2018 Wrangler a not-so-same again aero hero

What's especially remarkable about the 2018 Wrangler is that it's still a nod to the original 1940s' CJ yet is nonetheless largely all-new in respect to its styling.


NEW Compass, updated Cherokee, a Grand Cherokee with gargantuan performance and, last but far from least of all, the next-generation Wrangler … yup, this is going to be a big product year for Jeep in New Zealand.

The last couple of years have been relatively quiet for Jeep – it’s unique in being the only SUV-first brand not to massively benefit from the upsurge in consumer interest in that vehicle type – but plans laid out by the local distributor at a special media briefing in Melbourne just last month left no doubt that 2018 is going to be a year not only of increased product activity, but also accelerated sales action.

Naturally enough, the primary focus of the big media soiree was that new Compass, which is not only fresh from the tyres up but also sources from somewhere new for this brand: It’s our first Jeep out of India. The model will arrive around March and is expected to be at the forefront of the local sales drive – that it will play a much more salient role that its predecessor might seem a bold call, but it’s entering into an especially segment and, also, is a far better proposition than the old same-name offer.

The updated Cherokee is also going to be a key vehicle for us and so, too, will be that Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, aka the ‘Hellcat’ Jeep – so-called because, of course, it packs a 6.4-litre supercharged V8, originally conceived for Dodge roadcars: Initially the Challenger and Charger and, latterly, the Demon.

Trailhawk won’t achieve by weight of volume – even if it does prove to be an outstanding success, the demand will always be tempered by supply constraints – but that’s not the point. It’s all about waving the flag.

Still, it’ll going to make massive impact because this is a one hell of an engine for any SUV – indeed, even though the outputs for Jeep are slightly down at 522kW and 868Nm, the Trailhawk stands as the most potent SUV set to come on sale in NZ.

It trumps the likes of the Bentley Bentayga (447kW), BMW X5/X6 M (423kW), Range Rover Sport SVR (423kW), Mercedes-AMG GLE63 S (430kW) and Porsche Cayenne Turbo S (419kW). While price has yet to be set, it will assuredly undercut all those models, sometimes by considerable margin.

It will almost certainly be the only Hellcat-powered FCA car here, too, because none of the roadcars are issued in right-hand drive, regardless that they have become massively successful in North America and have huge international cred. It’s a true ‘win’ story for Dodge which, when the programme began, had expected to achieve 2500 sales. To date, that target count for Hellcat has been exceeded more than 10-fold.

That’s exciting, right? Yet the vehicle that matters even more to Jeep, at least in respect to historic reference, is the one that we will see last this year.

The Wrangler is Jeep in its purest form – the model that evokes more than any other the dubbya-dubbya-deuce birthright. It tends to be the Jeep you see in the toughest spots and has a fanbase, here as much as anywhere, that is especially hardcore.

The latest generation of this off-road icon is the fourth. It was unveiled at the Los Angeles motor show in November – though even by then it had effectively been unmasked.

The first good look of this model came in New Zealand; some production-ready examples brought here for sign-off trials were used for a US media expedition around Wanaka. The cars were seen by Kiwi journalists invited to take the same trails in the outgoing model; the new ones were, quite literally, parked around the back of the compound and got spotted. Some of those very same vehicles were then brought to Melbourne for our official moment of scrutiny.

It’s an interesting vehicle because, while everything is new – from fresh engine options to an eight-speed automatic transmission, increased technology, better road manners (never a strength until now) and reduced weight thanks to lighter materials – it doesn’t look it.

You might wonder why that is, though the answer is pretty obvious: Much of what makes Jeep’s genesis model so much of a legend is to do with how it appears. Which, of course, why this new model looks as it does: Basically, the same as it always has.

What’s with that? Simply, it’s an example of the customer getting what it wants. The Wrangler shape is so essential to its enduring appeal that Jeep feared it would lose that support base if it messed around with it.

At the same token, of course, they also had to bring the model up to speed to meet modern standards, not just in respect to safety but also to meet ever-toughening fuel economy standards.

So, then, how do you redesign one of the most iconic SUVs on the road to meet all those expectations without abandoning the brick-like shape that’s essential to its appeal?

