2018 Jeep Wrangler first drive review

More refined than ever, Jeep's Wrangler hasn't lost its wild side

Don’t let the niceties fool you - the Jeep Wrangler is still an unmatched rock-crawler
Don’t let the niceties fool you - the Jeep Wrangler is still an unmatched rock-crawler
Don’t let the niceties fool you - the Jeep Wrangler is still an unmatched rock-crawler

Highs

  • Superb off-road chops
  • Comfortable cabin
  • Intuitive infotainment
  • Drives normally in-between adventures

Lows

  • No manual transmission on 2.0-liter
  • Low-resolution infotainment graphics

Baseball is America’s sport, cheeseburgers are America’s food, and the Jeep Wrangler is America’s favorite car … when our travels take us off the pavement, that is. With a lineage that dates back to the Willys MB Jeeps from WWII, the Wrangler is as engrained in American automotive culture as any other vehicle in history, so when a new one arrives, safe to say it’s a pretty big deal.

It doesn’t happen often, either. Jeep only introduces a new Wrangler generation every decade or so, in fact Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ head of design, Ralph Gilles, recently described it in astronomical terms. “Redoing the Wrangler, it’s like Halley’s Comet” he said. But while Halley’s Comet is seemingly locked in time and interstellar cold, the Wrangler must constantly evolve to stay competitive while retaining the plucky, gritty personality its owners love. For our 2018 Jeep Wrangler first drive review, we flew down to Tuscon, Arizona to put the SUV through its paces, both on- and off-road.

Whats new 

The 2018 model year introduces the fourth (JL) Wrangler generation, and Jeep started from the ground up. The vehicle’s fully-boxed frame has been optimized for lower weight, higher strength, and increased rigidity. Lightweight materials were used to build the doors, hood, swing gate, and windshield frame. Put it all together, and you have a platform that’s lighter, nimbler, and more efficient than ever, but still tough enough to make mountain goats blush.

JL Wranglers also feature options that have never been offered in the vehicle’s lifespan – namely electro-hydraulic steering, a power soft top, a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, and a fourth-generation Uconnect infotainment suite that brings the Wrangler into the 21st century.

Trim levels & features

2018 Wranglers are offered in four trims – Sport ($26,995), Sport S, Rubicon ($36,995), and Sahara ($37,345) – and every model save for the four-door-only Sahara is available with two or four doors. That gives you seven total options to choose from, at least before Jeep starts offering special editions.

The Sport trim is relatively basic, but still incredibly functional thanks to Command-Trac four-wheel drive and solid Dana axles all around. It comes with the standard 3.6-liter V6, a six-speed manual transmission (an eight-speed auto is optional), a manual soft top, push-button start, cloth seats, a backup camera, a 5-inch touchscreen, and an eight-speaker stereo.

The Sport S adds a few extra luxuries to the mix, namely power windows and locks, air conditioning, and access to various safety, cold weather, and off-road packages.

The Rubicon is the go-to model for adventurous types, as it’s purpose-built for rugged terrain. It features a 4.10:1 axle ratio for more low-speed wheel torque, upgraded Dana 44 axles, limited slip differentials front and rear, an electronically-controlled front sway bar, and a beefier Rock-Trac four-wheel drive setup.

If you see cliff scaling in your future, the Rubicon is the Wrangler for you. It also comes with automatic headlamps, all-terrain tires, dual-zone climate control, and an 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen with navigation.

The Wrangler needed to evolve to stay competitive, and it has.

Saharas are the most opulent of all the Wranglers, and the new model is more comfortable than any version before it. 18-inch aluminum wheels with all-terrain tires, body-color exterior accents, and an 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen with navigation are all standard, but leather heated seats and LED lighting can be optioned. It’s still plenty tough in the dirt though, with the same axles and four-wheel drive system found in the Sport and Sport S trims.

In terms of styling, Jeep’s head of design, Mark Allen, encapsulated the Wrangler’s philosophy perfectly before our drive through the Arizonan desert. “Tradition is the name of the game,” he told us. “We’re probably never going to move away from that.” With the vehicle’s iconic look effectively preserved in amber, it’s easy to understand why the new Wrangler’s styling is so evolutionary. Despite all the new sheet metal, the only obvious differences are a more rakish windshield, fender-mounted turn signals, and a revised grill.

Technology overview

Doors weren’t standard equipment on Wranglers until 1983, but you’d have no idea sitting in the new one. The 2018 model has a bevy of modern tech, and while it’s not exactly a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it has more than enough features to keep its passengers occupied to and from the trail.

The 8.4-inch Uconnect display – standard on Saharas and Rubicons and optional everywhere else – is a great mix of intuitive and functional. The touchscreen is bright, responsive, and easy to figure out, with radio, media, climate, navigation, and phone settings displayed front and center alongside seat controls and Uconnect apps like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Drivers can personalize their screen by dragging their favorite icons to the menu bar for easy access, and the pinch-to-zoom functionality works just like it does on your mobile. That said, Chrysler’s graphics resolution is a bit lacking.

Moving over to the instrument cluster, 2018 Wranglers feature an available 7-inch screen between the gauges that displays fuel economy, temperature, compass direction, and even off-road details like driving angle. The display can be customized to the driver’s liking as well. Got a day out on the trail? Prioritize pitch and roll so you know exactly how close to toppling over you are. Hitting the freeway for an open-air cruise? Slot fuel economy and trip info in so you can monitor efficiency in real time.

