If you thought Jeep's Wrangler was strictly for Californian rock hoppers and D-list boy band members, think again. This updated 'JL'-series fourth generation model offers new engine technology and goes even further off road. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most iconic serious SUVs on the planet and has never been a car to shy away from even the toughest off-road conditions. The current model is this fourth generation 'JL'-series version, which takes a completely fresh approach beneath the bonnet, introduces modern safety standards and features a redesigned interior. There's even a PHEV derivative. It's still very much a Wrangler though.
A bit of history first. Shortly after the surface of the earth cooled, vertebrates appeared, developed into dinosaurs and then died for reasons still not fully understood. Shortly thereafter, the Willys Jeep was built and spawned countless generations of Wrangler models, first driven by cigar-chomping beefcakes in aviator sunglasses who hadn't realised World War II had ended. Unfortunately, the brand image suffered a terrible knock in the mid Eighties when boy band Bros chose the Wrangler as their vehicle of choice.
Bear with me, we're nearly there. Realising that the Wrangler just didn't cut it in an increasingly sophisticated world, Jeep subjected it to major surgery, creating the 'TJ' series model in 1997. This sold until the launch of the 'JK' series design in 2006, which was replaced by the current 'JL'-series fourth generation model in 2018. With the 'JL', the challenge for Jeep was to modernise the vehicle without alienating the hardcore fans of the marque. The first step was to make sure it rode a whole lot better than its predecessor (which wasn't too difficult). Since then, the brand has concentrated on gradually enhancing powertrain refinement and efficiency. Having done so, the company has tweaked the exterior looks, creating the MK4 model we're going to look at here, revised for the 2021 model year.
Just about the only way we can describe the ride of pre-2007-era Wrangler models to the uninitiated is to imagine being stricken with a rather severe case of haemorrhoids and then being superglued to a spacehopper. Perhaps that's a tad harsh but after the novelty of an old Wrangler's bouncy ride had worn off, you were left with a vehicle that could crawl through deep mud but which wasn't much good at anything else. With the current 'JK' series car, things certainly improved - if not dramatically then, at least, unequivocally. This design is much quieter than its predecessors too, thanks to beefed up insulation from engine and road noise.
There's only one conventional engine on offer these days, a 2.0-litre turbo petrol unit with 272hp and 400Nm of torque, mated to 8-speed auto transmission. You can though, talk to your dealer about a PHEV version, the Wrangler 4xe, which mates the 2.0-litre petrol engine to a motor generator unit and a 400V 17kWh battery pack which when charged, can offer up to 30 miles of electrified driving.
These days, the Wrangler offers two active, on-demand full time 4WD systems - known as 'Command-Trac' and 'Rock-Trac'. These use next-generation Dana axles, Tru-Lock electric front and rear-axle lockers, a Trac-Lok limited-slip differential and an electronic front sway-bar disconnect system.
Whichever engine you go for, the Wrangler is still brilliant off road, with its super aggressive approach and departure angles. For this revised model, Jeep has added Selec-Speed control, an off-road cruise control that allows the driver to maintain a steady speed during rock crawling and other types of low speed manoeuvring. Plus a selectable tyre fill alert can now be set through the 8.4-inch touchscreen. Ideal for off-road adventurers who deflate the tyre pressures to get grip on off road courses when traversing mud and rocks.
The plush Rubicon model gets even more specialist front and rear locking differentials, plus a new 'Off-Road+' (OR+) mode that provides unique powertrain and chassis tuning. Specifically tailored for high range 'sand' performance and low range 'rock' activity, OR+ adjusts the ABS, ESC, accelerator pedal, traction control and transmission calibrations . Sand mode is enabled when OR+ is activated while in 4H gear and rock mode is enabled when OR+ is activated while in 4Low.
What about tarmac capability? Well on road manners feel safe and predictable, if a little slow-witted, but there are decent levels of grip and, on broken or rutted surfaces, the handling is no longer stymied by a bouncy ride.
