Finally, after much pontificating and debate, the 2019 Jeep Wrangler has arrived in Australia and CarAdvice had the chance to sample the new off-road legend in its natural environment. That is, mud, dirt, rocks and water crossings. And lots of all of them.
The realm of the ‘proper’ or ‘rugged’ off-roader is such an interesting one in 2019. We’ve seen the Land Rover Defender retired from duty, and then watched as Land Rover has wrestled with the concept of a genuinely modern successor to its off-road icon.
We’ve also watched Toyota attempt to eke as much life out of the 70 Series platform as it can, all while admitting that there will come a time that it cannot meet modern safety standards – not to mention the ergonomic expectations of the modern buyer.
Suzuki’s new Jimny has recently entered the fray, and has struggled with its safety rating specifically while trying to maintain a strong visual link to the past. In other words, the days of these legendary off-roaders are certainly numbered. Part of the problem is the desire of the modern buyer to use them daily, rather than as a specific off-road tool, but that’s the reality for the manufacturers and they all have to factor that in.
I’m all for technology, and in fact the relentless march of technology will continue apace in the off-road world. I remain convinced that low-range gearboxes aren’t long for this world. We now favour an automatic transmission off-road, and the Rubicon has a switchable, disconnecting front swaybar that makes progress in gnarly terrain almost comically effortless.
Modern traction-control systems can make driving off-road safer, easier and more efficient with almost zero wheel slip in the best systems. Technology has changed the way we approach off-road travel.
However, if I had the choice to be stranded somewhere remote due to a mechanical fault in a 1990s era TJ Wrangler rather than a brand-new Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, for example, I’m pretty confident which vehicle I’d have the better chance of getting moving again. And therein lies the problem – off-road fans who happen to work in R&D within manufacturers know this, too. High-tech is amazing – when it works.
They don’t really have a choice but to include it, though, such is the way of the automotive world. Looking forward while respecting the past is no easy thing. It’s why we still haven’t seen the Defender proper yet.
And into that melee comes the new Jeep Wrangler…
First up, it might look similar, but the new Wrangler is different. Significantly different. In fact, this new model shares only five per cent of its componentry with the outgoing JK model. That means a whopping 95 per cent of it is different, and while some of that might not be immediately visible from the outside, a hell of a lot of it is as soon as you start driving.
There's a temptation to rave about the interior improvements, without noting that the cabin is now, in fact, level with what we'd expect from any garden-variety hatchback currently on sale. The new Wrangler is, though, a massive step forward from the utilitarian nature of its predecessor.
The 8.4-inch infotainment screen especially is a huge step forward, Apple CarPlay worked well during a brief test at launch (Android Auto is also catered for), and I liked the digital off-road gauge modes on the central screen. All in all, the cabin feels like a much more premium experience than any Wrangler before it.
To be honest, the removable hardtop doesn’t really float my boat, and while the front sections are a cinch to take off, I’d rarely be doing it. There’s no uncomfortable buffeting when they are removed, though, even at highway speed. It’s all very civilised up front in the new Wrangler, even with the sun pouring in through the open front part of the roof.
Leg room in the second row is excellent as well. We had tall occupants up front and a six-foot-plus passenger in the back row, and his knees were nowhere near the front seatback. That would explain the explosion in sales of the four-door Unlimited variant of the previous model in Australia, but I’d still take my Rubicon with two doors if I could.
The luggage space is also useful, and you’ll be able to customise it to store your off-road recovery gear, fridge, and other road-trip travel items. The flat expanse across the boot obviously has a high load point, being a 4WD, but it’s big enough to suit family buyers.
While my review here will focus on the off-road component (we were driving the Rubicon exclusively at launch), you cannot ignore the refinement improvements on-road. Even on mud-terrain tyres, the new Wrangler is on another planet compared to the outgoing model on-road. It feels more solid, it’s quieter, more refined, the eight-speed gearbox is excellent, the ride nowhere near as jiggly, and the steering is sharper and more connected. There’s less wind and tyre noise, no scuttle shake or squeaks, and the whole cabin simply feels more premium and better executed than any previous Wrangler.
