The Jeep Wrangler’s roots date all the way back to its proud service as a World War II vehicle. It’s a storied history—one we’ve touch on in the past. That being said, the Jeep Wrangler JL—newest heir of that famed bloodline—should be judged on its own merit. Yet it is impossible to completely separate our assessment of it from the immortal Wranglers that came before it. Will it continue to live up to the hype?
Well, it’s certainly off to a fine start. Motor Trend has already declared the Jeep Wrangler JL the 2019 SUV Of The Year. Joining the likes of Porsche, Land Rover, and Mercedes Benz, this is the first Jeep to ever bring home a win since the award’s inception in 1999. Motor Trend calls the JL, “What crossovers want to be when they grow up.” Not to mention, global events like last month’s SEMA show and online forums have been dominated by builds of the new model.
So yeah, you might say things are going pretty well…
Haters Gonna Hate
Looking back a decade, the reign of the then-new Wrangler JK was a bone of contention for the close-knit Jeep community. Sure, it was an upgrade in nearly every way from the generation that came before it, but THAT was the problem. In the eyes of many Jeep purists, a Wrangler with so many creature comforts is scarcely a Wrangler at all.
This was an abomination designed for softies. (Power windows? Navigation? Four whole doors??)
Tough guy minimalists everywhere saw the JK as a shell of its former self, a slap in the face of its rugged forefathers. The way Teddy Roosevelt might feel upon finding out his son plans to major in Interpretive Dance Theory. (“I didn’t found the Rough Riders and fight the Spanish-American War so you could braid friendship bracelets in the quad, Quentin!”).
Well, either the JK won over its detractors, or the hordes of new fans completely drowned the dissenting voices out. Because the Wrangler JK is, hands down, the best selling Jeep Wrangler in history. And this time around, with the all-new-for-2018 Jeep Wrangler JL, the naysayers are definitely harder to hear.
But Fiat-Chrysler is hoping to repeat that same outcome. And to get there, they are certainly sticking to the same formula: an improved, more comfortable version of the Jeep that came before it—and a dream machine for aftermarket customization. All while maintaining that rough-and-tumble Wrangler-ness that made it so beloved in the first place. So in this, the JL’s second market year, expectations have never been higher. And not coincidentally, neither have the sales figures. Over 220,000 2018 Wranglers sold last year, a combination of new Jeep Wrangler JL models and the swan song of the outgoing JK.
At first glance, the differences between the outgoing JK and the new JL are subtle, which is completely by design. Jeep knows they’re in control of a timeless silhouette, and if it ain’t broke… well, you know the rest. The first difference that catches the eye is a new bumper, and cutouts behind the front wheels that serve to let the engine cool more effectively. It still has the same body-on-frame construction, though it has shed a few pounds. Quite a few, actually. The Wrangler sits nearly 200 pounds lighter (100 pounds are dropped from the frame alone, yet the wheelbase has stretched nearly an inch and a half.)
The offerings under that dual-latched Wrangler hood will be mostly familiar to the core faithful. As in 2018, the primary power option will be a 3.6 liter V6, making 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. There is also a turbocharged 4-cylinder option, making 270 horsepower with 290 lb-ft of torque, and bringing the Jeep Wrangler JL the most substantial boost in fuel economy (up 38 percent!) that it has seen in, well, ever. And finalllly, Jeep’s long awaited diesel hits the road. The 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 will make 240 horsepower and a sturdy 440 lb-ft of torque. A new-in-2018 six-speed manual transmission comes standard, and there’s an eight-speed automatic option as well.
What else is new on the Jeep Wrangler JL? Well, practically everything.
Both the windshield and the soft top are noticeably easier to remove than on the predecessor. The windshield has an additional 7 degrees of slope, but is flatter to prevent it looking so much like a bowl as it lays on the hood. The soft top is now zipper-free, and can be up or down in a fraction of the time it would take to coax a JK top into place. For goodness sake, there’s even a power-retractable top option to piss off grumpy purists with just the push of a button. Another plus for the hard top lovers in the crowd, the top is now made with a lighter composite, which means those freedom panels are substantially easier to maneuver.
We’ve also got all sorts of new tech goodies with the Jeep Wrangler JL that we never knew we were missing. Keyless start? Yep. An available UConnect infotainment system that’s ready for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay? Alrighty. Navigation, automatic climate control, and a nine speaker Alpine system? Hey, why the hell not? The Wrangler base isn’t just hard core off-roaders anymore, nor has it been for over a decade. Those rolling theirs on pavement-only would like to get where they’re going in comfort, and Jeep would be foolish not to oblige them.
Have It Your Way
There are a number of trim options to suit each JL driver, whether their preference is a two-door or four-door Unlimited model. There’s the base Sport, of course, sitting on 17-inch black steel wheels. The sport S adds such modest advancements as power windows and doors, air conditioning, and heated mirrors. The Rubicon is designed with true off-roaders in mind. It comes equipped with large all-terrain tires, front and rear locking Dana 44 axles, and the Rock-Trac four-wheel drive system and rock rails. Finally, the more luxury-minded Sahara has 18-inch wheels, running boards, and a slew of technological upgrades, like a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system.
But the trick being pulled with the Jeep Wrangler JL that’s so impressive isn’t the technological advancements. Rather, it is managing to hang onto all of their OG four-wheeling clout in the midst of such advancement. On the opposite end of the spectrum from a fully-loaded Sahara Unlimited, you can still buy a bone-stock 2019 Sport model with roll up windows, manual locks, and no air conditioning. And this setup is equally important for the continued success of the Wrangler name. Why? Because no vehicle is customized more frequently, and more heavily, than Wranglers are.
Better Than Ever
Of course, there are plenty of newcomers to the club, who will happily pay Jeep to tack on another five or ten grand in creature comforts. But when serious rig builders buy a Wrangler, they’re really buying a Lego set of sorts. They want to put this thing together themselves, and the aftermarket is fully flooded with companies who want to help them.
The automotive landscape as we roll into 2019 is as varied as it has ever been. Yet for all the options abounding at every turn, both from OEMs and aftermarket companies, there are some things that simply cannot be duplicated. Breezing in a Wrangler down a country road on a summer afternoon with the top and doors off while blasting Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits is one of those things. The new Jeep Wrangler JL has made no changes to hinder this glorious sensation.
And all the old school wheelers who claim not to give a crap about the fancy new bells and whistles? Very well then, here ya go. Ground clearance has improved. Approach and departure angles have improved. Crawl ratios have improved. The Jeep Wrangler JL isn’t simply “good enough,” it’s better than it has ever been.
Good Things Don’t Come Cheap
But these improvements are not without cost. While there has been a substantial uptick in the quality of the new Jeep Wrangler JL, the price has also increased noticeably. The bare bones, two-door Sport models start at just a shade over $28,000. A nicely equipped four-door Unlimited can get north of $50,000. Certainly not cheap. But when compared to those other SUV of the Year candidates? It’s still a downright bargain.
Every alteration of this full model redesign has been an improvement on the classic vehicles that came before it. Early in the development process, Jeep solicited advice for ways to improve their next Wrangler from Off Road journalists and hard-core, long term seven-slotters. And by God, they succeeded. And anybody who tells you otherwise is an old stick in the mud.