Look past the iconic grille, and you’ll see it. Behold the latest evolution of a seven-decades-old design, a soul-stirring affirmation of freedom, a surprisingly groundbreaking vehicle that shouldn’t work in the 21st century as well as it does. The new Jeep Wrangler is what crossovers want to be when they grow up, and it’s the 2019 MotorTrend SUV of the Year.
Rarely do past and future coexist so beautifully. The thoroughly redesigned and re-engineered Wrangler finds its own path to modernization, resisting the temptation to dilute its climb-that-mountain capabilities for crossover softness. Even so, beach-bound cruisers and daily commuters will appreciate the upgraded pavement game, and off-roaders will admire how much more confidently they can traverse their favorite trails. This Jeep delivers, no matter what.
The Wrangler’s diverse range furnishes a model for every need. For the Jeep lover reminiscing about the Wrangler’s past, the capable two-door model with a V-6 and manual transmission costs about $30,000—before hitting the aftermarket for customization. The four-door Unlimited model makes it easier to bring friends along for the journey. Perhaps the best part is the available mild-hybrid turbo-four, which improves EPA-rated city fuel economy by an astounding 38 percent compared to the outgoing model.
“The Wrangler is a thoughtful, thorough rework of an American original,” international bureau chief Angus MacKenzie said. “It’s laser-focused on improving the performance of its intended function, right down to the last nut and bolt.”
ADVANCEMENT IN DESIGN
It’s no easy task to update the look of an icon. It’s a no-win proposition. Do too much (or too little), and the critics will howl. But Jeep nailed it.
Jeep approached the Wrangler’s styling with a light but deliberate touch. Relocating the Jeep badge from the Wrangler’s face to the front fenders facilitates a less cluttered look, with round headlights touching the edge of the seven-bar grille. Other than LED turn signals mounted on the ends of the wheel flares and updated square taillights, not much else gives away the Wrangler as the new JL model. And that’s exactly how it should be. The Wrangler isn’t a crossover requiring twice-a-decade face-lifts to retain buyers’ interest. It embraces a classic style that continues to attract dreamers who want to remember what SUVs used to be.
The standard canvas top and plastic side windows remain available, and like the fold-down front windshield, they’re easier and quicker to disassemble and reinstall than before, using simple tools. For further customization, black or body-colored hard tops are available, and the soft top comes in black or tan. A vibrant color palette, seven wheel styles, and a regular series of special editions present every opportunity to make a Wrangler reflect your tastes—and that’s before you venture to Mopar for accessories and upgrades.
In so many ways, the Wrangler advances design to make Jeeping more rewarding—whatever that means to you. Open the power-retractable Sky One-Touch soft top, and a starry night will provide all the mood lighting front and rear passengers desire. The new option isn’t cheap, but it’s worth the money. Features editor Christian Seabaugh noted it “combines the safety of the hard top with the ease and open-air experience of the soft top” and called it a revolution for the brand.
Despite its unapologetically industrial interior, the Wrangler masters some details better than many sensible crossovers. Soft-touch and high-quality materials equal those of luxury competitors. As with many Fiat Chrysler Automobiles products, audio volume and channel-change controls are located conveniently on the back side of the steering wheel. Once you drive a car with this intuitive setup, you’ll wonder why more automakers don’t adopt it. The same is true of the rear-seat headrests, which conveniently fold down when not in use for better rearward visibility.
The Uconnect infotainment system, which can be optioned with a 7.0- or 8.4-inch touchscreen that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, is intuitive to use. “Its controls can be learned in seconds, and it responds quickly to your inputs,” associate online editor and resident tech nerd Stefan Ogbac said.
Delightful design Easter eggs, such as the on-screen air recirculation control that looks like a Jeep in silhouette, add character. Remove the doors, and the exposed hinges will remind you how much more special your Jeep is than your neighbor’s anonymous lozenge every time you climb inside. And once you’re there, the high seating position offers great visibility that’s perfect for seeing obstacles ahead on a trail or peering over the roofs of idling cars on a traffic-choked freeway.
Another win for Wrangler fans and first-timers alike: how well the interior is screwed together. “Build quality seems so much better than before,” executive editor Mark Rechtin said.
The Jeep grille is iconic, but like the New York Yankees and their pinstripes, it can also be a distraction from the substance underneath. The Bronx Bombers also had Mickey Mantle, and likewise, this Wrangler is so much more than those seven vertical air intakes. The “sport” in “sport utility vehicle” doesn’t mean tearing up a racetrack or winding road. In the body-on-frame Wrangler’s case, “sport” means heading beyond the paved road’s end. Off-roading capability is its core DNA, bred for military use from the Ardennes to An Loc. And the 2019 edition got all the good genes.
Jeep added to the Wrangler’s already impressive go-anywhere abilities, improving articulation and total suspension travel on the Rubicon trim. The boulevard-ready Sahara trim nonetheless offers full-time four-wheel drive that’s sufficient for most trails, especially when it would be overkill to enlist the Rubicon’s Dana 44 front and rear axles with electronically locking differentials and disconnecting anti-roll bars.
As for the impressive Rubicon, technical director Frank Markus aptly described the off-road-focused trim as “designed and engineered to retain the faithful.”
“The Unlimited Rubicon naturally behaved like the mother of all Jeeps,” Markus said after taking the SUV off-road. “In four-low with front and rear differentials locked, there’s no stopping it in the sand.”
That confidence-instilling performance is standard on every Wrangler. Only one oddity: Hill-descent control can only be activated in four-low.
“The genius of this Jeep is that it can be configured to suit the ambitions of the off-roading neophyte and expert alike and deliver an experience that will reward them both,” MacKenzie said.
That’s also true with the new 2.0-liter eTorque turbo-four mild-hybrid powertrain, which is worth consideration regardless of how you enjoy your Jeep. The 2.0-liter powerplant provides 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, making it an intriguing option. More responsive than you’d expect, the engine is mated exclusively to an eight-speed automatic and employs a system that facilitates engine stop/start and regenerative braking. The new engine isn’t impressive for a Wrangler—it’s just plain impressive. Markus called the Wrangler 2.0’s engine stop/start system “amazingly quick” to restart, lauding it as “one of the best.”
Those who are nonetheless wary of a four-cylinder Wrangler can stick with the 285-hp 3.6-liter V-6 (which develops 35 lb-ft of torque less than the turbo-four). However, we’d recommend upgrading the V-6 to the eight-speed automatic. The standard six-speed manual may be new, but multiple judges found the engine’s torque delivery poorly matched with this transmission.
PERFORMANCE OF INTENDED FUNCTION
Just as no one expects last year’s SUVOTY, the Honda CR-V, to traverse Hell’s Revenge, the Jeep Wrangler doesn’t ride as smoothly, handle as crisply, or travel in such isolated splendor as a car-based crossover. (Such is the philosophical predicament in defining this category in today’s market.) Yet for a vehicle more capable off-road than any other new SUV offered today, the Wrangler’s everyday trade-offs aren’t as severe as you’d think.
Revised suspension tuning makes both the Sahara and Rubicon trim levels more comfortable than their predecessors. New electrohydraulic steering brings more precision, but the Wrangler never pretends to be a sports car. Instead, the Jeep provides a deliberate pace, encouraging you to appreciate your surroundings.