Design and Build
Changes to this Wrangler's looks yo create this fourth generation design include small styling changes to the instantly recognizable keystone-shaped grille, iconic round headlamps and square tail lamps. Plus there are improved aerodynamics and Jeep promises a convenient fold-down windscreen for off-road purists, even more open-air freedom and dozens of different door, top and windscreen combinations. Quite a lot though, hasn't changed at all. The trapezoidal wheel arches, the external door hinges and the rubber bonnet catches are all present and correct, so the Wrangler still looks properly butch. The cabin is pretty spacious in all dimensions and a fold and tumble feature for the rear seat virtually doubles the available cargo capacity, while the curved glass windscreen reduces drag and helps refinement.
On the inside, the cabin is actually a lot more car-like that you expect it might be, with decently smart surfaces, a neat instrument panel, plenty of storage areas and an intuitive switchgear layout. Heated, power mirrors are optional and rearward visibility is aided by large rear windows.
Market and Model
The fourth generation Jeep Wrangler is offered in two or four-door configurations. Pricing starts at just over £49,000 for the two-door model - or about £51,500 for the four-door body shape. Either way, there's a choice of Sahara, Overland, Rubicon and 80th Anniversary trim levels. Engine-wise, the choice is now restricted to a 2.0-litre petrol unit with 272hp mated to 8-speed auto transmission. You can also talk to your dealer about the clever '4xe' PHEV plug-in petrol version. As for kit, well even on basic variants, expect to find 16-inch steel wheels, a DVD-compatible stereo with six speakers and remote keyless entry offered as standard. Range topping Rubicon variants will have a '4:1 Rock Trac' part-time four-wheel drive system, electronic front detachable anti roll bars, Tru-Loc front and rear axles and performance suspension.
New standard features fitted to this updated model include accident emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and auto high beam. An array of safety and security systems also feature, including Blind-spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Path detection, a ParkView rear backup camera with dynamic grid lines, electronic stability control (ESC) with electronic roll mitigation and four standard air bags.
It makes it sound as if the Wrangler has become gentrified. Don't be fooled. Bottom line? Only buy this car if you're very serious about off-roading. Otherwise you'll merely be wasting your money.
Cost of Ownership
The 2.0-litre petrol unit combines the use of a Twin Scroll turbocharger, a new C-EGR system, central direct injection and the independent liquid cooling intake of air, throttle body and turbo, all in a bid to reduce consumption. Plus of course there's an engine stop/start system. The combined cycle fuel figure for a 4-door Sahara version is 24.8mpg and 243-251g/km of CO2.
The Wrangler 4xe hybrid powertrain has three modes of operation, known as E Selec. The driver can select the desired powertrain mode via buttons mounted on the instrument panel, to the left of the steering wheel. Regardless of the mode selected, the Wrangler 4xe operates as hybrid once the battery nears its minimum state of charge. There are three settings. In the first, 'Hybrid', this default mode blends torque from the 2.0-litre engine and electric motor. In 'Electric', the powertrain operates on sero-emission electric power only until the battery reaches the minimum charge or the driver requests more torque (such as wide-open throttle), which engages the 2.0-litre engine. The third mode, 'eSave' prioritises propulsion from the 2.0-litre engine, saving the battery charge for later use, such as EV off-roading or urban areas where internal combustion propulsion is restricted. Charging is easy and user-friendly with a full charge available in less than 3 hours.
Jeep has had to walk a very precarious tightrope in its improvements to the Wrangler. On the one hand, they needed to make it smarter and more relevant to the majority of SUV buyers, while at the same time not alienating those customers who loved the model's rough, tough go-anywhere ability. After looking at this improved version of the MK4 'JL'-series model, we think many brand loyalists will feel that the company has succeeded in achieving this.
Although still not a good choice if your SUV will have a heavy diet of on-road work, this Jeep is now a more capable all-rounder, more comfortable and with a much improved interior. But it's still very much a Wrangler. And that's all that really matters.