I never really liked the previous Jeep Wrangler. I liked what it represented, but the final execution left a little too much to be desired.
That doesn’t suggest the old Wrangler was a bad thing. Used as intended, the previous generation JK Wrangler was, and still is, rather brilliant – at one specific thing.
What worked against it was that so many were taken out of their natural environment and cast into roles they were completely wrong for. The same will no doubt hold true for the all-new JL Wrangler which recently hit Aussie streets.
Jeep has a tough job when it comes to refreshing a legend like the Wrangler. There’re devoted fans of the massively capable 4x4 icon all around the world who would scream blue murder should even a shred of terrain-conquering ability be reduced.
That’s not really any secret. It’s pretty clear Jeep hasn’t wanted to upset anyone when you look at it, too. Despite its all-newness, the JL Wrangler (and the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, but for simplicity I'll just use Wrangler to describe both) clings tight to its visual roots.
Is it actually any good though? Well, exceptionally good would be an understatement, but this isn’t a review of what the Wrangler can and can’t do – you can read those here – it’s more about appreciating the single-mindedness that kept the new generation so accurately on target.
For one thing, it’s uncompromised by the need to appease city-dwellers. The grand irony being that more will sell within major metropolitan centres than in far-reaching corners of Australia.
Be that as it may, Jeep’s engineers haven’t extended an olive-branch to latte-sipping hipsters in fair-trade loafers. If you’re one of those you’re welcome to join the Wrangler party, but you fit the Wrangler, not the other way around.
As an appliance the Wrangler is, frankly, rubbish. You have to clamber up into the damn thing and take a leap of faith each time you thrust yourself out of the driver’s seat and onto the ground. It towers over RAV4s and CX-5s while offering none of the IKEA-friendly utility.
The corners of the car are pretty hard to judge, you’re sitting a long way up and your perspective of everything is skewed as a result. Parking is made easier by obligatory assist features like cameras and sensors, but that isn’t the point either.
The point is something along the lines of nature, escape, and determination.
Because very few other cars (if any?), straight out of the box can put you in the middle of your favourite piece of outback, forest or beach, huffing salted, pine-scented, red dust-tinged air without the implications of a roof or even a windscreen. I mean, if that’s your thing then the Wrangler is your thing.
On a recent off road adventure the flagship Wrangler Rubicon, went further (and complained less about it) than other purpose-built four-wheel drives like the Suzuki Jimny or Toyota LandCruiser. That’s very good indeed.
Of course, to put yourself in the middle of nowhere, or to turn a wheel towards the kind of wild terrain that couldn’t be covered on foot or in most other wheeled vehicles requires a certain kind of mad-cap determination… As does removing the roof and folding the windscreen of a Wrangler. You’ll need help and patience, to say the least.
There are still flaws and compromises. It’s noisy and gruff. You’ll be surrounded by wind whistle, tyre roar, engine thrash. If you wanted the peaceful isolation of a Range Rover you’d have bought one, I suspect, but if you want to get as close as possible to the throw-back skill of manhandling a car, rather than driving one, this is the way to do it.
Oddly there’s no room in the driver’s footwell, but you can somehow justify that by knowing the Wrangler’s focus is clearly American and that, hopefully, some piece of essential off-roading hardware needs to live beneath the section of floor where it would be much more convenient to rest your left foot.
Aside from that, ergonomics are otherwise much better than they’ve been before. Of course they’re still not perfect. The dash is almost entirely vertical and because you take the doors off and leave them at home, switches you might expect to find there, aren’t there, instead redeployed into odd places on the busy centre stack.
It’s a delight, because it tends to utility. Every button is almost comically oversized, because in a North Dakota winter you won’t be taking your gloves off to thumb the hazard lights.
The transfer case lever, gear selector and handbrake all live within uncomfortable proximity of each other. They don’t need to be bunched together. You’re probably not going to need to switch from one to the other with lightning-fast responsiveness, but the impression of having a four-wheel drive control centre, complete with diff lock and swaybar disconnect activation at your fingertips, is somehow settling.
Without sacrificing any of that well-touted off road ability, Jeep has also managed to make the new Wangler nicer to drive on the road. It’s still got suspension with the subtlety of a pogo stick and steering you constantly need to chase at highway speeds, but both are far more settled than they ever were before.
You take to the road and you command it, with a lingering vulnerability that also makes you incredibly respectful of the conditions and other road users around you. It's empowering and humbling in a way few other vehicles are.
Normally at this stage, it would be worth giving some credit to the engines under the bonnet. I mean, they’re alright: A 3.6-litre petrol V6 or a 2.2-litre turbo diesel four-cylinder both paired to eight speed automatics, but in this instance they’re not a make or break part of the Wrangler.
Within reasonable limits (of course) Jeep’s halo car could probably get by just fine with all manner of engines. It could have more power, or it could have less. The engines kind of play second fiddle in this instance though, with crawl ratios and wheel articulation having a bigger impact on the Wrangler love story.
Oh, but speaking of impact… There’s an ANCAP-sized elephant in the room, and its only wearing a single star where there’s room for five.
Yeah, the all-new Wrangler’s safety doesn’t look like the result of crash testing a modern vehicle to modern standards. A single-star rating suggests something isn’t right.
There’s been quite a few takes on this in our comments on any Wrangler article so far, too. Some seem unconcerned that a Wrangler doesn’t pass assessment with flying colours, ‘if I bought it, I know what I’m getting myself in for!’ seems to be the general gist.
There’s no doubt that some of the Wrangler’s design idiosyncrasies may have had an effect on the overall crashworthiness of the vehicle. A little oddly ANCAP gives all cars, AEB equipped or not, the same one-star rating however for other brands splits ratings depending on the level of crash avoidance tech fitted with autonomous braking going untested in this instance.
Either way, comments like “structures in the dashboard were a potential source of injury for both the driver and passenger” aren’t the thing you’d like to see in any crash test report. It has an eerie ring to it.
I applaud the Wrangler and its ruggedness. The evolution of its styling pays homage to a long-reaching heritage. Unstoppable, go anywhere ability gives hardcore four-wheel driving enthusiasts an ideal springboard to create the ultimate terrain tamer.
The Jeep Wrangler is the personification of freedom, welded and riveted in metal. It is gloriously capable and to get there it has been made imperfectly.
... but this time, just this once, I can't just blindly accept that the Wrangler is a car that needs to be the way it is. This time the value of human life, sets off pangs of empathy that won't allow me to side with the Jeep in its natural form.
For, as impressive as it tries to be, the fallible Jeep Wrangler also makes a valid case for why – sometimes – you should mess with imperfection.