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2018 Jeep Wrangler: First Drive Review

If you’re looking for information on a newer Jeep Wrangler, we’ve published an updated review: 2019 Jeep Wrangler Review

C’mon, how tough could it have been to redesign the 2018 Jeep Wrangler? It’s easy to imagine the designers passing around drawings of previous generations of the iconic off-roader, pointing to one, shouting "Eureka, that’s it!," and then heading out for a 3-hour lunch. Easy peasy, right? If only.

Managing to hold the line on the legendary Wrangler heritage through decades of vehicle evolution, thousands of new government regulations and a parade of corporate masters, the bosses at Jeep have a tougher job than most when faced with creating a next generation of the SUV: Making meaningful changes without it looking as though there were any changes at all.

Wrangler chief designer Mark Allen summed up the task best to media at the 2018 Jeep Wrangler first-drive event in Tucson, Arizona late last year, explaining that the two key objectives were to maintain tradition and to fix things. The end result is by far the most capable, most user-friendly and most technologically advanced Wrangler ever. And, in accomplishing all of that, Jeep sacrificed not one tiny bit of its character.

Holding the Line

In baseball, a millisecond can make the difference between a base runner being safe or out. In many respects, the 2018 Wrangler product developers, designers and engineers worked within those millisecond windows as they forged the Wrangler’s next generation. Sure, there are some big changes, in the powertrain department for example; but by and large, most advancements were simply taking what was already there and making it better.

A telling example of this working around the edges is the new Wrangler’s windshield. Rather subtle, but obvious nonetheless, the new windshield has more of a rake to it. This is primarily to lessen wind resistance (the coefficient of drag is better by 9 percent), but that isn’t the end of it. As long as they were tinkering with the windshield, designers decided to not only maintain its capability to fold flat, but to streamline the process involving 90 minutes and removing 28 bolts on the current model. Now, thanks to a permanent header bar housing the wipers and rearview mirror between the A-pillars, folding the windshield requires three minutes, four bolts and the bolt tool is even included.

The doors are still removable, but now they are aluminum and have a built-in handle for ease of carrying. Putting out significantly more light, the standard halogen head lamps are now also a design element as they encroach ever so slightly into the keystone-shaped grille.

Open air has always been a core Wrangler feature, but removing the soft top was bathed in frustration akin to untangling the Christmas tree lights. Although the basic roof styling remains the same for both the 2-door and 4-door vehicles, now the zipper-free top has window panels that slide in and out. There is even a power-retractable top available on some trim levels.

The hood is still aluminum, but it’s joined by the aluminum fenders, doors, hinges and windshield frame. The wider rear swing gate is magnesium. Every piece of glass is larger for improved visibility. And on and on it goes.

Everything looks sort of the same, but just isn’t. See the 2018 Jeep Wrangler models for sale near you

Roll Call

4-door models account for roughly 80 percent of Wrangler sales. Beginning in 2018, however, Jeep is dropping the Unlimited designation in favor of simply the Wrangler 4-door. Sport ($28,190), Sport S ($31,390) and Rubicon ($38,190) are the three grades of the Wrangler 2-door models. Sport ($31,690), Sport S ($34,890), Sahara ($38,540) and Rubicon ($41,690) fill out the 4-door trim list.

In addition to 4-wheel drive, every Wrangler comes standard with halogen headlights, fog lights, skid plates, rear-seat heat vents, LED interior accent lighting, push-button start, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, cruise control, an 8-speaker audio system with a USB port (upper grades get Uconnect 8.4 with pinch and zoom), a rearview camera and hill-start assist.

As for safety technology, all but the Sport trim can add rear-park assist and blind spot monitoring.

Hat Trick

Currently, plans call for three engines delivering propulsion across the Wrangler range. This in itself is somewhat historic. Rarely has Jeep offered the Wrangler with more than one engine choice. If we want to glance even farther into the future, Jeep is hinting a hybrid is on the schedule for 2020.

In the meantime, though, three for sure. One of those — a diesel — won’t break into the lineup until the 2019 model year. That leaves the V6, carried over from 2017, and the all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder with eTorque technology for 2018.

Returning, the 285-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 is basically unchanged. In this Wrangler, though, an all-new 6-speed manual transmission distributes output to the wheels. The manual transmission is only offered for the V6. Optional is the new-for-the-Wrangler 8-speed automatic. Government-estimated fuel economy is 17 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway with the manual. It’s 18 mpg city/23 mpg hwy with the automatic.

A real departure for the Wrangler is the 270-hp 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder engine with eTorque. Jeep instilled a hint of hybrid magic into this turbo, including auto start/stop, electric power assist, extended fuel shut-off, transmission-shift management, intelligent battery charging and regenerative braking. Transferring engine power to the wheels is the new 8-speed automatic transmission. Fuel-economy numbers are still a mystery, but we can expect the most fuel-efficient Wrangler yet.

Ground Pounding

Every 2018 Wrangler is 4WD, but this is achieved with three different 4×4 systems. Optional only on the Sahara model is a new 2-speed transfer case with a low-range gear full-time 4WD. It’s a set-it-and-forget-it system, operating without driver input. Standard on Sport and Sahara is the part-time Command-Trac system with a 2-speed transfer case with low range. Finally, the dedicated off-road Wrangler Rubicon uses the Rock-Trac 4WD system with heavy-duty axles, as well as front/rear locking differentials.

While in Tucson, we climbed our Wrangler over some rock hills that would have scared the stuffing out of many of the 4×4 vehicles out there. It’s amazing just where you can drive the Wrangler with a little backbone and a competent spotter. It’s not for the weak hearted.

Upshot

Inside and out, the 2018 Wrangler is significantly improved over the outgoing model. Impressive road manners, Sherpalike off-road capability and easy to live with day in and day out, the Wrangler is still the one.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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