The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most rugged production vehicles you can buy today, but it doesn’t take on those abilities at the expense of every day drivability.
This year’s Wrangler looks an awful lot like last year’s Wrangler, and that one looked nearly the same as every other one before it. That’s kind of the point, but the gruff exterior now cradles a modern, surprisingly comfortable interior.
I spent a week in the Jeep and came away from the experience impressed. The Wrangler can now serve as an all-around vehicle for most people, especially those with families and kids. My Unlimited Sahara model came with four doors, leather, FCA’s awesome Uconnect infotainment system, and more creature comforts than any Wrangler we’ve seen yet.
It’s quite a unique experience to be in a Jeep climbing a wet, steep hill well outside of the range of cellphone reception while holding a heated steering wheel and listening to satellite radio, but that’s exactly the niche the Wrangler has grown to fill. People like myself with kids, an achy back, and stuff to haul can accommodate all of those things while also having more than a little fun off road.
I don’t see a world where Jeep could have done more than it already has to make the Wrangler a palatable daily driver, and it has largely succeeded.
Few other vehicles are as iconic or as long-lived as the Wrangler, and that’s due in part to the fact that the exterior styling has changed very little over the years.
The current generation, known as the JL, is very similar to the JK Wrangler before it, though it’s longer and a touch lighter. The four-door Unlimited models are a huge departure from the original barebones design doctrine that made the Jeep a legend, but the extra space and doors makes the Wrangler much more usable as a daily-driver and family transport.
A fancy Jeep Wrangler is a funny thing to think about, but that’s exactly where we are with the new JL. The Sahara model I drove for a week was equipped with full LED lighting and fog lights placed inside chrome-outlined bumper spaces that are positioned awkwardly enough on either side to look like a 1920s boxer’s mustache. Even so, this is a vehicle whose function-over-form construction has matured to the point of almost being refined.
Large 18-inch chrome wheels with black accents flash just enough bling to catch the eye, especially with the spare mounted to the tailgate. I’d say there are no surprises with the outward appearance, but Jeep has hidden several Wrangler-themed Easter eggs throughout the cabin and exterior to keep things interesting. All around, there are small reminders of the Wrangler’s heritage. My favorites, and there were several, are all of the tiny pictures of the Wrangler scattered throughout the cabin. It’s overkill and completely unnecessary, but it definitely helps create a bond between human and machine.
Nobody should get into this thing expecting to win many street races. In fact, the Wrangler is better at low speeds, owing its demeanor to a lifetime spent rock crawling and mud-slinging. The 285-horsepower V6 and eight-speed transmission is a polished and well-matched combination, and even sounds nice cruising with the top off.
Of course, if all of these advances came at the expense of off-road ability, the Wrangler would be called something else (Liberty, maybe?), but Jeep has made sure that it hasn’t gone too soft. A few runs down some muddy, steep old logging roads made it clear that there is off-road confidence, and then there is the Wrangler. There simply isn’t anything else like it on the road today.
I’ve driven several different Wranglers over the years, including last year’s JK, but I admittedly haven’t spent any significant amount of time in one since a friend had a 1988 YJ Wrangler in high school. I was in for a surprise (treat) when I stepped into the Wrangler Sahara, and so will almost everyone else expecting a typical Wrangler interior.
The UConnect infotainment system has been customized here to include off-road controls and a variety of vehicle settings. It’s a smooth, intuitive system with sharp colors and wide viewing angles. Controls for vehicle, climate, and audio settings are contained within the screen, and they’re all easy to find and use.
My Sahara test model came with a digital gauge cluster that allowed for the display of navigation directions right beside the speedometer. Combined with the steering wheel controls, this extra display makes it possible for the driver to use the audio system, navigation, phone, and several other features without taking their eyes away from the road.
The new Wrangler is the cushiest, most comfortable one to date. The top-trimmed Sahara comes with leather upholstery, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel. Those features are table stakes for premium SUVs in the $50,000 range, but for this Jeep it’s something else entirely. I hesitate to say that a high-end leather interior and heated power seats are a necessity, but they help make the Wrangler appeal to a more mainstream group of buyers (myself included).
The wide, supportive seats up front have enough padding to keep a wide variety of backsides happy and are easily adjustable to nearly any driving position. There are enough right angles inside the Wrangler to please Pythagoras, and they help frame the seating position with convenient storage and arm rests. Shorter drivers may find visibility lacking, as my wife noted feeling like she was piloting a large boat, with difficulty knowing where the front bumper and fenders began and ended.
Because the top and doors are removable, speakers and a dome light have been placed into a roll bar that competes for space with rear seat headroom. I found no issues as a six-foot tall adult, but kids in car seats may feel that they’re sitting too close to the roof or the speakers. It’s the only complaint lodged by my children, who were otherwise spoiled in the generous back seat.
Jeep has doggedly stuck to the formula that made the Wrangler a legend in the first place, admittedly with more than a few modern comforts thrown in. The result is an enjoyable package that does its job as an off-roader and can accommodate the daily grind – for the most part. That being said, the price tags of higher trim levels are substantial enough that I might opt for a Grand Cherokee or other still-capable but more comfortable SUV. Of course, I would probably have answered differently if asked the question while cruising with the top off and stereo blasting.