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Short-wheelbase 4WDs are inherently fun and capable off-roaders. I learnt to 4WD in old SWB Land Rovers, but moved to a Defender 130 for the last six-odd years. Along with the fact that my job entails lots and lots of dual-cab utes, I hadn’t spent much time in a ‘shorty’ over the past few years.
Regardless of all of the negative press that has been floating around, I was still excited to see my name against a new 2019 Jeep Wrangler Overland for review at CarAdvice. It is, after all, one of the last standing ‘old’ 4WDs still available these days. And if you start counting old-school short-wheelbase 4WDs, that list becomes very, uh, short.
This is the more expensive variant of Wrangler, coming in at $58,450. You can get a soft-top Sport S specification, which costs nearly ten grand less ($48,950).
There is something fun and exciting about this Wrangler Overland, and I was keen to get it off-road. As I popped it up a couple of rock steps and through some mud, that short-wheelbase experience came back to me. I had to re-learn departure and rampover angles from the driver’s seat, because the Wrangler Limited is exceedingly good in both of these areas. The turning circle is nimble, and you can feel exactly what the rear end is doing. It’s almost under your bum, at the end of the day.
While the Overland (or Sport) doesn’t get the Rubicon’s hardcore driveline, lifted suspension or mud-terrain tyres, that 2459mm wheelbase is a great ally for an off-roading fun machine. It feels willing, and you’re not fretting about constantly bottoming out. Sort out that jutting plastic front bumper with something more aligned with off-road clearance, and you’ll be even better.
No locking differentials, but the off-road traction control is tuned reasonably well to keep the right wheels spinning (or not spinning). That being said, I have to say it’s a shame the Rubicon is only available as a five-door in Australia.
While the tyres are a highway terrain, they are a decent size at 255/70R18 – good for ground clearance. The transfer case reduction feels low enough for your typical 4WDing, especially when sitting behind the eight-speed gearbox. It’s very capable, but it’s also a lot of fun and engaging off-road. And I think that’s equally as important for a purely recreational 4WD like the Wrangler.
Compared to the outgoing JK, the new JL shares only five per cent of parts. And considering the engine is a carryover, you’d have to assume the vast majority left over is all new. It’s all very familiar, however. You cannot mess with an age-old recipe like the original Jeep too much after all.
The interior, in particular, is almost a direct copy of the JK interior. It’s big, tall and flat, reminiscent of those good old days of stamped and folded steel dashboards. Window buttons hide in the centre stack, and the two big chunky gear levers dominate your attention.
A big improvement of the JL Wrangler over the older JK model is the infotainment unit. An 8.4-inch unit is standard for the Overland running the latest UConnect software from the FCA stable. It’s fast, stable and easy to use. Android and Apple phones can mirror, and you can access a lot of additional data like tyre pressures, coolant and gearbox temperatures, as well as engine oil pressure and temperature. And, of course, you have an inclinometer in there to test out your tilt and rake.
The Wrangler’s interior quality feels pretty good overall – no loose fitment or rattles to worry about. The materials are all suitably macho and meaty, including the comfortable leather seats. We’ve got heated seats and a heated steering wheel in this model – a standard feature for the Overland. And let me tell you, the highest setting is impressively hot.
Jeep has left the driver’s footwell cramped in the right-hand conversion. There’s no room to the left-hand side of the brake pedal, or any kind of footrest for that matter. You learn to live with it, but it is a little annoying. Especially when you realise the passenger footwell is much bigger. It must be hard up against the gearbox bellhousing.
Segue to the gearbox, then. It’s an eight-speed gearbox, and the biggest mechanical development you’ll find. Gone is the older five-speed automatic, and it’s of good benefit to the Wrangler overall. It shifts pretty smoothly and quite often, searching for low revs. This means noise is often kept to a minimum, and the highway-oriented tyres make little noise. You can tell the noise insulation is improved.
The gearbox isn’t all peaches, however. It’s calibrated with a very eager nature off the line. It gets away quickly, but does it with an unsettled, slightly unhinged nature about it. The nose lifts noticeably, and the car gets away quickly even with light throttle inputs. It’s good to have that power, but it would be nice to have it delivered with a little more even nature.
Punting around without much right foot, and the driving experience is calm and reserved. When you do search for more grunt, the combination of lots of ratios and high revs for peak power and torque (6400 and 4100rpm, respectively) means the engine transitions from a meek 1500rpm to a big surge as you get up and over 3500rpm. You’re certainly not left wanting for more power, but it can catch you by surprise.
