I’m not too proud to say that I used to dread test driving a Jeep, especially the Wranglers as they have traditionally been the most basic of vehicles meant for crushing rocks, splashing water and wallowing in mud.
I love the outdoors as much as the next guy, but slopping around in muck and then bouncing all the way home like I’m in an inflatable bounce house is not my idea of fun.
While I’ve always liked Jeep’s Grand Cherokee and Cherokee for their comfort and convenience I’ve never fully appreciated the Wrangler. But this new 2018 Wrangler Unlimited has changed my perspective.
Finally, here’s a Jeep that will crush it off-road while not overly punishing the driver and passengers on city streets and highways. Plus, and I know I’m a sucker for this, the roof panels pop off easily to convert the Jeep to a near convertible. Jeep calls this its Freedom Top, costing $2,095 extra, but includes a rear window wiper and defroster. Note too that there’s still some body structure above your heads once those panels are off, but their removal puts you out in the fresh air.
RELATED CONTENT: Read Paul’s entry as he takes the new Wrangler off the beaten path.
While I didn’t brave it for my test drive, the doors also will come off and you can fold the windshield down. Jeep tells us this requires removing four bolts, whereas the former Wrangler required 28 bolts to lower the windshield. Simpler is better.
I also have to admit to driving this, and several other Jeeps, on an off-road course at Road America in May. What a blast! And what a capable off-roader Wrangler is. We crept down steep hills littered with loose rock, we climbed over major boulders, and ran along a ridge at such an angle as to roll other cars and trucks. I’m a believer. If you intend to go off road, a Jeep will handle it, no problem. Oh, and you can electronically disconnect the anti-roll bars for more wheel travel if you’re romping over big rocks, plus the Wrangler has four skid plates underneath for protection.
But let’s be realistic, even the most fanatical off-road rallying nut will need to get around town and to the kids’ soccer and baseball games in their vehicle. For that, you need a suspension that will handle four-inch gaps in the pavement and potholes that resemble Apollo 11’s landing site at Tranquility Base.
Wrangler Unlimited will do that and not crack your ribs or splinter your coccyx. Its new 5-link suspension smooths out rough roads like the better sport-utility trucks. Its long 118.4-inch wheelbase (stretched 2 inches this year) helps there too, as do improved body mounts and retuned shocks. So yes, there’s a bit of bounce in city driving still, but it’s more manageable, more fun, and more comfortable than previous models.
Power is good too with Jeep’s 3.6-liter V6 that features variable valve timing delivering 285 horsepower and a solid 260 ft.-lbs. of torque. Getting up to highway speeds is quick and easy and the 8-speed automatic works well with the V6 to optimize oomph, but still delivering smooth shift points. If you liked some of the jerkiness of earlier Jeeps, this might surprise you, but most f us could do without such jerkiness in town. This drivetrain works well.
Even gas mileage wasn’t as low as I’d anticipated. I got 21.6 miles per gallon on regular fuel in about 60% city driving. The EPA rates the Unlimited at 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, on par with many other larger off-road-capable utes.
Handling is light and easy, which makes the Wrangler more fun to drive than many utes with their heavy feel and stiff steering. Keeping the Jeep in its lane on the highway is simple too, not much wander.
There is some tire noise from below, but otherwise the cockpit is fairly quiet considering how many panels and doors can be removed, so you’d suspect their seals would allow some outside racket inside. And those roof panels (think of old muscle car T-tops), are light and easy to slide in the cargo bay behind the rear hatch that opens out, like a door, not up like a hatch. Just unlatch one release and turn three knobs and each panel pops off with ease.
Braking is fine too, and the upgraded 8-speed tranny ($2,000) includes the Hill Descent feature that can be engaged for easing down a steep hill. This is especially good on gravel to help the Jeep avoid getting loose and turning sideways and becoming tippy. It’s a super feature for off-roaders and Jeep’s Selec-Trac full-time AWD system ($595) works well too. Plus you can manually engage the system via a second shift knob on the console, allowing the driver to adjust for various road conditions.
