2018 Jeep Wrangler first drive, Tucson, Arizona
But any Wrangler is off-road-ready right out of the box, something we couldn’t exactly say about the base Sports advertised with ultra-low list prices. The new Wrangler’s base tires are 245/75-17s and its 9.7-inches of ground clearance tops the outgoing stripper by a hefty 1.5 inches. Pop for the Rubicon and there’s nearly 11 inches of daylight between axle housing and terra firma.
Sport and Sahara trims come standard with a part-time transfer case. A version that revives the Selec-Trac nameplate and has an any-situation automatic 4-wheel drive mode is optional on Saharas. Rubicons once again get a meatier t-case with a better crawl ratio for off-road slogging.
One more fun fact about the Rubicon: its flares sit high enough on the fenders that you can fit 35-inch tires without a lift. So, you’ll want to do that. Budget accordingly.
The Wrangler’s updated interior is a far nicer place to whittle away miles regardless of terrain, but it’s still far from luxury car grade. The dash is pushed back, which combines with a lower belt line to give the Wrangler an airier feel up front. Controls are grouped more logically, although they’re overstyled to the point of confusion if you opt for the dual-zone automatic climate control. Yes, you can dress up your Wrangler with some luxo goods. Spend enough and you’ll get hand-stitched dash and door surfaces, a heated steering wheel, a 552-watt Alpine audio system, and leather seats.
The 2-door versions seat four. The rear seat is roomy enough, but certainly not comfortable. Most buyers will pick the Wrangler Unlimited and it’s easy to see why: there’s an extra inch of rear seat space, a more sculpted bench, climate control vents, and the speaker bar no longer intrudes into headroom.
Wranglers come standard with a soft top that’s far easier to fold back than before. Optional hardtops can either come with removable side and roof panels or with an enormous fabric sunroof that slides back at the press of a button. No top does a great job of quelling road noise, but that’s all part of the Jeep experience.
In Tucson, we had the opportunity to put Wrangler Rubicons through their paces on an exceptionally challenging, purpose-built rock-strewn course. With careful guidance from Jeep's spotters, our test Wranglers only occasionally tapped a skid plate or a rocker protecting tube while their differential locks, tires, and flexing axles did most of the work.
The BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires that now come standard in place of last year’s Mud-Terrains may not look as chunky, but they’re better tires for nearly any use. They're especially good in the desert, where they work well on grippy rocks.
The course Jeep set up for us was twisty, occasionally forcing us into a full-lock turn that would have been a real challenge in last year's Wranglers. Both Wrangler variants are a touch longer than last year’s models and they boast a track expanded by about an inch, but somehow Jeep’s engineers sliced a foot out of their turning circle. They're not quite jackrabbits, though: the Unlimited requires more than 40 feet, which is about three feet wider than the Toyota 4Runner. That's a byproduct of the Jeep's solid axle, which simply doesn't allow the wheels to move at the same sharp angle.
That improved maneuverability is a boon in the city, where the Wrangler feels far less ponderous than before. This year’s new electro-hydraulic power steering deserves much of the credit. It’s weighted just perfectly and actually gives a good feel for what’s going on up front, something we’ve never said before about a Jeep Wrangler.