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First Drive: 2018 Wrangler Rubicon JL

Posted in News on December 13, 2017
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Photographers: Courtesy of Jeep

Not many things in the 4x4 world have arrived with as much hype or lofty expectations as the all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL. Development was surrounded by leaks, rumors, and questions regarding how Jeep could possibly build upon the success of the Wrangler JK without ruining it. Well, we are back from driving the Rubicon version of the JL in the mystical backcountry of New Zealand, and we can say without hesitation, the new Wrangler is exactly what you’d hoped it would be.

In fact, we have answers to your most burning questions, such as does the windshield fold down (it does), is it better than a JK (it is), and are you sure it doesn’t have IFS (really?...yes, we’re sure). While we have a ton to share with you, we thought we’d focus on a quick overview of what you care about with our first driving impressions. A more in-depth look will come at a later date.

Underpinning the JL is an all-new chassis featuring a 100-pound-lighter, fully boxed, high-strength steel frame with five crossmembers and a hydroformed forward section. The front axle has been moved forward resulting in a wheelbase increase of 1.4 inches on the two-door (now 96.8 inches) and 2.4 inches on the four-door (now 118.4 inches). The familiar five-link arrangement is still maintained, but improvements have been made to the spring rates and shock tuning (monotubes are used on the Sahara and Rubicon), as well as rear shock placement and a raised roll center, which all contribute to enhanced handling and an improved feel.

Speaking of axles, the Rubicon continues to use Dana solid axles with the 44 designation. However, these are new axles based on Dana’s new Advantek architecture, which don’t share much with the JK next-gen 44s much in the same way the JK’s next-gen 44s didn’t share much with the TJ Dana 44s. The new JL axles are stronger and feature a different ring and pinion (210 mm/8.27 inches front and 220 mm/8.66 inches rear on Rubicon) and thicker axletubes. The Rubicon’s housings are stuffed with 4.10 gears and Tru-Lok electric lockers that can be engaged on the fly at up to 30 mph in 4-Lo. Sadly, front-axle disconnect (FAD) returns to help boost fuel economy, albeit in a more durable electric form, not the troublesome vacuum-operated system of the past. Thankfully, Jeep engineers have a software workaround that allows the FAD to be disabled for JL owners intent on replacing their front axle with a beefier aftermarket assembly.

The JL’s axles are also wider than the JK, increasing track by an inch to 61.9 inches, while 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 allows for variable assist, more natural steering feel, and, of course, contributes to fuel economy improvements.

PhotosView Slideshow

The JL axles are Dana 44 in name only and are actually based on Dana’s new Advantek design.

The lug pattern remains 5-on-5, but wheel studs are now 14 mm for improved strength. Vented front brake rotors have been upsized by 1 inch to 12.9x1.1 inches on Sahara and Rubicon models, and Rubicons get 13.4x0.55-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.

You’ll need that improved braking performance, because the JL is packing an upgraded drivetrain with your choice of engines. The JL comes standard with a 3.6L Pentastar V-6 with 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque with a flattened powerband bringing peak torque earlier in the rpm range. This engine 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 delivers a JK-beating 77.2:1 crawl ratio (compared to 58.9:1 with the current five-speed automatic) when paired with the Rubicon’s NV241OR Rock Trac 4:1. Replacing the old NSG370 six-speed manual transmission is a new six-speed unit built by Aisin. The new D478 six-speed manual is only available with the Pentastar engine and 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. 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 optional engines. 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. 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 to the Wrangler line for the first time.

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. Because the Rubicon offers what essentially amounts to a factory highline fender kit (the Rubicon flares are mounted 2 inches higher than other JLs), 35-inch tires can be bolted on from the factory on day one. A 2-inch lift will get you full axle articulation with no rubbing.

In addition to the aforementioned lighter frame and aluminum knuckles, the JL benefits from the use of lightweight materials, such as aluminum for the doors, hood, and rear tailgate skin, and a cast-magnesium tailgate structure. All of this adds up to a Jeep that weighs in approximately 200 pounds less than its predecessor.

So how does all this translate on the trail? Quite frankly, it’s awesome. In many ways, the JL is as familiar as the JK, while at the same time being much improved. We had a chance to drive both automatic and manual-equipped Pentastar JLs, as well as an export market JL equipped with the 2.0L turbo four. One of our major beefs with the Pentastar has been its lack of low-end torque, but the benefit from deeper gearing in the new transmissions was immediately noticeable. The manual-equipped JL was the rock star in the group, with that super-low crawl ratio allowing the JL to pick its way through boulders and ledges with ease.

As improved as the 3.6L is over the JK, the real surprise was just how tractable the 2.0L is. It is hard to believe a little turbo four can be that capable on the trail. Torque starts just off idle and comes on fast, and if we hadn’t been told there was a little four under the hood, we would have had no idea. It’s that impressive, and we can’t wait to get more seat time with this drivetrain. We also found the manual shifting feature of the automatic was great, holding gears to redline and not forcing an upshift, allowing more driver control.

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.

The interior is nothing short of gorgeous and can be had with a water- and dust-resistant 8.4-inch Uconnect head unit.

If there were any negatives (and we are truly grasping at straws here), it was that the BFG A-T KOs packed up quicker than the old M-Ts would have, and the clutch on our preproduction Jeep felt artificial and difficult to modulate the friction zone. Jeep engineers tell us there is a fix for that coming to production builds, so we didn’t give it too much thought. 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.

Minor gripes aside, this redesign of the Wrangler adds up to a more capable, more competent, and more refined experience out of the box. The JL is not a JK refresh, but a completely new vehicle that properly honors the Wrangler experience. Thanks to passionate people on the Jeep team who fought for the integrity of the Wrangler, the JL will be a staple on the trails for many years to come.

PhotosView Slideshow

Jeep has hit a homerun with the new soft tops, which are easy to operate and can be configured many different ways.

As expected, the Rubicon offers a full complement of skidplates.
We were able to test the JL’s 30 inches of water fording in fast-moving streams.

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