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Original military-chic civilian off-roader enters a fourth Wrangler-badged generation

The Jeep Wrangler story dates back to 79 years ago. At around the time Enzo Ferrari and Alfa Romeo conclusively parted ways, the United States Department of War sought to commission the design of a rugged reconnaissance vehicle for duties in febrile Europe.

Out of more than 130, just two companies, Willys-Overland and Bantam, stepped up, and it was the latter’s BRC 40 that formed the basis of not only a bona fide military icon but also, with the advent of the CJ-1 just four years later, an enduring post-war civilian sales success.

JL-generation Wrangler receives plenty of time-honoured Jeep styling cues, including the seven-slot grille, which pays tribute to the original CJ model

The Jeep Wrangler JL is the fourth generation of this remarkable machine since the ‘Wrangler’ name was first applied to the recipe in 1986, and it is the subject of this week’s road test. In the time it has taken the model to make it across the Atlantic and into British dealerships, more than 240,000 have already been sold in North America, making it the most popular Wrangler to date and something of a global commercial powerhouse for its Fiat Chrysler Automobiles parent company.

Early indications are that Jeep’s improvements to the cabin ambience and more frugal engine line-up are largely to thank for this, though there is one other factor that can’t be overlooked: brand.

To succeed, any new Wrangler needs to radiate its Rubicon Trail-conquering capabilities at a standstill, which is why Jeep has altered the model’s aesthetic only tentatively. And yet with the JL more than any previous generation of Jeep Wrangler, the real challenge has been not only to maintain and enhance this aura but also make the car a far more amenable daily companion.

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Indeed, solid axles and a flip-down windscreen might please Wrangler aficionados, but for wider sales success in Europe, Jeep will need to have squared such serious attributes with hitherto absent road manners and an interior one could happily live with.

Time to find out whether it has succeeded.

Price £48,365 Power 197bhp Torque 332lb ft 0-60mph 9.0sec 30-70mph in fourth 9.8sec Fuel economy 29.0mpg CO2 emissions 202g/km 70-0mph 53.1m

The Jeep Wrangler range at a glance

Two engine choices are available to power the Wrangler: a 197bhp diesel and a 268bhp petrol. The two-door model will likely appeal to those after a more classic Wrangler look, while four-doors offer improved practicality and a longer wheelbase.

Three trim levels are offered in the UK: the entry-level Sahara; the more luxurious Overland; and Rubicon, the most off-road-focused variant. Various roof styles are available for open-air motoring, including a three-piece removable roof.


Jeep Wrangler 2019 road test review - hero side

The JL-generation Wrangler comes in three flavours ranging from the suburban-spec Sahara to the slightly higher-riding, wilderness-prepared Rubicon with its switchable front anti-roll bar, heavy-duty alternator, 32in BF Goodrich Mud-Terrain tyres, locking differentials and the ability to take a winch without the need for modifications.

Few owners will ever require that level of hardware, though beneath the lightly revised bodywork – whose aluminium doors are removable – each Wrangler retains its reassuringly rugged ladder-frame chassis, solid axles and two-speed transfer case, with 2.72:1 low-range transfer gearing intended for rock crawling (which goes out as short as 4:1 in the Rubicon). To save fuel, the driveline can be switched to rear drive at speeds of up to 45mph.

Who says driving big cars in London is stressful? Other motorists were surprisingly willing to move over when they saw the Wrangler coming at them down a narrow street, I found. And plenty will be used like that

Our test car, in Europe-only Overland trim, is equipped with Jeep ’s new 2143cc turbocharged four-cylinder MultiJet-II diesel engine, which is mated to an eight-speed automatic gearbox (no manuals are available in the UK). With 197bhp, it gives plenty away to the 268bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine also offered on these shores (some other markets get a 3.6-litre petrol V6), but makes up for it with superior torque, with 332lb ft available from 2000rpm.

Unlike the Rubicon, the Overland wears a hybrid off-road tyre, although both have full-time mechanical four-wheel drive. Both derivatives also use rigid axles manufactured by US specialist Dana, although the Rubicon gets more heavy-duty ones with locking differentials. In the Overland, the rear axle packs a limited-slip differential.

