January 24, 2019

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With its rugged capability and easy access to the open air, the Jeep Wrangler has excelled for decades as the off-road totem of the brand. And to the Jeep faithful, redesigning such an icon, as has been done with the new-for-2018 JL version, will always bring concerns that modernity will dilute the charm of this cherished backwoods four-by-four. Indeed, the new JL advances the formula further than ever before, but die-hard fans of the seven-slot grille shouldn’t fret over what is the most accommodating Wrangler yet.

As we learned during our first drive of the JL model, Jeep did not screw up its latest poster child. But those examples were mostly of the range-topping Rubicon specification that are outfitted with meaty tires and beefier axles for maximum trail swagger. While such capability is central to its mission, the modern Wrangler, through ever-increasing technology and refinement, also has become a unique open-top alternative to conventional SUVs that rarely venture off the beaten path. Reinforcing that truth is the JL’s four-door-only Sahara trim level (Jeep no longer officially refers to the four-door Wranglers as the Unlimited, but the word continues to adorn the side of the vehicle). The Sahara slots just below the Rubicon in the lineup and, for the first time ever in a Wrangler, brings an available full-time all-wheel-drive transfer case for improved traction and stability in day-to-day driving.

a similar JK Unlimited we tested.

Where the Sahara breaks with tradition is in its optional $595 Selec-Trac transfer case, which adds an Auto all-wheel-drive mode to the Wrangler’s rear-drive and high- and low-range 4WD settings. As with the Sahara’s standard Command-Trac part-time setup, Selec-Trac features a modest 2.72:1 low-range ratio, and its Dana 30 front and Dana 35 rear stick axles house 3.45:1 gears. Opting for Selec-Trac also tacks on a $595 limited-slip rear differential and requires the new-for-2018 eight-speed automatic transmission ($2000) in place of the standard six-speed manual. Rolling stock consists of 18-inch aluminum wheels wrapped with rather street-friendly Bridgestone Dueler H/T 685 all-terrain tires, size 255/70R-18.

The resulting uptick in performance is significant: Motivated by the standard Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 boasting 285 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at a rather high 4800 rpm, our Sahara scooted to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.2 at 90 mph—improvements of 1.6 and 1.4 seconds (and 7 mph) over the previous JK with its five-speed automatic and Goodyear tires. Even more impressive was the JL’s enhanced grip, which saw skidpad performance rise from the JK’s lowly 0.63 g to 0.73 g and shortened the 70-mph-to-zero braking distance from 209 feet to a more acceptable 176. The latter is also helped by larger 12.9-inch front and 13.4-inch rear disc brakes.

Given the new Wrangler’s improved EPA fuel-economy estimates, its greater observed average of 17 mpg—2 mpg higher than the JK’s observed number and just 1 mpg less than its city rating—was largely expected. We also weren’t surprised that it managed only 20 mpg on our 200-mile highway loop, which is 3 mpg lower than its EPA highway figure. To the atmosphere, even this latest Wrangler with its slightly faster windshield nonetheless boasts a bricklike aerodynamic profile.

Although the Sahara’s all-wheel-drive setting doesn’t help with straight-line performance in the dry (our quickest runs were in rear-drive mode), its ability to shuffle torque between the axles in response to grip levels is a meaningful convenience both in slippery conditions and when bolting out into traffic, situations in which previous Wranglers often would spin their rear tires. But this newfound ability does little to mask the JL’s primitive underpinnings when rounding corners. Along with some unsettledness related to its tall center of gravity, the Wrangler’s chassis is still easily upset by abrupt throttle inputs and midcorner bumps, which can tug the truck off line and send front-axle shudders up through the steering column. Overcook it into a bend and the nondefeatable stability control will quickly step in and cut power with a heavy hand.

The JL Sahara starts at $39,290, and opting for the automatic transmission and Selec-Trac setup raises the entry point to $42,480. But you can get carried away by the litany of available equipment, such as our test vehicle’s $895 polished-face 18-inch wheels, $1495 black leather seats, $895 Cold Weather Group (remote start, a heated steering wheel and heated front seats, plus a mandatory $95 engine block heater), $895 LED Lighting Group (LED head, fog, running, and tail lights), $795 Trailer Tow and HD Electrical group (a bigger battery and alternator, a Class II receiver hitch good for 3500 pounds, and auxiliary power switches), $795 Jeep Active Safety Group (rear parking assist and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-path detection), $525 hard-top headliner, $495 proximity-key entry, $195 Trail Rail cargo-management system, and $130 all-weather floor mats. All in, we were driving a $53,185 rig.

While Wranglers have notoriously low depreciation and virtually zero direct competitors, that’s luxury SUV money for a truck that is anything but. Yet the JL model’s pricing potential is really the only reason we can see for the Jeep faithful to keep sharpening their pitchforks, although the new model is selling well enough for Jeep to recently nudge the price higher still. This vehicle remains very much a Wrangler, one that drives better than any of its kind before it, and the fancy Sahara makes it easier than ever for the less adventurous to enjoy its unique character.

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