UPDATED WITH DRIVE IMPRESSIONS 12/13/2017
Behind the Wheel
A lot of work went into making the 2018 Jeep Wrangler “better,” but what exactly does that mean on the trail? In many ways the JL is as familiar as the JK, while at the same time being much improved. Our initial drive took place in the New Zealand backcountry with both automatic and manual-equipped Pentastar JLs, as well as an export-market JL equipped with the 2.0L turbocharged four.
The updated Pentastar feels a lot better in terms of low-end power delivery than the current JK. The lower crawl ratio of either transmission is immediately apparent and gives the JL so much more flexibility when crawling through boulder fields. As a bonus, we never smoked the clutch, as we have in the past with the JK in similar situations. However, we did note that the clutch on our preproduction Jeep felt artificial and difficult to modulate the friction zone. Jeep engineers tell us that there is a fix for that coming to production builds, so we didn’t put too much weight behind it. Automatic-equipped JLs allow manual gear selection and will hold the gear for you, never forcing an upshift on the driver.
Probably our biggest curiosity surrounded the optional 2.0L turbo four. With a mild hybrid setup, we were ready to hate this small displacement mill, but ended up really enjoying it. With 295 lb-ft of torque on tap, the little four never disappointed. Thanks to the mild electrification we never felt much turbo lag, and it felt just as tractable on the trail as the 3.6L. Engine note aside, the four is so impressive that if no one told us what was under the hood, we never would have known it wasn’t the V-6. We can’t wait to roll some more miles with this drivetrain. Adding to the list of likes are all the little things such as improved locker and control switch placement, a lower beltline for increased visibility, and more comfortable seats that work together to make the cockpit much more enjoyable. A full-length “sport bar” adds stiffness to the structure that allows the suspension to work more competently and the new soft and hardtops work so much more efficiently and are much more user friendly.
It is also worth noting that on the highway, the JL brakes, handles, and steers better than its predecessor. Our butt dyno tells us it accelerates faster, and overall the vehicle feels much tighter and much smoother. True to the Jeep team’s word, this is the quietest Wrangler we’ve ever been in. We also liked the feel and operation of the electric steering system, right up to the point where we got the steering bound up in some tough terrain and revving the engine didn’t add any more assist to free us. So the jury is still out on that feature until we experience it in more situations.
One of the biggest reasons for the Rubicon’s improved manners comes down to tires. Now equipped with the popular and more civilized BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2, the Rubicon gives up little capability in all but the harshest terrain, while being better everywhere else. Our only gripe is that the All-Terrains packed up in the muck of New Zealand’s glacial runoff a lot faster than the Mud-Terrains would have, but we are truly grasping at straws here.
Despite only a few days behind the wheel of the JL, we came away extremely impressed. Of course, we’ll still need to put some seat time in the Sahara (four-door only) and Sport model, but if the Rubicon is any indication of the rest of the Wrangler lineup, we’ll gladly put our endorsement behind the JL. For now, the JL honors the Wrangler experience in ways we could have only hoped for. The people on the Jeep team who fought for the integrity of the Wrangler deserve kudos, because without their good fight we’d be talking about a Wrangler in name only; a steel-roofed SUV with IFS and potentially the death of a beloved brand.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you worked for a car company and your next project was to create a new category of vehicle for management. The objective would be to build a vehicle that could traverse difficult terrain, while living daily life as a competent driver that could easily cover long distances at 80mph. To meet these objectives, this vehicle would be equipped with large all-terrain tires, high ground clearance, and a four-wheel drive system and it would also have to be comfortable and have the latest technology and safety features. Of course this would require meeting all applicable government and fuel economy standards. Oh, and did we mention it should come in two body styles, be a convertible with removable doors, and have a windshield that should be capable of folding out of the way. Sounds like a pretty absurd project and a vehicle that could never be built today, right? Yet here we are, giving you the first look at exactly this vehicle, the all-new Wrangler JL, and boy, is it good.
We recently had a chance to spend some serious seat time with the highly anticipated Wrangler JL in New Zealand (driving impressions will follow in a couple of weeks) and came away beyond impressed. Not only is the JL is a worthy next chapter to the Wrangler legacy, but it is everything you loved about the JK with all of the fixes you wish the JK had. Let's walk through the all-new Wrangler JL together.
OverviewThe Wrangler JL is an all-new design that uses a steel frame, steel body with strategic uses of aluminum (doors, hood, and tailgate), and retains the prerequisite solid axles with five-link suspension. Overall the JL is about 200-pounds lighter than the outgoing JK.
