TWENTY-FOUR DEGREES, INCLINED

We find ourselves on New Zealand’s South Island, perched on a soggy, precipitous mountainside east of Lake Hawea—following a long morning crawl down the ridge of Mount Prospect and crossing the Lindis River more times than I could remember.

While my off-road spotters discuss the merits of trying to creep forward versus backing down the narrow path cut in the hillside, I steal a glance at the Pitch and Roll feature displayed between the gauges of the new Jeep Wrangler. It was at least as informative as the view out the windshield—which by that point was mostly sky and mountaintops, with the occasional sight of a spotter’s head poking up over the hood. For reference, the steepest paved road in the world is 20 degrees.

Not that there was anyone to talk to. My driving partner had hopped out several minutes earlier, after watching the Jeep ahead struggle with the same obstacle. We resolved to make it without the support Jeep’s saving winch, but it was a precarious position. I needed to make a left turn up this 24-degree slope, with a steeper uphill slope to my immediate left and an equally sheer drop to my immediate right. For good measure, the light rain falling for the past hour had turned the hillside into a muddy mess. I didn’t begrudge my co-driver his choice to bail; I encouraged it.

We’re here because an all-new Jeep Wrangler is a rare thing to behold, one that arrives once in a decade at most. It is the rugged flag-bearer of the Jeep brand, the ur-SUV, and the most symbolically important vehicle Fiat Chrysler makes, which can only be properly showcased in the most extreme environments. It’s also an anachronism, a holdover from a bygone era of vehicle making that, had it never existed previous, would never be approved by a responsible corporate board today. It also is the one vehicle in the world that could properly surmount this ridiculous obstacle, and the Jeep folks wanted to prove it.

The Jeep Wrangler makes every bit of sense and none at all, and it must be accepted by a wildly devoted fan base that will tolerate no weakness. Fortunately for everyone involved, it doesn’t have many faults. In fact, it has so few we might as well just get them out of the way. First, the clutch take-up on the six-speed manual transmission is so vague even our officemates at JP and 4-Wheel and Off-Road were stalling. Second, the V-6 still feels a bit gutless at low rpm on pavement despite improvements. That about covers it.

Back on that hillside, I was driving a two-door Rubicon with the standard 3.6-liter V-6 and optional eight-speed automatic. It makes the same 285 hp and 260 lb-ft as before but gets better fuel economy and low-end torque. At crawling speeds and with four-wheel-drive gearing advantages, torque wasn’t an issue. Two days later, driving back into town in a heavier four-door Rubicon Unlimited with the same engine but standard six-speed manual, the lack of grunt was more apparent.

The enormous improvement in ride quality was also more apparent on the road. Don’t worry. It still drives like a truck, just one from this century. Moving the shocks farther outboard and raising the roll center have seriously reduced the head toss and impact harshness in everyday driving. Getting to the trail has never been so pleasant.

Although you’ll spend far more time on the road than the trail, we know you don’t care about that part, so let’s dive back into the mud. After lunch on the trail, it was a higher-speed two-track out to camp with one last river crossing to round things out. As if to drive the point of the new generation’s excellence home, one of the previous-generation Rubicon Unlimited support vehicles beached itself trying to climb out, right after the new ones drove right through.

After a night of unexpectedly heavy snowfall and several collapsed tents, we ran for the shores of Lake Wanaka and out another two-track toward Mount Aspiring National Park. On this day, I’d made a point of claiming the all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It makes 268 hp and 295 lb-ft and uses a belt alternator starter system that can take some load off the engine. This is the first four-banger Wrangler in over a decade and an optional upgrade over the V-6, so I had to know if it’s any good. This would be the day to find out. We were headed for a boulder field at the base of Mount Aspiring.

Available only with the eight-speed automatic, the turbo-four felt perfectly at home bumping along the two-track and down a stretch of paved road. The transmission, paired with either engine, continues to be a gem with quick, smooth gearshifts and a smart computer that always seems to know what gear it ought to be in. On-road and off, the engine felt just as powerful as the V-6, and its automatic start/stop system is among the smoothest on the market in any vehicle type. The real test, though, would be crawling.

Our test bed was a boulder-strewn gully 10 feet deep and in places just wider than the Jeeps. I dropped our Rubicon Unlimited into 4Lo, hit the switches to lock the front and rear differentials and disconnect the front anti-roll bar, and tiptoed in. I didn’t air down the tires, though; the Jeep people were so confident in the Wrangler they wouldn’t let us. Within 50 feet, every concern I had about power and turbo lag had been scraped away along with the paint on the factory rock rails. This little bugger crawls just as well as the V-6.