Jeep Wrangler suspension is by coil springs and passive dampers, while the electro-hydraulically assisted recirculating-ball steering is geared to a high and suitably forgiving ratio of 16.2:1. On the underside of the chassis are no fewer than four skidplates, which protect the fuel tank, transfer case and gearbox oil-pan. Rubicon models get further protection in the form of heavy-gauge tubular rock-rails to bear the brunt of boulder strikes.

In terms of length and width, the four-door Wrangler sits between BMW’s BMW X3 and BMW X5 SUV models, though is taller than both, with 242mm of ground clearance being among the best of any mass-production vehicle. Approach, departure and breakover angles of 35.4deg, 30.7deg and 20.0 degrees respectively further distance the Wrangler four-door from lesser pretenders, though these numbers are greater still for the shorter wheelbase two-door Wrangler, and particularly in Rubicon specification.

Jeep Wrangler 2019 road test review - cabin

The packaging of the Wrangler’s cabin feels slightly tighter than that of the average medium-sized SUV, and the front seats in particular a size more snug.

The car’s door apertures are smaller than you might expect and its sills higher and more obstructive; and once you’re in the car’s highly set driving seat, you’ll find a little bit less maximum leg room and footwell space than the class norm. None of the aforementioned limitations proved problematic even for the tallest of our testers, though; the trick is remembering that this is anything but the average medium-sized SUV – which, for various reasons, isn’t remotely hard to do.

Space up front a bit more limited than the SUV class norm, but still sufficient for a 6ft 4in driver. Places to hold on not in short supply

To begin with, how many cars of this kind allow you to fold the windscreen down flat? In the Wrangler, it’s the job of five minutes with a multi-tool – and likewise is the removal of any one or all four of the passenger doors. The car comes with what Jeep calls a ‘freedom top’ in body colour, which is a three-piece modular hard-top that can be removed completely. It can also be ordered with a powered soft-top roof or a manually folding ‘sunrider’ soft-top roof – both of which make the car quicker and easier to convert for open-air motoring.

For outright habitability on less adventurous days, the car hits a decidedly better standard for comfort, perceived quality and convenience than any Wrangler has before – although nowhere is it likely to be honestly mistaken for one of the SUV class’s premium-branded options.

The cabin’s leathers are pleasant enough and its moulded plastics, though harder and more shiny than is typical of the class, feel robust and are inoffensive to the touch. The feel of the car’s FCA parts bin switchgear is predictably plain and a little bit cheap, but by and large controls are laid out sensibly and easy to use.

The Wrangler uses FCA’s fourth-generation UConnect infotainment system. It has an 8.4in centrally mounted touchscreen, which does offer smartphone mirroring for Apple and Android handsets but also comes with factory navigation and a user-configurable home menu screen that allows you to bundle together the functions you use most.

The car’s factory navigation system is fairly average, but its best feature is that it relays turn instructions on a 7in display within the instrument binnacle. European live traffic data is included.

Within the wider infotainment system, there’s an unresponsiveness about getting from one screen to the next that often means you can prod a fingertip twice or three times in the time it takes to get where you intended. At least Jeep’s line of menu short-cuts at the base of the screen minimises the pain a bit.

Jeep’s eight-speaker, 552-watt Alpine audio system is the only one offered in the car and sounds respectable, though not overly powerful, at open-air beach party volume.

Second-row occupant space is fit for adults and is broadly competitive, while the back seats fold flat to provide for good outright cargo capacity. In four-seat mode, the Wrangler four-door has 548 litres of luggage space – generous enough, even if the side-hinged tailgate through which the boot is accessed makes it a mistake to reverse-park too close to walls or other cars.

Jeep Wrangler 2019 road test review - engine

For true off-roaders like the Wrangler, ‘good performance’ means something different to what it does for mainstream SUVs.

In the midst of a boulder field, healthy torque and a linear throttle are of far greater importance than the aural refinement and crisp gearchanges Mercedes might strive for with the similarly sized but road-biased Mercedes-Benz GLC. Equally, if the Wrangler’s popularity is to grow, Jeep can’t afford to imagine that on-road drivability and refinement are unimportant – and, in fact, FCA’s 2.2-litre MultiJet-II turbodiesel does well enough on all counts.