The Jeep team focused on making a better Jeep, filled with thoughtful touches and a providing a better all-around experience, with one caveat: no changes could come at the expense of off-road capability. As a result the JL is the lightest, most efficient, most aerodynamic, quietest, and most capable Wrangler ever. The engineering team even designed all of the systems to protect for 35-inch tires, and the Rubicon now comes with one-inch-larger 33-inch tires standard.
DesignThe first thing you’ll notice about the JL is that is looks exactly like a Wrangler should look, albeit scaled a bit better (thanks to increased glass area, bigger head and taillights, and cleaner proportions) to give the JL a more athletic and balanced appearance. Sure the taller windshield is laid back a little more, and there are some small hints at the aero tweaks if you look closely enough, but nothing that detracts from the classic Wrangler shape. Take the hood and fender vents for example. These might look like extraneous add-ons by a gratuitous designer, but the reality is that they allow for hot air to exit the engine bay and relieve pressure under the hood. When used in conjunction with the new lunchbox-style hood latches, these vents completely eliminate the venerable hood-flutter that plagued the JK.
Overall the JL design is much more complex and interesting than the JK. Whereas the JK felt two-dimensional, the JL feels refined and complete, layered and multi-dimensional. The grille combines the best of past eras of design, while being able to stand on its own. It has returned to the classic keystone shape and the new, larger headlights intrude on the outboard slats, reminiscent of the first federalized flat fenders Jeeps. By the way, those new headlights (LEDs are optional) are now integrated units, and not the replaceable sealed-beam-style lights like the JK has. You might also notice the return of the kink in the grille, which was last seen on YJs and XJs, a once-stalwart Jeep styling cue that retakes its rightful home at the front of the JL.
The Rubicon version of the JL has what amounts to a Mopar High Top fender kit from the factory, sitting a full 2 inches higher than the Sport or Sahara models. This allows the JL to fit 35-inch tires right from the showroom floor. You’ll want to add a 2-inch lift kit if you want full articulation without any rubbing on a Rubicon when running stock wheels.
The fenders also incorporate the turn signals now, a concerning revelation for those worried about trail damage, but a high-visibility improvement for those who daily-drive their Wranglers. We’ve been told that the fenders can be easily modified if the owner wants to relocate the lighting and trim them up. Jeep basically did everything but mold “cut here” into the fender to make it easy on enthusiasts.
Moving to the side view, the JL features a strong character line along the side, which fits the larger door handle pull mechanism and allows for taller glass and improved visibility. This shoulder drops from the A-pillar and mimics the shape and location of the half doors, which will be available later in the year. Exposed hinges still hold on the removable doors, but the hinge pins are now different lengths to aid with installation. The tailgate also features naked forged aluminum hinges that match the doors. Gone are the JK’s chintzy plastic covers, exposing the hinges in all of their functional glory.
ChassisUnderpinning the JL is an all-new chassis featuring a 100-pound-lighter high-strength steel frame that is fully boxed with five crossmembers and a hydroformed forward section. With increased torsional stiffness over the JK frame, the JL team had a much better foundation from which to start building their new Wrangler.
The front axle has been moved forward resulting in a wheelbase increase of 1.4 inches on the two-door, now at 96.8 inches. The 4-door adds an additional inch behind the B-pillar for rear seat room and grows by 2.4 inches to 118.4 inches.
Rubicon JLs continue the tradition of using Dana solid axles with the 44 designation. However, these are new axles based on Dana’s new AdvanTEK architecture that don’t share anything with the JK’s next-gen 44s, which didn’t share much with the TJ 44s. The new JL axles are stronger and feature a different ring and pinion gears (210mm/8.27-in front and 220mm/8.66-in rear on Rubicon) compared to 8.8-in on the JK. The Rubicon’s “44s” have been beefed up with thicker wall tubes and are stuffed with 4.10 gears and Tru-Lok electric lockers that can be engaged on the fly up to 30mph in 4-Lo. With any luck, we can say goodbye to the “smiling” front axles that were common on JKs that spent their time on the trail.
The familiar five-link arrangement is still maintained, but benefits from significant improvements. For example, the roll center has been raised to enhance handing and feel, eliminating the JK’s tendency to wander in corners and require additional steering inputs. Control arms have been lengthened to take advantage of the longer wheelbase and the shocks have eschewed the stem mounts for eyelets. Monotube shocks on the Sahara and Rubicon have larger front pistons and better tuning. Rear shocks are now mounted outboard of the frame for better stability, which opens up some real estate for those contemplating coilover conversions. To allow for improved travel, the electronic sway bar disconnect is again standard on Rubicon models.
