2018 Jeep Wrangler first drive review: expectations defied

With anticipation comes expectations. Before venturing to Tucson, Arizona, to experience the 2018 Jeep Wrangler, we assumed that it would be more refined, more livable, more comfortable, more efficient, and more feature-laden. And it delivers all those superlatives.

But what we also expected was compromise. If Jeep can make a Wrangler a viable daily driver, it simply cannot be as capable off-road.

MORE: 2018 Jeep Wrangler preview

Or so we thought.

Leaving no stone unturned (or crawled over), the 2018 Jeep Wrangler eclipses its predecessors on- and off-the road. Jeep didn’t turn to wonky gearing, clearance-limiting spoilers, or slippery aerodynamics to make a better Wrangler.

Instead, the folks in Auburn Hills and Toledo gave it their all, delivering a Wrangler that’s undoubtedly the best of its breed. And there’s more to come.

Spec walk

For now, the Wrangler lineup consists of two body styles (standard 2-door and Unlimited 4-door), two engines (3.6-liter V-6 and 2.0-liter turbo-4), two transmissions (6-speed manual and 8-speed automatic), and three trim levels (Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon).

The 2018 Wrangler is only here to whet our appetites, though. A pickup, a turbodiesel, a plug-in hybrid, and no doubt myriad special editions will follow. But what’s going on sale in early 2018 should represent the heart of the lineup for years to come.

The V-6 is the latest version of FCA’s Pentastar, rated here at 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Paired with it is an 8-speed automatic that we've seen many times, including in Jeep’s own Grand Cherokee. The 6-speed manual is new for the Wrangler, with a smoother action and none of the wobbliness of the outgoing unit.

DON'T MISS: Driven by enthusiasts: the features that make the 2018 Jeep Wrangler stand out

Predictably, the V-6 behaves much like it did in the last Wrangler, with good power but light torque at low engine speeds. The 6-speed is a delight to row through the gears, but lugs below 1,500 rpm off-road, which makes the buttery smooth 8-speed automatic the better choice for all but diehard Jeepers.

More interesting is the turbo-4, an Alfa Romeo-sourced unit rated at 270 hp and 295 lb-ft, the latter of which comes on in full at 3,000 rpm. That’s not exactly stump-pulling torque, but it’s adequate and it works well with the mandatory 8-speed autobox. Don’t look for strong Italian flair here, though; the lightest Wranglers Jeep will sell you are a hefty 4,000 pounds. Toss on the hardtop and a few power accessories and you’ll hit 4,500 pounds with ease.

The turbo engine is actually a mild hybrid, but you won’t see those words together in Jeep advertising. A 48-volt electric system replaces the standard alternator with a big motor-generator that lets the Wrangler “sail;” that is, its gas engine turns off while coasting and at a complete stop to save fuel. Right now, there are no EPA figures for the turbo-4, but a V-6 automatic scores a commendable 20 mpg combined.

Jeep could have made the Wrangler a unibody with a fully independent suspension. Kevin Durant also could have taken up synchronized swimming. A separate ladder frame with solid axles suspended by coil springs sits underneath each Wrangler. Rubicons sit a little higher, ride on true 33-inch rubber, feature automatic disconnecting swaybars, and put power to the ground via beefier Dana 44 axles with locking differentials.

ALSO SEE: Jeep boss Manley: Plug-in hybrid was always planned for Wrangler

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