Revamping an icon is never easy, especially when that icon’s history is as storied as the Jeep Wrangler’s. I’ll spare you the details that you (probably) already know, but the all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, in all of its heated leather seats and Apple CarPlay glory, is the modern day descendent of the World War II Jeeps that helped roll back totalitarianism in Europe in Asia.
Basically, the new 2018 Wrangler has some pretty big shoes to fill. And a lot of boxes to check, too.
Code-named JL, the new Wrangler replaces the decade-old but beloved JK-series Wrangler. Associate editor Scott Evans did an excellent job digging into all the changes, big and small, made to the 2018 Wrangler in his First Look and First Drive, so I’ll keep things brief. Basically, the Wrangler is new from its axles and frame on up to its three new (still removable) roof options. Jeep’s goal for the new 2018 Wrangler is to balance the dueling demands of those who buy Wranglers to adventure off-road and those who buy ’em to drive around town because they look cool. Of the three versions of the new Wrangler on sale (Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon), none sums this duality up better than the luxury- and street-oriented Sahara.
With the Wrangler Rubicon expected to capture the hardcore off-roaders and the Wrangler Sport serving as the jack-of-all-trades entry into the lineup, the Wrangler Sahara is aimed mostly at buyers who prefer streets to slick rock. Its standard features and options list reflects that. Standard are four doors (every other Wrangler variant is also available with two doors), street-oriented tires, chrome accents, and body-color fender flares that’d get pinstriped off-road. The Wrangler Sahara’s option list is long, but notable is a Sahara-exclusive Selec-Trac full-time four-wheel-drive system, which is ideal for those only using their Jeep’s four-wheel-drive system in inclement weather.
Aside from the optional Selec-Trac transfer case, the 2018 Wrangler Sahara shares the rest of its powertrain with its Sport and Rubicon stablemates. Under the hood is a retuned version of the JK Wrangler’s 3.6-liter V-6, in the Sahara making 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual is standard, but our tester is equipped with an optional eight-speed automatic. A new 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 making 268 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque is optional, and a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 is expected to join the lineup next year.
At the track, the 10 years (and roughly 200 pounds) separating the new Wrangler from the old JK model is readily apparent. Stomp on the accelerator, and the 2018 Wrangler Sahara accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.9 seconds and goes through the quarter mile in 15.3 seconds at 89.9 mph. That’s a drastic improvement over the last JK Jeep we tested, a 2016 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon equipped with a soft top and five-speed auto. It needed 8.2 seconds to hit 60 mph and 16.3 seconds to get through the quarter at 82.5 mph. The new Jeep stops and turns way better than the old one, too. It’s best 60–0-mph performance was 128 feet, and it lapped our figure-eight course in a respectable 28.3 seconds at 0.58 g average. The 2018 Wrangler beats the old one at the pump, too; it’s EPA-rated at 18/23/20 mpg city/highway/combined versus 16/20/18 mpg. In our mixed testing, we averaged an indicated 19.7 mpg.
The performance improvements seen at the track are even more apparent out on the road in the real world.
I spent the week leading up to testing the 2018 Wrangler driving around in my mom’s two-door auto-equipped 2015 Wrangler Polar Edition, and the difference between JK and JL Wrangler is like the difference between cheeseburger and a rib-eye steak—both are still good, but you’d rather have the rib-eye, wouldn’t you?
Whereas the old Wrangler was charmingly sluggish and rough around the edges, the new Jeep drives like a modern pickup. It still feels like a Jeep, yes, but the ride is buttoned-down and forgiving, the front end doesn’t wander waywardly over bumps, and the Wrangler’s steering, although still a slow ratio for off-roading, is well-weighted and accurate on the road.
The Wrangler’s new eight-speed automatic significantly livens up Jeep’s 3.6-liter V-6, too. The new eight-speed shifts quickly and unobtrusively and is happy to hold a lower gear going uphill during passing or downhill to help you maintain speed. Finally freed of the boat anchor five-speed, the V-6 feels quick and athletic, with plenty of passing power on tap. I’m told you’ll want that optional 2.0-liter engine if you drive it, but if you never bother I think most will be satisfied with the V-6.
The new transmission also has the added benefit of helping make the Wrangler’s cabin quieter than before by keeping engines rev lower. The cabin of our loaded tester, equipped with an optional hard top and hard top headliner, leather, and heated seats, is a much nicer place to spend time than the previous Wrangler. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Wrangler Sahara’s cabin luxurious, but it feels premium, with soft, high-quality leather, soft-touch plastics, comfortable seats, and a modern infotainment system.
Arguably Jeep’s biggest challenge with the new 2018 Wrangler was ensuring it hadn’t gone soft on off-road performance. I’m happy to report it hasn’t. I spent a rare rainy Southern California morning exploring the state’s Hungry Valley off-road recreation area. I started out familiarizing myself with the new Wrangler on a particularly easy course that nonetheless required four-low from a couple of Japanese SUVs when I was there recently for an upcoming story. As I motored up the steep hill climb in two-wheel drive, the Jeep started to slip a bit, so I shifted into the Wrangler Sahara’s 4A mode, and it continued up without skipping a beat.
Confident I was familiarized with the new Wrangler’s dimensions, I headed out for more challenging trails.
Call it typical millennial anxiety, but I’m always reluctant going anywhere off-road by myself without the most capable hardware possible. When alone, I rarely go exploring anywhere off-road that I don’t think I can get myself out of, but regardless I still want aggressive, puncture-proof off-road tires, low range, and locking diffs front and back. Despite the Wrangler Sahara’s road-oriented tires and lack of locking diffs, the Jeep never once made me anxious; it easily tackled whatever I threw at it. On the toughest obstacle I faced—a steep, heavily rutted hill climb with loose-packed dirt and mud that frequently put me on three wheels—the Jeep was struggling a bit for grip in 4H, so I shifted down to 4L. In that mode traction control comes off and the electronic brake lock diffs go into action; I could feel the calipers being grabbed as the Jeep routed power to the wheels with most traction, and without any further delay, it motored right on up.
Just about the only place the new 2018 Wrangler can’t match the old is in price. With JK Wranglers already flying off the lots, Jeep upped prices across the board on its new JL Wrangler. Prices for the 2018 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara start at $38,540 for a soft-top, six-speed manual-equipped version. Our nearly loaded tester stickered for $50,220—though it’s worth noting if you spec an identical Wrangler Sahara on Jeep’s configurator the cost has crept higher, to $51,115, due to some option package changes. A similarly equipped 2018 Wrangler JK Unlimited Sahara will set you back $45,640, a $5,475 difference. That’s a significant price increase, but given how much nicer the new Wrangler drives and the newfound interior quality, it’s worth the premium.
After all—this Jeep is the first Wrangler to actually be as nice to drive on the road as it is off. The 2018 Jeep Wrangler has some pretty big shoes to fill and some competing goals to accomplish, but Jeep’s absolutely nailed it. Welcome to the 21st century, Wrangler.
|2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$50,220|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||3.6L/285-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||4,391 lb (52/48%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||188.4 x 73.8 x 73.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.9 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||15.3 sec @ 89.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||128 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.73 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||28.3 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||18/23/20 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||187/147 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.97 lb/mile|