Thanks to an additional inch of axle width, JL’s track width is increased over the JK to 61.9 inches. This results in reducing the turning radius and improving maneuverability. Turning the aluminum knuckles on the “Dana 44” is a new electro-hydraulic power steering system. This setup uses a burlier steering box and allows for variable assist, more natural steering feel, and of course contributes to fuel economy improvements.
Sadly, front-axle disconnect (FAD) returns to help boost fuel-economy, albeit in a more durable electric form, not the troublesome vacuum system of the past. Thankfully, Jeep engineers have JL owners intent on replacing their front axle covered with a software workaround that allows the FAD to be disabled by the dealer. These same dealer tools can also reprogram popular parameter changes required by enthusiasts, such as gear ratios and tire size.
The lug pattern remains 5x5, but wheel studs are now 14mm for improved strength. Vented front brakes rotors have been upsized by an inch to 12.9x1.1-inches on Sahara and Rubicon models and Rubicons get 13.4x.55-inch solid rotors in the rear. Calipers are 2-inch twin piston floating-style in the front and 1.9-inch single-piston floaters in the rear.
Rubicon rolling stock now consists of larger 33-inch-tall LT285/70R17 BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO tires, which contribute to the Rubicon’s impressive 10.9-inch running ground clearance, an approach angle of 44 degrees, breakover angle of 27.8 degrees, and a departure angle of 37 degrees on the two-door and 43.9/22.6/37 on the four-door. Compare this to the JK’s two-door numbers of 42.2/25.8/32.3 and four-door numbers of 42.2/21.2/32.5 and you can see the JL has moved solidly in the right direction. Rubicon wheels are 17x7.5 and there are two styles available.
DrivetrainStandard power in the JL comes courtesy of the 285hp, 260–lb-ft 3.6L Pentastar V-6. This enhanced Pentastar has been improved for torque delivery that comes earlier in the powerband and is backed by either an eight-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission.
The 850RE TorqueFlite automatic features a low 4.71:1 First gear and when paired with the Rubicon’s NV241OR Rock Trac 4:1 (still with a manual shifter and mechanical linkage) delivers a JK-beating 77.2:1 crawl ratio (compared to 58.9:1 with the current five-speed automatic). Replacing the old ZF six-speed manual transmission is a new six-speed unit built by Aisin. The new D478 manual, only available with the Pentastar, features a shockingly low 5.13 First gear, making the manual Rubicon the factory crawling champ with an astonishing crawl ratio of 84.2:1. The cable operated shifting mechanism also isolates the shifter from the drivetrain for better NVH and offers 50 percent shorter throws and improved feel. Jeep engineers moved Reverse from the far side of the shift gate next to Sixth over to the near side next to First in order to make it easier for a driver to rock the Jeep out of a stuck situation.
Unlike the JK, the JL will offer two other engines options. Launching alongside the Pentastar will be a frisky 2.0L direct injected and turbocharged I-4 with 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. This four-cylinder will come standard with Jeep’s new eTorque system, which introduced mild hybrid features and electrification into the Wrangler line for the first time. The highly anticipated 3.0L V-6 EcoDiesel, which is slated to make an appearance starting sometime in 2019, will come to market with 260 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque.
InteriorArguably the most significant change to the JL is on the inside where the occupants are treated to a world-class interior. Fit and finish and materials are deserving of a luxury brand and the switchgear has a quality, tactile feel. Grab handles adorn both the A- and B-pillars, aiding with ingress.
A shorter, much more upscale dash makes the front of the cabin feel spacious and is dominated by a state-of-the-art 8.4-inch Uconnect head unit that can resist dust and moisture. Mechanical gauges flank a feature-packed driver information center that feels modern without being the full digital gauge package you’ll find on the Grand Cherokee. Ergonomics are enhanced with the locker and sway bar switchgear moving to the center stack where they can easily be found by touch. Window controls are still in the center stack, as are a set of four auxiliary switches ready for your lights, compressor, or other electric needs (mirror adjustment switch and door locks are on the door panels) and the dashboard grab handle even has a flat spot to mount a radio mic or other device.
While storage is still not a strong point of the Wrangler, there are more useable cubbies and pockets than before, and Jeep even made the cup holders square to better hold cell phones. Even the front seatbacks have an included MOLLE system for adapting your own storage needs to the JL. Jeep didn’t ignore rear seat passengers either, with an additional inch of legroom, a seat back angled more deeply, and for the first time, a center armrest with cup holders.
Increased glass area, a relocated wiper motor, smaller third brake light (which adjustable in height to accommodate bigger aftermarket tires), and a lower mounted spare improved visibility and the lowered belt line puts the bottom of the window at just the right spot to rest your elbow with the window down. Rear headrests can also be easily folded out of the way further improving your view of the outside world. The inside view is improved with a suite of interior LED lighting.