It’s worth noting here other markets do have access to Jeep’s 2.0-litre turbocharged ‘etorque’ engine, which runs through the same gearbox. While I haven’t driven it myself, some colleagues have. And their impression is that it’s a more linear, more refined and better overall drive, probably because there is more torque available (400Nm) lower down (3000rpm).
Power steering comes from hydraulic assistance, but this is powered electrically rather than being belt-driven off the engine. It’s a 17.4:1 ratio, with 3.5 turns lock-to-lock. A high steering ratio is great for off-roading, and is livable when punting around town, but you will notice it when parking and pulling off three-point turns. Luckily, the Wrangler has such a good turning circle (10.5m).
Steering is vague and wandering at highway speeds. A big patch of nothingness sits right at the centrepoint, meaning the car needs constant adjustment and attention as it plods around between lane markings. You don’t notice it around town, but when you get to 80km/h and over, it becomes a problem.
The gearbox is otherwise good, and an improvement over the six-speed. A nice selection of ratios reduces road and engine noise a lot, and no doubt improves economy a bit. That being said, we averaged 12–12.5 litres per hundred, which included suburban, highway and off-road driving. For a Jeep that isn’t exactly huge, this does feel a little high.
LED headlights are part of the upgrade package over the $48,000 Sport (along with a nicer interior, bigger infotainment screen, colour-coded hard roof and flares, 18-inch wheels, active cruise control and autonomous emergency braking).
The ride is smooth and nicely wallowing from soft springs and big tyres, but the short wheelbase lets you feel the chop in roads a little bit. You’ll feel the nose lift under acceleration, and a little bit of tyre and suspension squirm with heavy braking. That’s SWB life – same deal as anything else less than 100-inch wheelbase and off-road-focussed suspension. This Wrangler has 96 inches' worth of wheelbase, for those at home playing imperial.
Another fact of life with a short wheelbase 4WD is space, or the lack of it. While the Wrangler's square shape does yield a practicaly boxy space inside, you've got scant little room to play with. 197 litres is available with all four seats deployed, which grows to 587 litres with the rear seats trundled forward.
A short-wheelbase Wrangler Limited is the most pure expression of what the iconic Jeep 4x4 is about. The five-door Unlimited is better in terms of space, ride and value for money. But if you really want that real nature of a Wrangler, then the Limited is most in line with the heritage and model. It feels more fun and zippy, although it’s clearly less practical and harder to live with.
Servicing intervals for a Wrangler are 12,000 kilometres or 1 year, whichever comes first. Your first five visits back to the dealerships have a flat rate of $299. So you're looking at a servicing cost of $1,495 over the first half decade, or 60,000 kilometres.
Pop quiz: what do the Jeep Wrangler, Proton Jumbuck, Nissan Urvan and Mitsubishi Express have in common? A one-star safety rating dished out by ANCAP. While those other ratings were back in the mid-2000s, the 2018 rating is a major blight on the suitability of the Wrangler for Australian buyers.
Sure, if you’re looking to only take your Wrangler off-road and never take friends and family around town, you can look past it. But that kind of buyer is incredibly rare. Dedicated off-road vehicles are often older rigs like TJ Wranglers and Nissan GQ Patrols.
Although Jeep’s heritage runs to the very core of what the modern-day 4WD is about, the simple fact is the Wrangler will be used as a lifestyle vehicle around town, with a bit of 4WDing thrown in for good measure.
With that in mind, the one-star safety rating of the Wrangler is entirely deplorable. Our tested vehicle does have autonomous emergency braking, which would improve that score somewhat. However, what wouldn’t improve are the structural issues with the footwell and A-pillar, which have obvious ramifications for those inside.
Should people still consider the Wrangler then? It’s not a vehicle that is easily cross-shopped, especially in short-wheelbase form. You could argue the Suzuki Jimny is similar, but it’s much smaller, a bit more basic, and almost half the price. It’s a stretch, but the LandCruiser 76 Series could arguably crop up as a heritage-style off-roading competitor. I think my point stands – the Wrangler Limited doesn’t count many direct competitors. If you want a Wrangler, there isn't really any other vehicle that can fill that void.
It's not a decision based on a strong form of logic. It comes from another place; the other part of our body that has a say in these kinds of decisions. You’re looking at one because you want it, not because it makes sense from a practical or sensible point of view.
The good news is the JL Wrangler is much improved over the JK, especially the interior, infotainment and general refinement.
While there is lots to love about the Wrangler, there are some things you’ll need to live with. It’s not the nicest on the highway, nor the smoothest around town – and its lack of advanced modern safety should give buyers pause to think.