Inside, the Wrangler Unlimited feels roomy and my black test vehicle featured tan leather seats ($1,495 extra) with a black leather dash and steering wheel, both featuring gray stitching. There are brushed chrome vent surrounds and a steering wheel hub while the console and center stack are trimmed in black.
People praised the seats comfort, front and rear. The front seats are mildly contoured, but manual, so it takes a while to adjust their height and angle before a driver can get comfortable behind the manual tilt/telescope wheel. The front seats and the steering wheel also were heated on the test vehicle, part of a $895 option package.
Jeep’s dash is easy to figure out too and the big 8.4-inch screen is simple to see and use. It’s especially helpful when backing up as the backup camera is crystal clear and there’s cross-traffic alert too. Blind-spot warning also lights up in the side mirrors when someone’s vehicle is in your blind spot. All that’s a $795 option, but worth it.
There’s a lot more here that was optional, so see the stat box that accompanies this story. But key other additions are an LED lighting package, infotainment system upgrade, and 18-inch polished face wheels. All told the options add $13,695 to the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara’s $37,345 base price. Delivery is $1,195 extra.
So this one hit $52,235, but lower cost models are available.
First, there are two-door models, the least expensive Wranglers. But the Sport model 4-door Unlimited is available for $29,090 with 4WD and the same 3.6-liter V6. All told there are 15 trim levels, so make sure to pick the one that best fits your needs and bank account.
Just a few more points of interest, the Jeep’s sun visors slide and there are plenty of plugs, front and back seat, for all sorts of electronic devices. I also like that there are running boards to help a person crawl aboard, as there’s 10 inches of ground clearance, so hauling oneself up into the vehicle would be tough without those boards.
One negative that I didn’t notice until driving one evening after sunset. The side windows tend to reflect all the dash gauges so create quite an annoying side light to bother the driver once it gets dark out. The only solution I found was dimming the dash lights, nearly turning them off.
So if a less than comfortable ride used to put you off of Jeeps when considering a sport-ute, reconsider. This new Wrangler Unlimited is a whole new, and better, creature.
FAST STATS: 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4×4
Hits: Fun, roomy, easy handling, good power and great off-road ability. Three roof panels pop off for open-top running, heated front seats and wheel, backup camera, blind-spot and cross-traffic warning, big dash screen, visors slide and plenty of accessory plugs. Plus running boards for easy entry.
Misses: Ride still a bit bouncy, manual seats and side windows reflect the dash gauges at night.
Made in: Toledo, Ohio
Engine: 3.6-liter VVT V6, 285 horsepower
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Weight: 4,269 lbs.
Length: 188.4 in.
Tow: 3,500 lbs.
Wheelbase: 118.4 in.
MPG: 21.6 (tested/mostly highway)
Base Price: $38,540 (includes delivery)
Leather trimmed seats, Sahara logo, $1,495
Cold weather group (heated front seats/steering wheel, remote start, engine block heater), $895
Trailer tow/HD electrical group (auxiliary switches, class II receiver hitch, 7- and 4-pin wiring harness, 240 amp alternator, 700 amp maintenance free battery), $795
LED lighting group (LED reflector headlights, fog lamps taillights, daytime running lights), $895
Infotainment system group (Uconnect 4C Nav w/8.4-inch display, GPS, Alpine Premium audio, auto-dimming rearview mirror, HD radio, roadside assistance, satellite radio/traffic/travel), $1,295
Active safety group (ParkSense rear park assist, blind spot and cross path detection), $795
Hardtop headliner, $525
Trail rail management system w/cargo mat, $195
All-weather floor mats, $130
8-speed automatic w/hill descent and tip start, $2,000
Selec-Trac full-time AWD, $595
Anti-spin differential rear axle, $595
Remote proximity keyless entry, $495
Body color Freedom Top w/rear wiper/defroster, $2,095
18-inch (tech gray polished face) wheels, $895
Test vehicle: $52,235
Sources: Jeep, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage