The Jeep was created just in time for World War II, and quickly became a ubiquitous presence on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific.
(Those WWII origins remind me of a story my late uncle told: He and a friend decided to explore a recently secured Pacific island in a Jeep. It seems the sand road turned and they didn’t, and the Jeep ended up in a lagoon. They went back to the base and obtained the services of a Navy diver. He submerged with tow rope in hand. He then surfaced and said: “Which Jeep do you want? There are nine of them down there.”)
Over the years, this vehicle, now called the Jeep Wrangler, adjusted to civilian life, but never lost touch with its off-road, rough-rider roots. Indeed, the Wrangler Rubicon model, with its front- and rear-locking differentials, a front sway-bar disconnect for increased wheel travel, and the ability to go through 30-inch-deep water, is arguably the most capable off-the-shelf, off-roader at any price.
The Wrangler also remains America’s most familiar extant automotive icon — and quite popular. The 250,000 sold each year are all the Toledo, Ohio, assembly plant can turn out.
Suffice it to say that redesigning an icon, as Jeep did with the Wrangler for the 2018 model year, is a dicey proposition. You want to give the vehicle a fresh look, but you don’t want to mess with its essence.
“The Wrangler is the core, the soul of the Jeep brand,” said Mark Allen, who headed the vehicle’s restyling. “You get this wrong,” he added, shaking his head, “and you’re just everybody else.”
Happily, I don’t think they got it wrong. The traditional two-door, and the stretched, more family-oriented four-door Unlimited model, both of which I saw and drove at a recent media preview, proved both fresh and unmistakably Jeep.
The styling exercise was joined by additional engine choices and a plethora of technological improvements including a rear camera, heated seats, parking assist, fuel-saving engine start/stop, and electronic safety aids. (Think of the new Wrangler as Iwo Jima meets the blind-spot alert.)
The redesign, by the way, was not just cosmetics and techadoo. There are two new engine choices. The use of high-strength steel and aluminum shaved 200 pounds off the vehicle’s weight, improving fuel economy. There are also several clever new steel and canvas roofs available. One is a power roof that rolls back a sunroof-like canvas panel to the rear storage area. There is a metal roof with easily removable panels on the roof and rear sides. And there is a fully canvas version that readily sheds rear and side panels and then folds back.
Perhaps the most eyebrow-arching feature on the new Wrangler is the ease with which you can fold down the windshield. Getting the old one down took as much as 90 minutes, explained Allen, as he showed me how it is lowered.
“It used to be attached with 28 screws and now there are four,” Allen said. “We timed it, and I got the new one down in less than four minutes.”
The Wrangler will go on sale sometime during the first quarter of 2018. It will be available initially with the trusty 3.6-liter, 285-horse power V-6. A new, two-liter, 270-horse turbocharged four will follow shortly. A three-liter diesel arrives in 2019.
I was aware of the Wrangler’s off-road prowess but surprised by its on-road comfort and refinement. There was some wind noise, but the icon always had the aerodynamics of a billboard.
The Wrangler will start at $26,995 for the base two-door, and $36,995 for the Rubicon two-door. The Unlimited is $30,495 in base form, $39,345 as a Sahara, and $40,495 in Rubicon attire.