On Autos: Latest Jeep Wrangler retains classic flavor

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The redesigned 2018 Jeep Wrangler delivers a better everyday driving experience than before, but you still have to love its rough-and-tumble character. Photo by Brady Holt.

For decades, the Jeep Wrangler has been in its element in the great outdoors — crawling over boulders, powering through heavy mud or cruising along beaches.

This focus makes the classic Jeep objectively inferior to other SUVs when you’re driving on regular streets. While its everyday livability has improved dramatically since World War II, the Wrangler still doesn’t feel much like other contemporary automobiles.

Most of today’s crossovers and SUVs prioritize a smooth, quiet ride and responsive handling. They try to minimize the bulk and truck-like feel of an SUV, and instead try to act like a taller car with more cargo space.

In contrast, the Wrangler brims with old-school character. It’s bouncy and cumbersome, it skips many of today’s common luxury features, and it still looks very much like it did in 1941. It’s a convertible — sold with manually removable hard tops and soft tops — and you can even remove the side doors for maximum connection to the outdoors.

The redesigned 2018 model is smoother, quieter and more fuel-efficient than before, but those are still not its strong points.

The new Wrangler does work in an up-to-date touchscreen infotainment system without interfering with the Jeep’s classic character, even its tall and narrow dashboard. As with other recent Jeep models, it’s also filled with subtle, whimsical touches reflecting the brand’s heritage, such as silhouettes of the original Jeep and the “water fording” capacity printed inside its cargo door. (30 inches deep at 5 mph, in case you plan to try.)

The redesigned 2018 Jeep Wrangler’s interior blends classic style with modern technology. Photo by Brady Holt.

Meanwhile, the tested four-door “Unlimited” model offers useful functionality with comfortable seating for five adults. Gas mileage has also improved significantly in the latest model: 20 mpg in mixed driving as tested with the standard V6 engine, and up to 22 mpg with the newly optional turbocharged four-cylinder. Similarly sized car-based crossovers do even better, though.

The Wrangler also has some unexpected benefits as a city car. It bounces happily over D.C. potholes without making you worry about damaging your wheel or flattening your tire. And the two-door version is only 167 inches long — shorter than a Volkswagen Golf hatchback — which makes it relatively easy to park.

On the other hand, the swing-out side-opening cargo door is cumbersome if you’re parallel-parked, and the soft top must be partially removed to get full access to the cargo hold. (The hardtop model has easier luggage access.) And the tested four-door has grown from a compact to a midsize SUV, measuring 188 inches long.

The redesigned 2018 Jeep Wrangler’s off-road chops can also serve it well on broken city pavement. Photo by Brady Holt.

The Wrangler offers generous luxury and technology by old-school standards, such as heated leather seats, the touchscreen infotainment system, parking sensors and a blind-spot monitoring system. But that’s not too impressive by the standard of a $55,000 vehicle like the tested Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Even the base model is around $30,000, and that’s a two-door with a manual transmission, crank windows, and no air conditioning.

Buyers are instead paying for the Wrangler’s heavy-duty off-road capabilities, which are extensive and expensive. Even if you never use them, know that the Jeep’s rough character is more than skin-deep. If that character attracts you, just be aware of the price penalty and the everyday compromises — even though today’s model is more user-friendly and tech-savvy than ever. Meanwhile, if the classic Jeep flavor doesn’t speak to you, there’s little reason to accept its compromises.

Also consider several other Jeep models that give a taste of off-road flavor while being more sensible in everyday use. These include the tall, boxy, subcompact Renegade; the slightly roomier, more conventionally styled Compass; the smoother, quieter Cherokee; and the extra-luxurious Grand Cherokee. And a couple other models in this price range, notably the Toyota 4Runner and the Land Rover Discovery Sport, also offer impressive off-road abilities with a higher degree of on-road civility.

But, of course, you can’t take off their doors.

To see more photos of the tested 2018 Jeep Wrangler, you can visit tinyurl.com/wrangler-current.