As a car built for hard work off the road, the Wrangler itself can be hard work on it – our Overland’s slow steering and large footprint brought into sharp focus through bends

The new eight-speed automatic gearbox must take much of the credit for this. For hardware designed to cope reliably with the stresses and strains of contorting dirt trails in California’s High Sierra, it is surprisingly smooth and well-mannered on the road, and contributes to the Wrangler’s appeal as an everyday vehicle.

Granted, during normal driving it has a proclivity to shift lazily into the highest possible ratio, but in the absence of a Sport driving mode, using manual mode to keep the engine in its 2000-3000rpm sweet spot is no chore.

With a recorded 0-60mph time of 9.0sec, the diesel Wrangler has a very respectable outright performance level; the considerably more powerful and larger-engined Land Rover Discovery TDV6 we timed in 2017 only managed the trip in 8.7sec.

In-gear performance is decently stout and makes for fairly effortless progress, the drag from 40mph to 60mph in fifth gear taking 5.0sec – within a second of the Discovery. Indeed, the Jeep gets its power down cleanly and, in everyday driving, its considerable torque output does enough to disguise a kerb weight measured at over 2.1 tonnes.

On the move, variable-geometry turbocharging reduces turbo lag and, along with this engine’s inherent smoothness, the experience is far less agricultural and more car-like than you might expect given the Wrangler’s true purpose. The car’s refinement is heightened if you shift the transfer case into ‘2H’ – for two wheel-drive high range – because this disconnects the front driveshafts, noticeably reducing the inertia of unnecessary mechanical drag.

Jeep Wrangler 2019 road test review - cornering front

The Jeep Wrangler might very well be the defining ‘go-anywhere’ vehicle.

As you’d expect, the hardware that imparts its legendary off-road ability does make for a few compromises on the road – and, though they might be slightly less noticeable than on previous versions of the car, they are nonetheless still present and noticeable enough that they might put off anyone who imagines that this car might look like a wilderness man but somehow handle like an Audi Q5.

Having driven the Rubicon Trail itself, I can tell you serious off-road hobbyists will want the switchable locking diffs you get on the Wrangler Rubicon. It’s also the most overblown model in the range visually, and that’s a big part of the Wrangler appeal

At 3.3 turns lock to lock, the recirculating ball steering rack feels remarkably slow when manoeuvring. Changing direction at speed takes a fair amount of forethought and a degree of manual exertion, too, on a steering system that demands you put effort in to turn into a bend and guide the car straight again.

This slower steering set-up might suggest the Wrangler should feel like a reasonably stable car at speed, and it does most of the time – although its sheer size and slab-sided, boxy shape make it vulnerable to wind buffeting at motorway speed. Between one thing and another, then, keeping the Wrangler tracking straight and true on the road is a process requiring plenty of concentration and regular line correction; or, to put it another way, this is a car you can never really get much respite from driving when at the wheel.

Through bends, the Wrangler’s handling manners are entirely predictable: it’s a large car that feels its height and weight; pitches in with plenty of body roll; and has limited front-end grip with which to prevent its bluff nose from wandering progressively into understeer if you hurry it along.

But nearly all of these criticisms are the result of mechanical specification and tuning that lends the Jeep its unflappable off-road ability. The boxy shape provides great visibility; the slow steering means you won’t injure your wrists when clambering over boulders and can make finer course adjustments easily; and those Bridgestone Dueler H/T tyres, while not full-fat off-roading rubber, will get you further from the Tarmac than the standard tyres you’d find on the likes of a normal medium-sized SUV.

Even if you don’t buy the Wrangler in go-absolutely-anywhere trim, it’s a remarkably capable off-roader. In any guise, it beats a Mercedes G-Class and a Toyota Land Cruiser for maximum wading depth and ground clearance, and across the board on clearance angles. A Land Rover Discovery will ford through deeper water and has more ground clearance, but even that can’t match the Jeep’s approach and departure angles.

