The new Jeep Wrangler heads for the hills

CASEY WILLIAMS  |  Auto Reviewer

When you’re clinging to the side of a mountain, hanging in peril, you better have four capable wheels beneath you. So when one redesigns the Jeep Wrangler, it better look like a Jeep and it better master trails like one. In creating the new 2018 Wrangler, current customer expectations were paramount, but it’s also a lot more enticing for the less adventurous.

The larger Wrangler’s shape is instantly familiar, but stylists improved aerodynamics with a faster windshield rake and canted grille. Headlamps bend the outer slots of Jeep’s trademark grille as did the classic CJ’s. Fender vents look cool, but minimize hood flutter. LED headlamps, running lights, foglamps and taillights imbue a modern ethos. The jacked up and nostriled Rubicon model is especially menacing.

Gone is the cloth erector set of previous generations, replaced with a choice of tops that includes a proper hardtop, available with removable front panels, but that’s where generations diverge. Integrated frame rails let the softtop fold back in about 15 seconds. Add another 15 seconds to slide off and stow the rear and side curtains. Or, choose Unlimited models with a one-touch power-opening canvas center section that reveals sky to both rows of seats. Absolutely brilliant.

Inside, designers were inspired by the CJ7’s horizontal row of gauges, so they created a wide contrasting panel that connects the analog dials to round air vents and the new center console cradling Chrysler’s baby-simple infotainment system. Click through icons for radio, media, climate and navigation on the touchscreen. Or use redundant buttons and knobs below. Or command by voice. Your choice.

Adding refinement, Sahara trim brings stitched dash coverings and soft-touch door panels. Rubicon models embrace red for the dash. While this may seem sacrilege for Jeep purists, you can choose heated seats and heated steering wheel. Beautiful, but Jeeps don’t run on styling flourishes.

The base engine is a 3.6-liter V6 delivering 285 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque, but hold your Jerry because an optional 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, assisted by a light hybrid system, manages 270 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. A 3.0-liter diesel arrives in 2019. Choose between a new shorter-throw 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy for the V6 four-door rates 18/23-MPG city/highway.

On-road, rear axle hop and wandering steering are diminished. Launching down a rough gravel road, the suspension soaked it up more like a Grand Cherokee than classic Wrangler. The new automatic transmission added a level of calm never experienced in a Wrangler.

For those who think Jeep emasculated your beloved Wrangler, take a seat… and head for the hills. During our drive, Jeep guides plotted a course through cactus and boulders, heading straight up a mountainside. We shifted into 4Lo, locked differentials, electrically disconnected the sway bars, and gently eased up the face of Hell’s rock garden, skid plates clanging away. This was accomplished in a Rubicon Unlimited with turbo4 and automatic transmission!

As assuredly as Saguaro cactus grow in Arizona, Wrangler remains true to form and mission. Purists can appreciate it for improved capability, but it can also serve as a legit family car. Power back the canvas roof and enjoy your new mountain. Prices start at $26,995 for a two-door Sport and climbing to over $40,000 for a four-door Rubicon Unlimited.