Some of how this conundrum was met was explained on the media night and more has since been revealed since by Brian Leyes, the Wrangler’s chief engineer.

You’re right in thinking that the styling doesn’t appear to have changed much. You’re wrong in thinking it hasn’t changed at all.

Even though the silhouette remains resolutely brick-like, a bend here and a curve there have improved aerodynamics by nine percent – no small improvement.

An example? The Wrangler still has Jeep’s trademark seven-slot grille. But there’s now a subtle bend about two thirds of the way up that allows air to flow more efficiently over the face and stay snug across the bonnet.

Design chief Mark Allen felt pressure to relent on the Wrangler’s vertically angled windshield, so he had a poster printed with a couple dozen images of Wranglers with progressively more slanted ones. He ran it by his team to spark conversations about just how far they could go before it would become too slanted.

There was near total unanimity about where to draw the line. Fortuitously, the last acceptable angle was also the one that produced the best overall aerodynamics.

The side mirrors of the new model aren’t any smaller than on the current model, but they are shaped - in conjunction with the bonnet and windshield - to allow air to pass by more smoothly.

The ability to slip through air also is made a little easier by a slight taper in the Wrangler’s roof that makes it an inch or so narrower at the back than in the front. The rearmost pillar of the SUV is more rounded, compared with the previous model.

And now for a spoiler alert. No, really. At the very back of the roof is a subtle, little spoiler called a lip spoiler. It smooths and directs the air flow to reduce turbulence.

The Wrangler also got a little longer and wider. One benefit of that, relative to America’s fuel economy rules, is that it lowers the bar for the model’s regulatory demands, which are based in part on the area covered by the vehicle.

And yes, there’s weight saving: While the previous Wrangler featured no aluminium in its construction, the lightweight metal has been used on the new model for the doors, hinges, bonnet, mudguards and windshield frame, while the rear swing gate is made from magnesium.

Range specifications and powertrains are yet to be announced for New Zealand but globally it is set to keep providing in two and four-door variants, the first in three model grades – Sport, Sport S and Rubicon – and the latter in all those plus a second-from-top Sahara kit out.

All are designed for off-road but some are more rugged than others. Two 4x4 traction controlsystems will be offered – Command-Trac on the lower-level Sport and Sahara variants, and Rock-Trac on the hardcore Rubicon.

Command-Trac has a low-range transfer case with 2.72:1 drive ratio, front and rear Dana solid axles and off-road traction system.

Rock-Trac gives the Rubicon electronic front and rear locking differentials with an optional limited-slip diff, 4:1 low-range gearing ratio with crawl ratios, heavy-duty Dana 44 axles, electronic sway-bar disconnect for greater wheel articulation and fat 33-inch tyres on 17-inch rims.

Some get a number of new roof, door and windshield combinations, including a full-length Sky One-Touch canvas powertop roof that retracts with the touch of a button.

Other features include a foldable front windshield, removable doors and greater noise reduction for soft-top variants.

You’re wondering about the powertrains and whether they deliver to the process of operational improvement? 

Fiat Chrysler says under bonnet revisions should help lift the Wrangler’s average fuel economy by about a third – still not enough to meet US Government targets, but also a big improvement on the current situation. Even though the 209kW/353Nm 3.6-litre Pentastar normally aspirated petrol V6 from the present range continues to find a home in the new, the intent to improve means there will be a mild hybrid and two diesels – a 2.2-litre four-cylinder whose outputs have not been disclosed and the 194kW/595Nm 3.0-litre V6 already found in the Grand Cherokee - at launch and, by 2022, a plug-in hybrid.

What’s coming here? It’s still not clear. Jeep HQ is signalling the entry petrol, a 2.0-litre, and the V6 diesel is not initially formatting in right-hand-drive while the six-speed manual gearbox will also be North America-only.The Pentastar V6 appears to be the only rock-solid option, but it will ditch the old five-speed auto in favour of a new eight-speed transmission, and there’s thought the existing 2.8-litre CRD turbo-diesel will be swapped for the 2.2.