It took 10 years to reinvent the Wrangler, and the wait was worth it. While you may have been foaming at the mouth for every bit of JL information or decidedly caring less every day, the fact remains that the new-generation Jeep has arrived. Legions of loyal JK fans feared that the new JL Wrangler would be an abomination of IFS and IRS, with a unit-body frame and a face like a Renegade. And while all those delicious rumors and sleight of hand “leaks” may have done their job, many of us knew that the last thing anyone involved with the new model wanted was to be the one the world would blame for screwing it up. And they didn’t.
Let’s look at the facts: The new JL Wrangler is offered as a two- or four-door(less) hardtop or convertible with a solid beam front and rear axle with optional selectable lockers; a full-time or part-time 2-speed transfer case; five-link suspension with disconnectable antisway bar, coil springs, and the standard host of safety and convenience options; cruise control, power windows, lane departure and such, all available or not. Oh wait, it also handles well and comes with 33-inch-tall tires in the Rubicon version that also includes 4.10 gears and a 4:1 transfer case ratio. Oh wait, you can also get it as a manual 6-speed or an 8-speed auto. Want more? The standard turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder puts out 268 ponies and 295 lb-ft of torque, while the venerable 3.6L V-6 continues with 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. Then wait a year and the 3.0L EcoDiesel V-6–powered mill will come in at a stump-pulling 260 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque. Yeah, still think they really screwed the pooch on this model? Not. Even. Close.
The simple fact is that never before have so many options and refinements been made in any “carry-over” vehicle, which is why this isn’t a carry-over Wrangler. Sure it “looks” the same, because it is SUPPOSED to. The 7-slat grille; exposed fenders; removable doors; exposed hinges; a windshield that truly folds down in a respectable manner; a new keystone-shaped grille to harken back to the earlier Jeeps; fender light that reminds you of the TJs; and a host of small stuff makes sure it comes across as a Jeep Wrangler. What about the interior? If you’ve sat in one by now, you know that the cockpit is open and accessible; gone is the cramped, overdone Playskool interior. It’s now opened up with room to breathe, and the larger windows all around help with that feeling and allow for better visibility. The windshield is raked back a bit more for better aerodynamics, but if you didn’t know that, we doubt you be able to tell without a protractor. And as easy as it is to fold down the windshield, it’s just as easy to take it completely off—just like the doors. The new Wrangler is also lighter than its predecessors, with a new hydroformed steel frame and using aluminum for doors, tailgate, and hood; the weight savings allow for better performance and fuel economy—which everyone can appreciate. Even the axles, which are “Dana 44s” in the Rubicon, are actually smaller and lighter, yet stronger than the ones they replace. That lighter weight helps the overall efficiency of the vehicle, and gives the aftermarket more than enough options for upgrades.
However, the base questions have to be how does it drive and wheel, and what is the cost? Surprisingly enough, the new MSRP is just a couple thousand dollars more than the outgoing JK, which will be sold side by side for a few months more. And as FCA has confirmed, the new JT truck will be available in 2019, although we will have to leave that conversation for another time. But when you get to drive the new JL, as we have, we think you will be pleasantly surprised. We all fear change to our favorite vehicle. Fear not. The younger, hotter sibling of the JK has all the right moves and knows how to use the package it was dealt. The ride on-road is taught and precise, not like a Ferrari perhaps, but in a Jeep way this model excels. And unlike a Ferrari, the JL will scale boulders, marshes, mountains, and yes, parking lots with ease—and look good doing it. Our testdrive in the wilds of New Zealand showed us that the DNA of the Wrangler has not changed, except for the better.
Of course, we have our complaints and question some of the quirks. While we can get used to the windshield washer lever going up for a quick squirt, we applaud the designers for moving the locker buttons and sway bar controls to the center stack. Sadly, the power window buttons have stayed where they don’t belong, in prime real estate in between the actual windows. But hallelujah, the speedometer has been moved to the right side of the IP where it belongs, and the tachometer has moved left to its proper position. Sometimes the simplest things are overlooked, but along with the one-handed soft top ease of opening, we think they got it mainly right. Our chief beef is with the absolutely wrongly designed and back-assward automatic transmission control shift selector. It’s the same abomination found on the rest of FCA’s newly produced Jeeps, and we’ve made note of them before. How is it backward, you say? If you’ve ever driven any American vehicles from the dawn of time to nearly present day, shifting away from the dash lowers the gear ratio, as in the standard PRNDL designation. All the way back is low or First gear, and moving the lever forward increases from 1, to 2, to 3, to Drive, etc. But this shifter (which of course is nothing but an electronic figurehead for the computer wizardry within) wants you to push the shifter forward to downshift and pull backwards to upshift. Try to remember that when you’re zipping along a dune and need to drop a gear or die. It’s simply counterintuitive, so start training your children well. Surely some electrical engineer can figure out how to swap a couple wires underneath the shift boot so we save humanity?
Ah but alas, these small flies in the ointment of Jeep do not detract from the incredible job the engineers, designers, and hosts of associates faced to bring this work of art to the forefront. We applaud and congratulate Jeep on pulling it off, and for saving the Jeep brand for the next ten years. Good job!