On the Road Review: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited

Lifestyle trucks are the auto industry’s latest profit niche. Expressive, high-performance on-road and off-road trucks are being created to meet a swelling interest for vehicles that are different from the hum-drum offerings preferred by the masses. And who better to define this expansion — in sales and profits — than FCA’s venerable Jeep brand.

Riding the crest of a growing Wrangler wave, Jeep sales propelled FCA to a very profitable 2018. Overall Jeep-branded vehicle sales in the U.S. market (not counting exports) were up over 15 percent last year — in a marketplace that was essentially even with 2017 in sales. With over 235,000 Wranglers sold last year, this single model outsold the entire lineup of Audi, Buick, Cadillac, Chrysler, Infiniti, Lincoln, Tesla, Volvo and a host of other auto lineups. That’s pretty good market clout for a “lifestyle” vehicle.

The Jeep brand has always been a money-making machine for Chrysler; the Jeep brand made the whole Fiat-Chrysler partnership possible in 2008 when taxpayers were squirming under the stress of carrying both Chrysler and GM out of their self-induced bankruptcies. Without Jeep, it is likely there would not be a Chrysler today.

The new JL-series Wrangler is the first all-new edition since Fiat and Chrysler got married. Boasting heaps of refinement, additional features, enhanced powertrains as well as a lighter body, the new Wrangler retains its off-roading credentials, aggressive stance and distinctive market presence.

And radiant in its Firecracker Red Paint, our Rubicon’s two-week visit during the holidays seemed a fitting vehicle for playing Santa as well as handling seasonal weather.

Wrangler trim levels now span a range from entry-level Sport ($27,945 for 2-dr/$31,445 for 4-dr Unlimited) up through Sport S, Sahara, Rubicon and new top-model Moab — $51,200 base. This pricing jumped several thousand dollars across the board during the shift from JK to JL models, with our heavily outfitted Rubicon hardtop tipping the scales at an eye-popping $54,700 — a healthy $13,000 increase over a base Rubicon.

While the Rubicon is endowed with a superior portfolio of off-roading hardware — painted tow hooks front and rear, skid plates, larger Dana 44-solid axles, beefier 33-inch tires, Tru-lok differentials, Rock-Trak 4WD transfer case, plus an innovative front-suspension disconnect for maximum articulation off-road, Jeep didn’t leave out the visual cues that separate this model from its more urban-oriented brethren. A domed power hood with vents fills the forward view, while a stout front bumper with those red two hooks, fog lamps and a ready perch for a winch setup are complemented by wider fenders and an elevated ride height.

The doors still come off, the windshield collapses and the preferred hard-top ($1,195 with easily removable front T-top like composite panels and larger rear panel) will help you fulfill your warm weather fantasies on-road or off.

On a daylong slog from Downeast Maine to North Conway and back during a snowstorm, the Jeep proved to be a comfortable, if slightly noisy companion. It tracked down the highway well and shrugged off deep slush and snow, yet the vertical windshield captures every bit of errant road grime, the improved aerodynamics still now shedding moisture that escapes other vehicles.

The leather seats are also not heated, and not powered — unforgivable faux paus at this price level — plus there is no remote start that could offset those cold hard seats.

On the flip-side, the ease of use for all of the Wrangler’s controls has been increased by the larger U-connect screen and its affiliated apps, while blind-spot detection and rear parking assist and cross-path detection are the lone concessions to the various electronics populating the vast majority of today’s new vehicles.

Our Rubicon was powered by the new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Mated to the same eight-speed automatic as the standard V-6 engine, drivers will be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two powertrains. The turbo-four is responsive, smooth and produces ample torque for passing at highway speeds. Our realized fuel economy, however, did not approach the EPA estimates of 22/24 mpg, reaching just 20 mpg after 985 miles together.

Wrangler buyers seeking the off-road pursuits provided by the Rubicon might also be considering Chevy’s Colorado ZR2, Ford’s Raptor or a properly outfitted Toyota Tacoma/4Runner. Or, they could wait until this fall, when the new Jeep Gladiator will be available. Jeep has been teasing a new Wrangler-based pickup since 2005. Now, it has the plant capacity to build one. Featuring the revised powertrains (including a turbo-diesel coming this year) more functional interiors, plus the removable doors/tops construction of the Wrangler, the Gladiator will add a short pickup bed out back. FCA hasn’t released pricing, but vendors claim that Jeep can build up to 80,000 units year one, which could potentially add another 35 percent to Wrangler’s sales — provided buyers don’t gravitate to the pickup instead of the enclosed Wrangler’s cabin.

With high resale values, minimal incentives and increasing demand, this lifestyle vehicle seems to have few boundaries.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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