fact that it has no glass.
The new roof, door, and windshield configurations are among many “firsts” for this project so far. It may already be overwhelming at this point to announce the introduction of new half doors for the 2019 model year to improve upon the success of Mopar’s tube construction half doors. Yet another Wrangler first will arrive in dealerships later this year in the form of a diesel powertrain. The EcoDiesel Wrangler is expected to be paired with the automatic transmission; no word on a manual diesel yet.