Even the cargo area is more functional. A relocated rear subwoofer in the load floor is waterproof and out of the way and the new optional Trail Rail cargo management system adds greater flexibility in how you secure your cargo. Those who run high-draw accessories, like fridges, on the trail will also be happy to know the rear power outlet is always hot and the wire gauge has been increased for better reliability. On four-door JLs, the rear seat folds flat (two-doors still tumble forward and use a tether to secure) and now include a gap cover to protect your lower back when sleeping in the back.
The tailgate, which has been beefed up with an internal cast magnesium structure, sports yet another MOLLE cargo management grid on the inside, next to a cool JL data plate. A flat spot has been stamped into the top of the tailgate to place your beverage of choice when taking those breaks from wheeling.
The Little Things
When talking to the Jeep team about the JL, you get the impression they’ve thought of everything down to the smallest detail. There are a slew of stories and use cases the team went through to ensure this was the best Wrangler ever built. They took the time to listen to experts and customers and the little problems they solved are going to make living with a JL enjoyable every day. Here are a few of our favorites:
- The Sport Bar is now full length and body colored, looking great when the top is off. It is made from high-strength blow-molded steel and exceeds all current roof crush standards. Long gone is the padding covered in grey fabric that would turn purple after a season in the sun, replaced by durable plastic panels.
- The Jeep team did their best to ensure every bolt the owner of the JL touched was the same size.
- The windshield still folds down and it only takes four bolts and about five minutes. Removing two hinge pins allows the windshield to be removed from the Jeep completely! Jeep also uses better corrosion protection on the hinges, and paints them in a way that folding down the windshield won’t break any paint. When the windshield is folded down, the sun visors stay with the Jeep.
- JL doors are self-closing and come with check straps and detents that are easily disconnected when removing the doors. The doors, now made of aluminum, are 30 percent lighter than a JK door. The hinge pins are now different lengths to aide in reinstalling the doors after a day on the trail.
- When the check straps are removed, the doors will no longer swing all the way open and dent your cowl with the mirror.
- The cowl panels now have two fasteners that solely exist to bolt on aftermarket accessories. Behind the cowl panel, these bolts are supported by body structure. We are excited to see what the aftermarket does here.
- The hard top is still composite, but the Freedom panels are now 20 percent lighter than the ones found on a JK, making them easier to remove.
- The hard top now has full-length drip rails to support a variety of roof rack systems without having to drill any holes in your top. With a rating of 100 pounds, we bet you could even use the rails to lift the top of your Jeep if you have a winch or pulley system in your garage.
- Soft tops come standard in vinyl, but have a premium cloth upgrade that has to be seen and felt. It truly gives a new meaning to the term soft top. Black and tan colors are both available.
- Soft tops are now zipper-free and can be operated by one person. The channels make sliding the side and rear panels out incredibly easy, and the soft tops offer different configurations, such as a factory Sunrider position, full down, or removing just the side and rear panels, but keeping the roof up for shade. The floating roof design has no corner structure, opening up outward visibility and cargo access.
- A power top is also available for those that just don’t want to mess with a manual top. Full removal is not recommended.
- Rock rail strength has been improved.
- There are now 75 safety features available on the Wrangler, ranging from side airbags and rear park assist to blind spot sensing and rear cross path detection.
- The vacuum accumulator is no longer mounted at the front of the Jeep and doesn’t need to be relocated to run a winch.
- When installing a lift, the front driveshaft no longer interferes with the exhaust.
- The call button on the steering wheel has been moved inboard, closer to the horn so that you don’t accidentally make calls when wheeling.
- Steel bumpers are optional on the Rubicon.
- Designers, wanting to cleanup the JL’s outward appearance made sure all of the hinges and door handles line up and are no longer offset.
-The hood latches have been redesigned with a gap to hold a remote winch controller cable out of the way when winching from the passenger cabin.
-The larger steering stabilizer has been relocated to better protect it from rock hits.
-Say goodbye to the obstinate twist knobs on the Freedom panels, as they've been replaced with quarter-turn latch mechanisms.
After spending one-on-one time with the Wrangler JL, it’s difficult to come away unimpressed. The amount of work that went into not only preserving the Wrangler’s way of life, but to actually approve upon it is admirable. Despite rumors to the contrary, the axles are solid, the windshield folds, and Jeep did right by the enthusiastic fan base that supports the brand. In no uncertain terms it is an amazing feat and the JL is hands-down the best Wrangler ever made. We can’t wait to see what you are going to do with one.