The Jeep Wrangler is an American favorite and is the spiritual spine of the Jeep brand. Almost a quarter of all Jeeps sold last year were Wranglers.
But the Wrangler is as much a lifestyle choice as a transportation tool. This is a vehicle that validates the rugged individualist who, ready for adventure and desperate for authenticity, may never leave Highland Avenue for the high chaparral.
The Wranglers are infectious. I borrowed an entry-level Wrangler Sport 4X4, and within a week, I had purchased Redwing work boots and a Carhartt jacket. If I hadn’t given it back, I’d almost certainly have started wearing chaps and developed a taste for smokeless tobacco products made by Red Man.
When the refreshed 2018 model was introduced at last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, it was heralded as a return to old-fashioned Jeep values. Wrangler fans who had been waiting since 2006 for a redesign applauded parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for retaining the Wrangler’s classic, rugged looks and capabilities while incorporating some modern amenities.
Those fans rewarded FCA with record-setting February sales levels for the brand. Jeep sales rose 12% from the same period in 2017, while Wrangler sales were up 17%, the company said this week.
Still present in the new Wrangler are many off-road-ready aspects, such as the fold-down windshield, removable doors and top and full roll cage, all deemed necessary for the rock-climbing and cliff-crawling that all Jeep owners believe they are going to do, someday.
But inside were standard features such as a 5-inch infotainment display, integrated voice command and a tilting and telescoping steering wheel. With Bluetooth and available Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the Wrangler had entered the modern age.
Standard features on the Sport 4X4 I drove were skid plates protecting the fuel tank, transmission and transfer case, a special tool kit, electronic roll mitigation, traction control and stability control, and a tire pressure monitoring system.
Also standard was Jeep’s ParkView rear-view camera, which delivers an image so crisp and clear that I backed up for a full city block just to enjoy the view.
Upgrades on the model I drove included a beefier sound system, bigger infotainment screen, a heavier-duty rear axle, plus air conditioning and power windows — yes, those are upgrades.
The Wrangler is powered by a 3.6-liter V-6 engine, found in many FCA products, that makes 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. (For now, that’s the only engine available, though a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine will be available later this year, with a 3-liter version being offered in 2019.)
The 2018 line comes in several trim levels, and in two-door and four-door formats. The Sport model is the entry level. Stepping up from that are the Sport S, the Sahara and the Rubicon.
In the base model format, the engine is mated to a six-speed manual transmission, with the option of an available eight-speed automatic. The 4X4 functions are manipulated via Jeep’s standard Command Trac system, and are linked to solid front and rear axles.
Though some now-common driver aids such as forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control aren’t available on any Wranglers, this is more of a 21st century vehicle than previous iterations.
But the Wrangler has lost none of its off-road capabilities. Judging from what experienced Wrangler wranglers have said, the new model is still ready to bust a Moab move, despite additions such as power heated mirrors and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
But that means this SUV is just as clunky when it’s not hitting the dirt.
The first day I drove it, navigating a tricky stretch of road, I was really impressed by the Wrangler’s off-road abilities as I executed a steep descent that ended in an off-camber right-hand turn.
But I wasn’t off-road at all. The stretch of road was a potholed section of Effie Street, in Silver Lake, which the Wrangler bumped along as if it were a set of desert whoop-de-doos.
For the next few days, I was increasingly aware of how physically challenging it is, and what an automotive throw-back it is, to drive this most modern of Wranglers.
The wide, tall tires delivered feedback on every crack in the asphalt. The canvas top flapped like a tent in a windstorm. On the freeway, the combined noises rendered the upgraded Alpine sound system, and casual conversation, entirely useless.
But somewhere in the middle of that week, I finally understood this was all part of the Wrangler’s appeal. The twitchy steering, the stiff suspension, the athletic climb into and out of the car and the essential awkwardness of the handling did not detract from the driving experience. They enhanced it, and made every trip to the dog park feel like a taste of the Dakar Rally.
For many Wrangler people, that may be all the adventure they get. Like owners of BMW’s R1200GS or Honda’s Africa Twin motorcycles, which are designed for rugged off-road use but often get none, Wrangler drivers may never get their Jeeps dirty at all.
How perfect, then, that they can feel like they’re roughing it every time they cruise Coldwater Canyon.
2018 Jeep Wrangler Sport 4X4
Times’ take: Jeep keeps it real with rough and ready Wrangler
Highs: Fun to drive, capable of tackling tough terrain
Lows: Bumpy, noisy ride compromises creature comforts
Vehicle type: Two-door, four-passenger sport utility vehicle
Base price: $28,190
Price as tested: $38,985
Powertrain: 3.6-liter V-6 gasoline engine
Transmission: six-speed manual with optional eight-speed automatic
Torque: 260 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 18 miles per gallon city / 23 highway / 20 combined