In America, Jeep enthusiasts have been fretting that the new Wrangler would be a Fiat-fettled shadow of its former self. However, after driving the US-spec Wrangler in Arizona, we can assure both American and British fans that they have nothing to fear.
The new Wrangler once again offers uncompromising off-road ability that comes at the expense of on-road behaviour. If you liked the old Wrangler, you’ll love the new one, but if you weren’t a fan, this version is unlikely to change your opinion.
Though the Wrangler is all-new, the basic formula of two solid axles strapped to a steel frame hasn’t changed. The chassis is stiffer and wider, and the wheelbase on both two and four-door models is longer. Several of the body panels are made from aluminum – contributing to a 90kg weight saving.
The styling is largely unchanged; in fact, it’s hard to tell the new Wrangler from the old one. Quick spotting features are the trapezoidal grille, new taillights, and Jeep logo moved from the bonnet to the wings.
Inside, the driver faces a relatively flat dash and windscreen, with vents and instruments arranged in a horizontal line to mimic the first-generation (YJ) Wrangler. The steering column now adjusts for rake and reach, though shorter drivers who opt for a manual gearbox may still have to position themselves closer to the wheel than they might like. There are more colour and texture choices, and the quality of materials and switchgear is improved – at least until you glance upwards to the roof panels.
Ugly though they may be, they are better than before. Choices include a hard top with optional removable “Freedom panels”, and a soft top engineered for easier use. Lowering the lid is still a fussy job, but it no longer requires an assistant or a bracing dose of Valium. Newly available is a power-operated full-length fabric sunroof that can be operated at speeds up to 60mph.
The Wrangler once again has removable doors, now with handles and unequal-length hinge pins that make them easier to operate. The windscreen can be lowered, and doing so requires the removal of four bolts instead of 28, as on the old Wrangler.
European powertrain choices will include a reworked 285bhp 3.6-litre petrol V6, a 197bhp 2.2-litre diesel, and a 270bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol. Of the three engines, only the V6 will be offered with a manual gearbox.
We spent most of our time in the V6, and immediately you can feel the weight loss. The new Wrangler feels more spry – although the engine lacks the deep, throaty note we expect from big Yankee iron. Though the all-new six-speed manual offers a relatively light clutch and shorter shift throws, it still changes gear like a truck.
We also sampled a four-door Wrangler with the new 2.0T engine and eight-speed auto, and were impressed by the thrust it developed. Fuel economy is supposed to be better than the V6, but Euro-spec Wranglers won’t get the petrol-saving 48-volt mild hybrid system found on American versions.
The new Wrangler rides somewhat smoother than the old one, though it’s still rough and choppy in the most part. The steering is slow and sloppy on-center, and optional off-road tyres make it even less precise. Body roll is pronounced, and while grip is acceptable if you ease into the bends, quick movements of the wheel result in howling tyres and instant understeer.
All of these compromises are made for the sake of off-road agility, and here is where the Wrangler is at its best. Four-wheel-drive with a low-range transfer case comes standard; a full-time 4WD mode is optional, as are lockable front and rear differentials and a disconnecting sway bar. Approach and departure angles are improved, too.
We did a bit of rock crawling through the Arizona desert in the Wrangler Rubicon, which gets heavy-duty axles, lower gearing, and 33-inch tires, and it proved to be nearly unstoppable. Electronic off-road wizardry is limited to hill descent control, but we didn’t need it; the Wrangler does its off-roading the old-fashioned way, with a super-low crawl ratio and knobbly tyres.