We tested both the petrol (209kW/347Nm 3.6-litre V6) and diesel (147kW and 400Nm 2.2-litre four-cylinder) engines for our short road drive, both backed by the excellent eight-speed ZF gearbox. I like the fact that you can leave the Wrangler in 4WD Auto on-road, too, adding to the reassurance, especially on wet roads.
On that note, we did some driving in the rain, and the Jeep felt planted, solid and safe. That rain was coming in sideways for a while, too, and none of it leaked into the cabin. We thought we had found a leak, but closer inspection revealed it was our constant opening and closing of the door in heavy rain while jumping in and out.
Petrol or diesel? That’s a really tough one to answer. The petrol is obviously more refined, and it generates more power, but the diesel is a competent engine, too. You’d probably opt for the diesel if you were doing a lot of longer touring to get off-road, while the petrol would be the more obvious choice if you weren’t heading so far afield. We didn't bother measuring fuel consumption here, given we spend 11 hours crawling off-road, largely in low range.
That said, the cost of the diesel might be prohibitive for some buyers, and if you look at our pricing and specification guide, you can see that the petrol engine is more attractive for potential Wrangler buyers on a more restrictive budget. Pricing for the new Wrangler starts from $48,950 and runs up to $68,950 before on-road costs.
I’ve always loved the Wrangler, despite its fairly obvious on-road misgivings, with one caveat – you have to use it off-road. There is almost no terrain that can stop a Rubicon, unless you try to create a problem for it. There’s always a way to get home, in other words, when you’re out in the bush in a Wrangler Rubicon.
In the past, if you bought a Wrangler to use purely on-road, though, you were undoubtedly some kind of masochist. That’s not the case anymore. Jeep Australia representatives claim, despite the improvements on-road, however, that it is also better off-road. Let’s find out then.
The aforementioned eight-speed auto is excellent off-road and 4WD Auto, 4WD High Range Lock, and 4WD Low Range Lock, are all easy to select via the traditional shift lever. The Wrangler locks in and out of modes quickly, and despite being able to execute those changes on the move, I always come to a stop and select neutral – mechanical sympathy and all that.
Low-range is just that – really low. The 77.2:1 crawl ratio works superbly on steep declines, and will also allow the Rubicon to crawl neatly uphill over tough obstacles. I liked the feel of the throttle pedal in the petrol Rubicon, too. That's not always an easy element to get right compared to diesels, which almost always feel less jittery off-road. However, the Wrangler’s petrol engine reacts gently to throttle inputs on even the harshest tracks. It makes smooth crawling and tough off-road progress a lot more enjoyable.
Three elements combine to ensure the Wrangler is almost unstoppable off-road: proper low-range gearing, the twin diff locks, and the front swaybar disconnect, which liberates extensive wheel travel. You find that you’re rarely unloading a tyre, even through crazy crossovers, such is the scope of wheel travel available. That means better, smoother progress, less scrabbling and no wasted energy. Hardcore 4WDers will want more ground clearance, but for a factory off-roader, the Wrangler offers excellent capability in standard trim.
The Rubicon model has bash plates and protection where you need it, short overhangs front and rear to make approach and departure almost always a no-scrape affair, and a still impressive rampover angle despite the long wheelbase. We touched down a few times off-road, as expected, but you can see from the photos that Climies Track outside Strahan in Tasmania is a pretty tough affair. We were out there for almost 11 hours, with some videography and a lunch stop included, but it’s pretty serious, low-speed off-road work the whole way that required shovels and MAXTRAX a few times thanks to the recent heavy rain.
So, while it's not a perfect new platform, the new Wrangler is a huge developmental step forward from the old model. I still think you should be buying these and heading as far off-road as you dare to justify the outlay, but it's so much more refined on-road that you can't criticise those who will choose to use it solely around town.
As far as showroom standard, factory off-roaders go, the Wrangler Rubicon is as good as it gets.