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2018 Jeep Wrangler JK Review

2018 Jeep Wrangler JK Review
The 2018 Jeep Wrangler skips over the on-road part of the driving test, and heads straight for the hills.

The 2018 Jeep Wrangler JK is a throwback in more ways than one. It's a direct tie to the World War II-era Jeeps that made the name famous, and it's an outgoing SUV sold alongside a much newer version.

This year, a new Wrangler arrives and will be sold alongside the old Wrangler for a short time. The distinction is an important one. The new Wrangler—dubbed Wrangler JL—is far different than this Wrangler—dubbed Wrangler JK. We rate the Wrangler JL separately and would advise shoppers to consider that model first.

The Wrangler JK is offered in Sport, Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon editions, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler earns a 4.8 out of 10 on our ratings scale. It does one thing extremely well—off-road driving—but falls down in almost every other category we measure.

Aerodynamic as a barn door, the Wrangler silhouette is shorthand for off-roading. It’s still recognizable as the same World War II-vintage shape, though it’s become faintly progressive with LED lighting and other minor details. The core still is intact, from the fold-down windshield to exterior hinges for the removable doors. The convertible SUV has a modern and useful interior by Jeep standards, but it lacks even the niceties you’d find in a new Jeep Compass.

The Wrangler's V-6 prioritizes torque at the low end, and supplements 285 horsepower with a healthy dab of grit. It's sent through a 5-speed automatic that's better than it sounds or a 6-speed manual. It manages respectable fuel economy, but the Wrangler's heel is its nervous stance and wandering steering that keep us from daily-driving one.

Off-road, it’s an entirely different story. There’s nothing quite competitive with the Wrangler, from its skid-plated underbody to its extreme approach and departure angles, its choice of axle ratios, its wide palette of tires and top designs, all of which compile into an unparalleled off-road ride. Electronic controls crop up where they make sense, in the form of hill-start assist and sway-bar disconnect. It’s an extraordinary vehicle for those extraordinary circumstances. No wonder it has its own cult.

It has to be a cult, because no other logic explains the folks who daily-drive the Wrangler with its noisy cabin, cramped rear seats (on two-doors), and its jiggly and unrefined on-road ride. (Unlimiteds are better, but it’s relative.) Or the poor souls who tackle its soft top on a regular basis; give us the relatively simple Freedom Top and its removable hard panels.

Crash-test scores are miserable, and base two-door Wranglers omit air conditioning and power equipment, even for a mid-$20,000 price. Jeep wraps more expensive Wranglers with leather, fits them with touchscreen satellite radios and Bluetooth and navigation. In Wrangler Rubicon territory, the Jeep’s sticker pushes past the $45,000 mark.

You’d think there’s opportunity for the best scratch-and-dent sale on earth with the Wrangler, and there is. It’s called Craigslist.

Styling
The 2018 Jeep Wrangler highlights its heritage, while it carves out a modern, usable interior.

Civilians look at the Jeep Wrangler from last century, and from today, and see little change. At the same time, Jeep enthusiasts can catalogue the migration from squared headlights to round ones, year by year. In between these camps, the Wrangler’s shape defies age.

We give the Wrangler two extra points for its flattering rendition of its classic shape, for a total of 7. 

Rife with military heritage, the 2018 Wrangler doesn’t look like anything else on the road. It’s an unmistakable outline with flat panels, boxed fenders, and a traditional seven-slot grille (not the thin, effete version on the Cherokee et al). Function still rules the way the Wrangler looks, from its external door hinges to its removable doors to its fold-down windshield.

That doesn’t mean fun gets boxed in, though. Easter eggs abound in the latest design. There’s a Willys silhouette painted into the wheel pockets, one etched into the  windshield's edge mask, and Jeep icons show up in the lighting.

Over the years, it's the interior of the Wrangler that's changed most, and that's mostly a good thing. The drab, hard-plastic dashboard and trim of a few years ago are now history, elbow rests and other areas have soft-touch padding, and there's interior courtesy lighting underneath the instrument panel and in the cupholder areas. The look and feel is still brief, upright, and businesslike. The instrument panels and door panels are nicely contoured, and details are outfitted with bezels or given a machined look.

Performance
Hard-riding and slow-footed on pavement, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler turns into an acrobat off-road.

