So recognisable that it no longer needs anything other than its seven-bar grille up-front, the latest Mark IV Wrangler is the ultimate 4x4, states Iain Robertson, which places Jeep on top-of-the-heap for serious fun, now with a significantly refined edge.
Some new cars scarcely warrant a second glance, many of them being little more than mildly updated versions of previous models. Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule; when BMW relaunched the Mini, we looked; when VW reintroduced the Beetle, we looked; when Jeep revitalises its Wrangler; we gawp in amazement. It is that ‘iconic’ thing.
Remember, without Jeep, Land Rover would not have existed. In 75 years of a far from hectic history, Jeep has stuck rigidly to its premise. It is a deservedly proud history, based on creating the most indefatigably competent multi-surface vehicles and every branded Jeep is also the most capable in its class. Of course, Jeep has been forced to move with the times. The old wartime-practical, general-purpose off-roader, as skinny, lightweight and emaciated as it was, has been superseded by progressively better equipped series of models; three in total, which is not very many in the whole scheme of things automotive.
Today’s Jeep is fatter, lairier and defiantly larger than ever, although it is also lighter, with the extensive use of aluminium for body panels. It is America in potted form. Fortunately, its greater girth is accompanied by even more significant levels of competence. It may have consumed more than its fair share of Wendys, BKs and root beer but it has never forgotten its perpetual mantra of being the ultimate in off-roading prowess. Sales of all Jeep models are increased in most markets worldwide and while a mere double figures’ worth of Wranglers found UK homes last year, the company hopes to break into four figures with it in 2019.
Having believed that I knew most of the drivable nooks and crannies in The Lake District, Jeep proved to me, again, that it knows better! In a total of six hours, a small convoy of ardent Jeepsters rock-crawled, water-splashed and head-on tackled around 20 miles of some of the most outlandish terrain around Lake Windermere …territory better known to sheepherders, hillwalkers and the mountain rescue fraternity. Urged not to venture ‘off-piste’, thus not to annoy local landowners lending us their otherwise difficult terrain and the occasional walking, or two-wheeled adventurer keen on criticising ‘those bloody off-roaders’, Health & Safety was clearly in evidence, although it did not diminish the thrill one iota.
It might not seem like a high mileage but this was concentration heavy, constantly demanding and, at times, positively scary 4x4 trekking. Yet, this is a main course attraction to the all-American Jeep Wrangler. Three gated, challenging and normally off-limits, private tracks were linked by convenient road sections almost as tricky to lace a wide 4x4 along, as the moss-walled, granite rock-strewn and (at times) vertiginous inclines consumed at sometimes slower than walking pace.
Laden to the gunwales with gear, the options list is limited to even more earnest off-roading equipment, like winches and stuff, in a new line-up of short-wheelbase three- and long-wheelbase five-door models. Bear in mind that most owners will want for little more than the standard specifications in Sahara, Overland and most purposeful Rubicon guises of the new Wrangler. For this story, I was in the priciest Rubicon 5-door (at a pre-dealer discount/allowance £48,365). It is not cheap but it is immensely capable. You can read all about the three-door, more road-biased Overland version (same price as Rubicon 3-door at £46,865; Sahara is £1,500 less) in a future test. The step-up from three- to five-door is also £1,500, for which I guess makes it easier to account.
There is no price variance between the all-new turbo-petrol and turbo-diesel variants. The lighter, smaller, 2.0-litre petrol is a 272bhp unit, armed with 295lbs ft of torque (important in an off-road environment), although the 2.2-litre diesel of the test car develops 200bhp and 332lbs ft, which is more than man enough for the most hostile of off-road routes. Mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission, the transfer gearbox is a technological tour de force, allowing either active, or part-time 4High, 4Low, or 2High drive options. However, both front and rear differentials can be locked electronically and the front anti-roll bar can be disconnected for even greater axle articulation and smoother off-road progress.
This latter ‘trick’ is electronically actuated, which means that the truly intrepid Jeep driver needs not arm himself with spanners and wrenches and can conduct the exercise from within the comfort of the Wrangler’s cabin. The coil-suspended front-end needs the anti-roll bar for more stable on-road driving. However, enhancing the articulation of the front axle not only improves off-road traction considerably, with less wheel-dangling in evidence, but also removes the elements of secondary suspension given by the sway-bar. As a result, the new Wrangler’s off-road progress is smoother and even more impressive.
Comfort levels are high, the seats being particularly well-sprung and compliant with the suspension movement. A plank of contrasting trim runs across the soft-touch dashboard, which contains the twin-dials and digital read-out display ahead of the driver, with an 8.4-inch TFT screen in the middle. Visible fixings are par for the course. Grab handles are abundant, solidly located and well-placed for more strenuous off-roading. There is heaps of space in the rear bench, which can be split-folded to increase an already generous boot area.
A full suite of electronic driver aids is standard in an eye-watering specification that includes full-LED signature-circular headlamps matched by chunky rear LED units, completely removable body panels (lightweight roof sections, windows and hardtop), sat-nav and connectivity options. The windscreen can be folded onto the protective rubber pads on the bonnet and the doors can be removed completely, leaving a full roll-cage visible. A colourful array of 10 paint finishes allows owners to blend with the scenery, or clarion their presence (which might be useful in some circumstances!). Even the super-chunky off-road tyres of the Rubicon model provide modest on-road grip in a significantly more refined package overall. A hybrid version is due next year, which may help with guzzling fuel consumption (c. 25mpg petrol; 30mpg diesel) that Jeep seemed unwilling to confirm. Yes, the new Wrangler is also the most expensive Wrangler ever but it is also the best Jeep too.
It could be argued that you might think twice about tackling off-road grounds in a near-£50k 4x4 but, as low as the sales numbers will be, it is worth knowing that the all-new Jeep Wrangler is the most competent multi-surface vehicle in the world and that will keep its dealers busy for the next few years at least.