To be sure, I took another run in the other Rubicon Unlimited with the V-6 and the manual. Were it not for the shifting, I could barely tell the difference in power delivery. Between the belt alternator starter and turbocharger, the four-cylinder needed less revving to get the job done.

Speaking of, bouldering with a stock manual transmission has never been easier. Jeep has upped the crawl ratio from 73:1 to 84:1 on the manual (and from 55:1 to 77:1 on the automatic), so it can creep along at a half mile an hour in first gear in 4Lo without stalling. I only ever used the clutch to come to a complete stop while my spotters repositioned for the next obstacle.

The sun and cold wind beating on my face, this was Jeeping at its best: tough trail, manual transmission, roof down (thankfully now a tidy five-step process), and windshield down (now two wipers and four bolts, down from seeming dozens). We’d have taken the lightened doors off, too, if there were a place to put them. The included toolkit makes removing them and the windshield so easy you’re effectively obligated to do so.

The rock sliders thoroughly evaluated, I made one more run in the two-door Rubicon. Granted, the four-door Unlimiteds went everywhere the two-door went, but nothing makes a challenging trail easier than a shorter, lighter rig with a tighter turning radius. Regardless, the new 33-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 tires did a remarkable job at street pressure, and the extra inch of ground clearance afforded over the old 32-inch Mud Terrain T/A KMs was welcomed.

Off the rocks and back on the trail in the four-cylinder, we popped out the hard top’s “Freedom Panels,” which are held on by simple latches now instead of 1,000-turn knobs. It made for a better vantage point standing up through the roof as we crisscrossed the noticeably deeper Matukituki River’s West Branch. The 30-inch fording depth is engraved along with other stats on a panel on the inside of the tailgate for handy reference.

The next morning, leaving camp with the worst obstacles behind us, I decided I needed more than a mere trail run with the manual transmission. It’s a new Aisin unit with a shift linkage that has taken out most of the previous model’s slop. Were it not for the funky clutch pedal, I’d have nothing to complain about. The gates are easy to find, and the throws are short enough for a truck.

Read more about the 2018 Jeep Wrangler in our thorough First Look here.
Its crown is a nicely detailed metal and rubber shift knob with exposed bolts that cap off a wonderfully improved interior. The flat dash, round gauges, and front passenger oh-lordy handle are complemented by burly knobs, belt-buckle door handles, and exposed bolts that walk a fine line between historically informed and gaudy retro. Peppered in among them are welcome modern conveniences such as an optional 8.4-inch infotainment system, optional heated seats and steering wheel, optional high-end stereo, standard in-cluster digital display, and standard USB 2.0 and micro USB ports front and rear.

Descending through the Rees Valley and crossing its namesake river a few times (because at this point, why not?), we began the long trudge back down paved roads to the hotel and a hot shower. The improved ride is a welcome respite from three long days bouncing down the trail, as is the new electro-hydraulic steering that’s taken all the vagueness out of the rack. The Jeep is confident and planted on the road in a way Wranglers have never been. The hardcore guys will say the old trucks had more character, but the casual off-road enthusiast won’t mind the trade-off a bit.

The drive back gives time to reflect. If you went to an automaker today and asked them to build a two-door body-on-frame trucklet with a convertible roof and almost no cargo space—riding on live axles (and oh yeah, the windshield needs to fold down and you should be able to take the doors off and hose out the waterproof interior)—you’d be laughed out of the room. This Wrangler, this iconic Jeep, exists because it’s always existed, and this new one is the best one yet. No, Jeep faithful, they didn’t ruin it. They didn’t even make it just as good as the old one. They made it better in every way.

2018 Jeep Wrangler
BASE PRICE $28,190-$31,690
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 4- or 5-pass, 2- or 4-door SUV
ENGINES 3.6L/285-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6; 2.0L/268-hp/295-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.0L/260-hp/442-lb-ft turbodiesel DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSIONS 6-speed manual; 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT 4,000-4,700 lb (est)
WHEELBASE 96.8-118.4 in
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 166.8-188.4 x 73.8 x 73.6 in
0-60 MPH 7.0-8.0 sec (MT est)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 17-18/23/19-20 mpg (3.6L)
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 187-198/147 kW-hrs/100 miles (3.6L)
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.97-1.01 lb/mile (3.6L)
ON SALE IN U.S. January 2018