The Wrangler has plenty of power ports too, with full-function USB ports below the touchscreen and in the center console. Rubicon and Sahara models get two more USBs in the center console (one full-function, one charge-only) alongside a 115V power outlet for all your electronic needs.

Interior fit & finish

When you have a lineage as long as the Wrangler’s, designers have a nearly endless supply of themes to reference, each one a time capsule to a different era of design. As such, the new Wrangler uses a mix of old and new inside, starting with the flat dashboard that calls back to the CJ Jeeps of the 1940s. Speaking of CJs, the original’s basic silhouette can be found all over the new Wrangler, including on the shifter, windshield, and on each wheel.

Despite the callbacks, the Wrangler’s interior looks and feels modern. We spent most of our time in the range-topping Sahara model, which featured supportive leather-trimmed seats, a heated steering wheel, remote start, and the 8.4-inch touchscreen.

When we weren’t scraping through scrubs and flinging dust like the Tasmanian Devil, the Wrangler’s cabin didn’t seem all that different from the Volkswagen Atlas’ or other contemporary SUVs’ from a quality standpoint. Considering how “quirky” old Jeeps were inside, this is a massive improvement, but there’s still a washout floor, a folding windshield, and removable doors for those days off the beaten path.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Wrangler’s roof options, because for 2018, there are four. A folding soft top is standard across all trims, and for a little extra coin, a premium Sunrider soft top that features clock springs and an easy-to-use track can be optioned for more convenience.

The Wrangler offers a three-piece hardtop as well, but for 2018, a power soft top is available for the first time. Dubbed the Sky One-Touch, the top is true to its name as drivers can retract the full-length canvas with the push of a button. Open-air freedom has never been so easy. Total passenger volume is rated at 103.7 cubic feet, and cargo volume sits at 72.4 cu. ft. with the rear seats folded and 31.7 cu. ft. with the seats up.

Driving performance & MPG

Wranglers have always been capable off-road, but in previous years, you could feel the concessions Jeep had to make to ensure that toughness. Put simply, they felt raw and a bit uncivilized compared to the competition. In 2017, though, you can have it both ways, and the all-new Wrangler is proof – it’s as smooth, quiet, and comfortable as a modern SUV should be. The new electro-hydraulic power steering has greatly improved firmness and on-center feel, and the five-link suspension handles smooth surfaces as adeptly as it does rough ones.

Don’t think that it’s been sanitized though – the 2018 Wrangler still feels like a Wrangler. You’ll still sense the road more than you will in an Audi Q7 or Infiniti QX50, and you’ll still feel like the car you’re driving has a heartbeat, just in a more refined way. In fact, in terms of off-road performance, it’s better than ever.

We evaluated the Wrangler’s trail-trotting chops over a rocky course outside Tucson, one Jeep claimed was the hardest course they’d ever designed for a first drive event. With the differentials locked, we crawled and scratched our way over loose rocks, sand, and harsh brush with no protest from the car outside of some clangs from the skid plates. At many times, the ascents were so steep all we saw out the windshield was blue Arizona sky, but the Wrangler’s level of confidence was miles ahead of any meatbag in the driver’s seat. If you don’t think it can climb it, it probably can.

The Wrangler is a true mountain goat. Point at a rock and it’ll climb.

The Wrangler is offered with two engines for the 2018 model year – the standard 3.6-liter V6 with 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, and a 2.0-liter turbo with 270 hp and 295 lb-ft. The base engine performs quite well with adequate low-end grunt and a nice growl to go with it, but the optional turbo engine is phenomenal.

It’s very punchy right off idle thanks to a low-lag twin-scroll turbo, and despite the horsepower deficit, it felt noticeably quicker than the V6. It also features a trick “eTorque” mild hybrid system, which basically means there’s an electric motor in place of the alternator and starter. Not only does this reduce parasitic drag on the engine to improve fuel economy, it adds electric torque to the crankshaft for smoother launches and off-road crawls.

Fuel economy figures haven’t been released for the 2.0-liter yet, but the V6 is rated at 18 mpg city, 23 mpg highway, and 20 mpg combined with the automatic (the manual loses 1 mpg in the city and 1 mpg combined). In our day of testing, we averaged 22.8 mpg over a couple hundred miles.

2018 jeep wrangler first drive 750
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

That’s not all the powertrain news though, because for the 2019 model year, a 3.0-liter diesel will be available with a reported output of 260 hp and 442 lb-ft. All that torque might just be worth waiting for.

Safety

As of this writing, JL Jeep Wranglers have not received official safety or crash ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The lineup does offer advanced safety features such as blind-spot monitoring with rear cross path detection, all-speed traction control, and a backup camera, and four airbags come standard as well.

Conclusion

The SUV class is one of the most popular vehicle segments in the United States, and yet the Jeep Wrangler is without a true competitor. Many have tried to sell a Wrangler rival in the past, but the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Xterra, Suzuki Samurai, and Kia Sportage three-door convertible (remember that?) were all literally left in the Wrangler’s dust. That’s because the Wrangler’s brew of capability, practicality, open-air freedom, and personality is unique, and now that’s it’s as comfortable on the road as any other SUV, it’s going to remain atop the mountain for a long, long time.