We didn’t get to test the car at its most rugged (only Rubicon trim gets BF Goodrich Mud-Terrain knobbly tyres, the ultra-low-range ’box, heavy-duty axles, locking front/rear diffs and disconnecting front anti-roll bar), yet were seriously impressed with its capacity to climb steep slopes, crawl over rocks and find traction on slippery surfaces. An accelerator and torque converter automatic ’box brilliantly tuned for ultra-low-speed control, and some effective traction control electronics, make it go places you’d swear a car simply couldn’t.


The Wrangler rides with a kind of comfort and civility that, while a way from matching what you’ll find in a more typical mid-sized 4x4, could easily see it pass muster as an everyday-use family vehicle.

The suspension cushions bigger lumps and bumps in reasonably well-damped fashion, and while rebound is less cleverly controlled, the car still doesn’t jounce or float too significantly over crests.

Patchier surfaces inevitably shine a spotlight on the propensity of the chassis for animation, but while the busyness and distant lumpiness of the movements of the axles are persistent presences within the car’s driving experience, they never really become overbearing or dominating factors.

Where the Jeep is at it unhappiest, however, is on particularly uneven stretches of country B-road, where non-uniform undulations and inputs that work one side of its axles more than the other bring the worst out of its ride. Here, head-toss is particularly prevalent, though still well short of motion sickness-inducing severity. Elsewhere, the 2.2-litre diesel engine has a tendency to make its voice heard when working hard, while road roar and wind noise are a near constant aural accompaniment to a long-distance cruise.

The latter is the more noticeable, though, largely due to the lack of any substantial sound deadening in the removable roof panels and cabin sealing, which, in general, must necessarily be less effective than in the average SUV.

Our decibel meter measured cabin noise at 70dB at a 70mph cruise. By comparison, the Land Rover Discovery TDV6 tested in 2017 returned a reading of 67dB, while the now discontinued Defender (arguably the Wrangler’s closest conceptual rival) recorded 73dB.

Jeep Wrangler 2019 road test review - hero front

In decades past, Jeep Wranglers looked like surprisingly good value – but anyone expecting similar of this version is in for a shock.

At its least expensive, a two-door Wrangler can be had, with either a petrol or a diesel engine, for a whisker under £45,000. A fully loaded Rubicon-spec four-door with a powered soft-top will be a near-£52,000 car before owners busy themselves with the Mopar catalogue.

Wrangler trails behind conventional Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover Discovery Sport for retained value. Not a woeful effort, mind

Conveniently for Jeep, it remains hard to argue that the Wrangler is particularly bad value since so few rivals match its dual-purpose capability. Entry-level Sahara trim includes LED headlights, an 8.4in infotainment set-up with both factory navigation and smartphone mirroring, and a premium audio system. It’s not what you’d call generous for the price – but then the car still wears a sense of spartan functionality predictably well.

Our 2.2-litre diesel four-door test car returned a touring fuel economy result of 37.6mpg, which is no embarrassment at all for an SUV of its size and brief.


Jeep Wrangler 2019 road test review - static

That the latest Wrangler remains one of the toughest, most capable off-roaders in the business comes as little surprise. Jeep knows what it needs to provide to retain the 4x4’s passionate cult following. Image is crucial, but ultimately it’s incredible go-anywhere ability that represents the cornerstone of its appeal.

Even in Overland spec, the new JL model packs plenty of both. But as impressive as its skills off the beaten track undoubtedly are, it’s the gains made in everyday usability that will do the most to broaden the car’s reach. The cabin is now roomier and finished to a higher standard. And while it doesn’t ride or handle with the sort of sophistication that would make it a viable alternative to a conventional SUV, you could easily forgive that given what it can do when the nearest Tarmac is more than a few miles away.

Jeep’s off-road icon is now a lot more competent on it

Of course, off-roading aficionados will be best-served by the fully fledged Wrangler Rubicon. But for those after a more liveable Wrangler suited to everyday use almost as well as muddy weekend green-laning excursions, the Overland will take some beating. This is certainly the most rugged dual-purpose 4x4 you can buy – and it’s among the best.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Jeep Wrangler First drives