Sloppy, archaic, and raw on the road, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler is peerless off-road. It’s as if it only wakes up when the asphalt disappears.

That on-road performance costs it points, however. We rate it a 4 for performance, boosting it a point for all its off-road talent, and taking two away for handling and ride.

A 3.6-liter V-6 powers every Jeep Wrangler. It’s a point of modernity a vehicle conceived in the early 20th century. In the Wranger it churns out 285 horsepower and 260-pound-feet of torque, with all the low-end torque required by hardcore off-roaders, with plenty of stretch for higher-speed operation on pavement. Jeep quotes 0-60 mph times for two-door Wranglers at 7.7 seconds when equipped with an automatic transmission, and it delivers that in a fairly fuss-free manner.

The engine’s coupled to a 5-speed automatic, an older design that’s a legacy from the days of DaimlerChrysler. Firm shifts at higher speeds go more smoothly under lighter acceleration and lower speeds. The 6-speed manual vibrates through its shift lever, has long throws, and long pedal travel—and it’s long on the kind of traditional appeal the Wrangler’s built upon.

The gear ratios are very tall regardless of whether you choose the automatic or the manual; for instance, a base automatic Wrangler only has to shift once during a 0 to 60 mph run with the 3.21:1 ratio. A low 4.10:1 ratio is available in the Rubicon off-road model.

Up-to-date power, outdated handling
The Wrangler’s Achilles' heel shows itself when you back it out of the driveway. It’s jiggly, floppy, noisy, and rough.

It starts with antiquated recirculating-ball steering. The dull setup leaves a lot to be desired on pavement. It turns into corners through a dead zone on center. Tall-sidewall tires get in the way of any road feel, too. It does have a tight turning radius in two-door form, and can be easy to place on the road.

The ride busies itself with lots of secondary motions. The Wrangler still has a live front axle that amplifies the lean into turns and the bounce induced by big bumps. You’ll always be well aware of the road surface in the Wrangler, especially in two-door models with the short wheelbase.

A champion off-road
The design attributes that make the Wrangler such a klutz on the road make it a gem off-road. It’s solid and capable where it counts to the people who love and drive them between trees, on skylines, from ridge to ridge.

The Wrangler has lots of ground clearance, terrific low-range prowess over all kinds of surfaces, and a rugged underbody with protective skid plates. Manual versions can be started in gear when 4-Low is selected, useful for climbing hills. There’s even a dash of modern technology with its four-wheel-drive system: an electric disconnect for the sway bar grants the Wrangler lots of wheel travel and articulation without turning it into an off-road mess.

At the Rubicon level, the Wrangler has all the critical numbers: 44.3 degrees of approach angle, 25.4 degrees breakover, and 40.4 degrees of departure angle. In the Wrangler’s particular universe, those are the performance numbers that really matter.

Comfort & Quality
Spartan and noisy, the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JK doesn’t offer much in the way of comfort.

The 2018 Wrangler comes in two body styles, with two or four doors. Both have two rows of seats, but the 20.6-inch-longer Wrangler Unlimited has more usable rear seats, as well as more cargo space.

We give the duo a 4 for quality and comfort. There’s more interior space in the Unlimited, but we dock it points for noise and overall fit and finish.

The front seats have fairly thick bolsters and are surrounded by enough space. On two-doors, the back seat is thinly padded, flat, and offers little in the way of comfort or knee room; Unlimiteds have much better space, and those back seats have enough support stitched in for off- and on-road comfort.

The rear seat can be folded down or removed entirely, but doesn’t fold flat for cargo.

Acceptable cargo space in two-door Wranglers grows to generous space in the Unlimited. Two-doors have 56.5 cubic feet of space when the rear seat is folded down, but only 12.8 cubic feet behind the rear seat when it’s in use. The Unlimited has 31.5 cubic feet behind the back seat, or 71.6 cubic feet with the rear seat folded.

Cargo access is something of a chore no matter which top is in place. A swing-out tailgate mates with either a zip-closed plastic rear window or a glass panel hinged at its top. It’s easier, of course, when there’s no top in place at all.

