Diesel power, hybridization, and full-time all-wheel drive join the party.
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In an industry predicated largely on reinvention, the Jeep Wrangler is an anomaly. One of only a handful of vehicles whose evolution can be plotted on a straight line, its design has remained faithful to the original for decades. Buyers have routinely responded in kind, the production line at Jeep’s Toledo, Ohio, assembly facility working overtime to satisfy demand. While that single-minded approach preserves the Wrangler’s iconic status, it places some restrictions on those tasked with shepherding the four-wheel-drive sacred cash cow through the 21st century.
Change Is a Relative Concept
Beneath the new Wrangler’s familiar outward appearance, the designers and engineers have done a thorough job weaving modernity into the template. Mark Allen, head of Jeep brand design, tells us that the project began with “way-out sketches” that were used to get creative juices flowing. Tiny elements of those designs, such as the “keystone shape” of the grille, the way the headlights invade the outer grille slats, and the full-length rain gutter—which doubles as a handy attachment point for roof-rack systems—were products of these early concepts.
They also resulted in the slightly increased rake of the windshield, a measure taken with great care to preserve the classic Jeep profile; Allen claims that one more degree in either direction “really whacks it out.” This makes improving the Wrangler’s aerodynamics a challenge, and although there are a few small adjustments, they’re hidden wherever possible. The windshield still folds flat, and—thanks to a separate, nonfolding header bar connecting the A-pillars—the process is streamlined. The new four-bolt procedure also leaves the rearview mirror in place. Additional classic features such as the removable doors remain, only now the tool required to loosen the T50 fasteners is included; should you lose it, the T50 designation is stamped into the aluminum hinge as a handy reminder. (Optional half-doors will come online for 2019.)
An entirely new steel frame with five boxed crossmembers serves as the Wrangler’s backbone, while next-gen Dana front and rear solid axles hang from the coil-spring suspensions front and rear. Weight-saving aluminum is used not only on the hood as before on the JK-generation Wrangler (which continues on for 2018 alongside the brand-new model) but also for the new JL’s fenders, doors, hinges, and windshield frame. The enlarged tailgate is composed of a cast-magnesium assembly with an aluminum exterior skin. Aluminum engine mounts and steering gear, hollow steel anti-roll and track bars, and a larger yet lighter brake master cylinder all contribute to the weight-saving effort. The wheelbase increases by 1.4 inches to 96.8 in the two-door model, while the four-door’s axle span grows 2.4 inches to 118.4. Overall length is up, too, with the two-door stretching another 2.5 inches to 166.8 and the four-door up 3.5 inches to 188.4, both including the spare tire mounted to the tailgate. Allen told us that an indicator of the JL’s subtle expansion and improved outward visibility is that “every piece of glass in the JL is larger than that of the previous Wrangler.”
Wrangler JLs will be available in two- and four-door models, but the Unlimited tag no longer denotes the latter. Two-door versions come in Sport, Sport S, and Rubicon spec, while the four-doors add a Sahara trim level between Sport S and Rubicon. Push-button start and a backup camera are standard across the board, as are halogen headlamps (LEDs are available in certain packages), fog lamps, skid plates for the transfer case and the fuel tank, tow hooks (two front, one rear), cruise control, a pair of USB outlets, side airbags, hill-start assist, and more. Electronic trailer-sway control is standard, and the optional towing package brings a Class II hitch receiver, four-pin and seven-pin adapters, a 240-amp alternator, a 700-amp battery, and auxiliary switches. The maximum tow rating is 2000 pounds for the two-door and 3500 for the four-door.
Regardless of trim or model, the promise of topless motoring has been a key component of the Jeep’s allure since the days of the original Willys; actually enduring the finger-pinching and time-consuming process required to operate the top is remembered far less fondly. The 2018 Wrangler JL features a dramatically improved standard Sunrider softtop. Now entirely free of zippers, it relies on a framework, similar to those in some vintage convertibles, that allows it to be raised or lowered in a fraction of the previous time. Additionally, the back window and rear quarter-window sections can be removed independently while the overhead portion remains in place. For those who find the new and improved softtop still too intimidating, there is the literally named Sky One-Touch power-top option. An electrically operated full-length canvas roof, it slides rearward with the press of a button, opening approximately 90 percent of the roof area to the sky. Available on Sahara and Rubicon four-door models only, it allows for the rear quarter-windows to also be removed for near open-air cruising.
As for full hardtops, the optional Freedom Top three-piece hardtop permits various open-air configurations and can be ordered to match the body color on Sahara and Rubicon models.
Creeping into the Future
The JL not only continues the Wrangler’s long-running preference for simple, familiar, and long-lived powertrains but adds a sense of contemporary awareness in the form of diesel and mild-hybrid options that will arrive later.
