The new Jeep Wrangler (named the JL) retains the storied model’s rustic charm and distinct proportions, while making improvements to its powertrain, amenities, and connectivity. However, awkward access, excessive wind noise, and rough ride continue.
There's no hardware revolution here as the new Wrangler retains its body-on-frame construction and solid axles. Even though most owners never venture off-road, the Wrangler is still capable of climbing boulders, especially the fortified Rubicon version.
The Wrangler also keeps its removable doors, removable top, fold-down windshield, exposed roll cage, tricky access, rear swing gate and hatch, and plenty of ground clearance. Available in numerous trims and two lengths with a lengthy list of options, the Wrangler ranges in price from below $30,000 to more than $50,000.
Designed to excel on trails, the Wrangler's on-road behavior is still not on par with that of a modern SUV. The handling is better than before, with quicker steering and less body roll, but the Wrangler still doesn’t possess the reflexes and agility of a contemporary vehicle. The ride is stiff, and bumps come through loud and clear. Constant short motions make the Jeep jittery even on smooth roads. On the highway, the Wrangler is out of its element. Because of its boxy shape, and its lack of a headliner to buffer noises, the wind noise is overwhelming once speeds approach 60 mph.
This powertrain is significantly improved. The 285-hp, 3.6-liter V6 engine teams smartly with an eight-speed automatic transmission, making for a smooth, refined speed buildup and a prompt throttle response. We got 18 mpg overall. A turbocharged 270-hp four-cylinder engine (with a mild-hybrid system) is also available and soon will be joined by a 3.0-liter diesel.
Jeep offers a selectable, full-time four-wheel-drive system -- the Wrangler's first -- but only in the Sahara trim. The advantage is that this system can stay engaged indefinitely, eliminating the need for drivers to make a decision as to when to engage or disengage 4WD.
Getting in or out is awkward, a Wrangler tradition. Climbing in, riders must step onto the running board, which positions their body too high, or they must stretch over it. Exiting, there is no way for passengers to avoid rubbing their pants across the running board -- a nuisance in a salty winter or after the Wrangler’s been playing in the dirt.
The cabin gets a welcome update in function and appearance. The basic design is familiar, but the digital screens and details evoking the Jeep heritage add to the experience. Those include a gear selector with a red trigger release and a classic Jeep silhouette on top, outdoorsy graphics on the displays, and stylish controls that convey the feel of outdoors equipment.
Window switches are awkwardly positioned in the center dash, under the radio. We wish the driver’s window had an auto-up feature. On the plus side, the optional UConnect infotainment system is one of the best in the business.
The seats are too spongy. The driver’s seat initial appeal tends to wear thin as support fades on long drives. And even spending 50 large ones you don't get power-adjustable seats -- but it does include heated seats and steering wheel. The rear seat has ample room but the low, flat bench doesn’t promote a comfortable seating position.
There is a fair amount of cargo space in the rear with the four-door Unlimited. Accessing that area is an awkward, two-step process, with its side-hinged gate and glass hatch.
Blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning are optional. Newly available is forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control.