The Wrangler’s removable tops are one of the key reasons it’s still so popular. The soft and hard tops do little to block noise from entering the cabin, but the Freedom Top gives a fairly durable roofless ride with less fuss than the soft top, which requires many hands and much patience to remove or put back in place. No matter what, it’s still raw and loud inside the Wrangler, with lots of road and tire and gear noise, though wind noise is admirably low.
The cabin has its charms, like side doors with pull-strap closers, and some soft-touch trim on the dash. It still can be hosed out after an off-road adventure. But driving a Wrangler over long distances can be frustrating. It’s loud, its ride is rumbly and pitchy, and there’s no place to rest the left foot on manual-equipped models.

Safety
The 2018 Jeep Wrangler earns one of our lowest safety scores.

The Jeep Wrangler JK tries to protect passengers, but some of its core design features are antithetical to safety. Half doors? Convertible top? It’s no wonder it scores poorly in crash tests.

With minimal safety features and poor crash-test results, we give it a 2 in this category.

Tests are incomplete but the NHTSA has given the Wrangler a remarkably low three-star score for rollover resistance.

The IIHS says it’s “Marginal” in small-overlap front crashes and “Poor” in side impacts, at least in two-door form. Four-door models get “Marginal” side-impact ratings.

Wranglers come with dual front airbags, but side airbags are an option on all but base two-door vehicles, which don’t even offer them. You’d have to drive a Radio Flyer or a forklift to pay for side airbags anymore.

Outward vision is poor when the soft top is in place, and the Wrangler leaves a rearview camera on the options list.

Features
Modern amenities are mostly off the menu but the Jeep Wrangler JK covers all its off-road bases.

The Jeep Wrangler JK comes in Sport, Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon trims. In each, its features and options are focused intently on delivering off-road performance, while modern creature comforts take a back seat.

The Wrangler earns a point above average for its optional gear and customization possibilities, to bring it to a score of 7 for features.

Every Jeep Wrangler JK comes with a folding soft top, floor mats, cloth seats, a fold-away rear bench seat, removable front doors, an eight-speaker sound system with satellite radio and a USB port. The Unlimited also gets standard air conditioning. On the off-road front, even these Sport models gets skid plates, tow hooks front and rear, hill-start assist, and a part-time four-wheel-drive system, Command-Trac.

Sport S Wranglers get 17-inch wheels and on the two-door, air conditioning.

Jeep gives the Wrangler Sahara standard power windows, locks, and mirrors; satellite radio; 18-inch wheels; keyless entry; automatic headlights; and side steps.

The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon comes with disconnecting front sway bars, a heavy-duty front axle, a 4.10:1 rear axle ratio, the Rock-Trac four-wheel-drive system with low-range gearing, rock rails, locking front and rear differentials, and 17-inch alloy wheels with 32-inch off-road tires.

Options are where the Wrangler dives off in a thousand interesting directions, all of them with a price tag attached. Everyday option packages bundle power features, leather front seats, nine-speaker Alpine audio, LED headlights, remote start, heated front seats, and chrome and black trim.

Jeep also sells upgraded audio with a 6.5-inch touchscreen, navigation, and hard-drive music storage. There’s a 552-watt Alpine audio system on the options list, automatic climate control, and Bluetooth with streaming audio, too.

On the off-road angle, Jeep will fit half doors, lower axle ratios, BF Goodrich KO2 tires, and a limited-slip rear differential. Opt for the trailer tow group and the Wrangler gets a Class II hitch receiver and a 4-pin adapter, with the choice of a 3.73 or 4.10 axle ratio.

The standard soft top can be swapped out for the Sunrider soft top—it has a sunroof panel that flips back—or the Freedom Top with its three-piece hard-panel construction.

Wrangler prices soar from a base in the mid-$20,000s to more than $45,000.

A trio of special editions continue for the new model year, but with its exterior add-ons, top selection, paint and trim, the Wrangler in your head is pretty easy to make into the Wrangler in your possession.

Fuel Economy
The Jeep Wrangler JK posts mediocre fuel economy ratings.

Gas mileage isn’t the focus of the Jeep Wrangler JK, and it lives up to those expectations.

The EPA’s most recent measurements for Wrangler fuel economy peg it at 17 mpg city, 21 highway, 18 combined. It’s the same with either the automatic or manual gearbox.

The long-wheelbase Wrangler Unlimited has slightly lower ratings of 16/21/18 mpg for the manual or 16/20/18 mpg with the automatic.

On our scale, the Wrangler merits a 5 for gas mileage.

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