Returning for duty and anchoring the lineup as the base engine is the Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6. Producing 285 horsepower and churning out 260 lb-ft of torque in the 2018 JL application, it gets standard stop/start functionality (which can be deactivated) and mates with either the standard six-speed manual gearbox or a new eight-speed automatic transmission.
Coming for the 2019 model year is a diesel option for four-door Wranglers. Mopar fans will undoubtedly recognize the 3.0-liter V-6 as a version of the VM Motori diesel used in the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel. Rated at 260 horsepower and 442 lb-ft in the Jeep, it comes solely with the eight-speed automatic as tuned for the high-torque application. Now in its third generation, the diesel six uses a low-friction bearing in the turbo and low-friction pistons to improve efficiency, while new injectors, piston-bowl geometry, and glow plugs with integral compression-pressure sensors optimize combustion.
The third and most intriguing engine is the new turbocharged 2.0-liter with eTorque assist. The hybridized inline-four produces 268 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, all funneled through an eight-speed automatic. The internal-combustion element consists of a direct-injected DOHC four-cylinder with an aluminum block and head from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ Global Medium Engine architecture. It utilizes a twin-scroll turbocharger with an electronically actuated wastegate, cooled exhaust-gas recirculation, and independent cooling of the intake air, throttle body, turbo, and exhaust manifold. The electric motor element employs a belt-drive system to put nearly instantaneous torque to the crank from step-off. The setup incorporates stop/start, electric power assist, intelligent battery charging, and regenerative braking for optimal efficiency. To maximize gas mileage, the engine and/or the fuel flow may be switched off during stops or while coasting. Although the availability date is undetermined, our sources said the second quarter of 2018 is a good bet. The turbocharged 2.0-liter four will be available only in this electrically assisted configuration.
As all hard-core Jeepers know, the crawl and final-drive ratios are just as crucial as horsepower when it comes to traversing rough terrain and obstacles. For the 2018 Wrangler JL, Jeep gives buyers options.
The Sport, Sport S, and Sahara models come with Command-Trac, a part-time system that utilizes the NV241 two-speed transfer case with a 2.72:1 low range and Dana axles (30 in front with a 35 in the rear) equipped with 3.45:1 gears. Capable of being engaged on the fly at speeds up to 55 mph, it provides automatic-transmission Wranglers with a 44.20:1 reduction, while stick-shift Wranglers creep along in first gear with a 48.18:1 ratio. A Trac-Lok limited-slip rear differential is optional. Damping duties are handled by twin-tube gas-charged units on the Sport; Sahara models use high-pressure gas-charged monotube dampers, and Rubicons add hydraulic rebound stops. Ground clearance is 9.7 inches for Sport models, 10.0 for Saharas, and 10.8 for Rubicons.
In a nod to progress and to expanding the potential demographic, a Selec-Trac two-speed transfer case with full-time all-wheel-drive capability will be available on the 2018 Wrangler JL. Offered only on Sahara models, it provides “set it and forget it” all-wheel-drive functionality for drivers more concerned with convenience than with jamming their own gears.
Rubicon models get the Rock-Trac system with an upgraded NV241 OR transfer case as standard. Optimized for hard-core pursuits, it offers a 4.00:1 low-gear ratio, which teams with standard Tru-Lok electronically locking 4.10:1 axles, Dana 44s front and rear, and an electronic disconnect for the front anti-roll bar. This yields from-the-factory off-road capability as illustrated by the two-door’s 10.8 inches of ground clearance, 44.0-degree approach angle, 27.8-degree breakover angle, and 37.0-degree departure angle. Thanks in part to the Rubicon’s stock 33-inch-tall tires—the tallest factory rubber ever offered on a Wrangler—models equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission claim a massive 84.2:1 first-gear reduction, while those with the eight-speed automatic must make do with 77.2:1. Rubicons also get rock sliders as standard protection for the rocker panels.
In addition to all the new hardware, it appears the march of technology—not to mention a few creature comforts—has finally reached the Wrangler. The standard infotainment setup is a Uconnect 3 system with a 5.0-inch touchscreen; the Technology Group brings a 7.0-inch instrument-cluster display, satellite radio, and dual-zone automatic climate control; the Infotainment Group ups the ante to an 8.4-inch touchscreen with navigation, an electrochromic rearview mirror, and nine-speaker premium audio. A 7.0-inch Uconnect screen also is available. The two larger touchscreens offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality; Jeep’s Off Road Pages also will be available to monitor the status of the transfer case and the vehicle’s pitch and roll angles, among other vital statistics. A six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar is standard (the passenger seat adjusts only four ways), as is a tilting and telescoping steering column.
Overall, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL is a subtle and slightly modern stylistic reimagining that honors its heritage without compromising its off-road capabilities. Jeep has done a remarkable job of meshing new and old, and we’re as stoked as anyone to put some rocks underneath it.
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