REVIEW | New 2020 Jeep Wrangler is still made of the right stuff
There is something endearingly analogue and “old-school cool” about the new-generation Jeep Wrangler, as much as it has progressed somewhat into the digital world.
There’s still a lever to switch between two- and four-wheel drive and to select low range, unlike the button- or touchscreen-operated versions found in most modern 4x4s — including the new-generation Defender, which is soon to be launched in SA.
You get the impression that the Wrangler isn’t simply an uber-modern SUV that happens to have a retro-style boxy shape, like a boy band with a carefully curated public image. It walks the talk and presents its authentic self, like leather-clad rock stars of the Guns ’n Roses ilk. You know that’s how they dress at home and at the supermarket.
The US-made Wrangler is as key to Jeep’s brand identity as the 911 is to Porsche, which is why the styling of this fourth-generation Wrangler time-warps back to great-granddaddy Willys Jeep of the 1940s. That boxy body, seven-slat grille, and wide stance with pumped-out wheelarches are all still there, conveying a sense of sturdiness that looks like the car could drive through a brick wall.
It’s a look that seems purpose-made for rugged dirt adventures, and in time-honoured tradition the body still perches on a rugged ladder frame chassis and rides on off-road-focused solid-axle suspension.
The door and bonnet hinges are still on the outside, instead of being tucked away in pursuit of clean lines and slippery aerodynamics. The doors and front roof panels are removable and the windscreen can still be folded down for an open-air experience.
The iconic round headlamps are now LEDs, and so are the new daytime running lights mounted on the wheel arches, but this slight styling tweak hasn’t sanitised Jeep’s most iconic car.
Here’s a vehicle that needs no badge to identify it, unlike some of today’s generic automotive shapes, including the latest Jeep Cherokee which, without its badge, could easily be mistaken for a Korean SUV.
That said, things have been modernised on the interior, such as a touchscreen infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability, numerous USB charging ports, and parking assist with a rear camera. There’s also a push-button starting system so that the driver can leave the key in their pocket.
The cabin has been made more plush and upmarket, but retains a rugged vibe with its sturdy grab handles and robust-looking finishes. It comes with a durable washable interior complete with drain plugs.
My gripe is the lack of a left footrest, which was constant irritation. I’m all for old-school charm but there’s no excuse for poor ergonomics.
No excuse for poor safety either, and though the Wrangler has the requisite ABS brakes, stability control and four airbags, it achieved just a one-star rating (out of a possible five) in Euro NCAP crash testing.
In the two-door short-wheelbase Wrangler on test here (it’s also available as a long-wheelbase four-door), the rear seat is just large enough for two adults in not-too-cramped conditions, but accessing the rear seat through this two-door car is a squeeze. There’s a tiny boot, and you only get decent luggage space by folding down the rear seats.
Only one engine is available in the four-model Wrangler range, a 3.6 Pentastar V6 that supplies good urge and gutsy acceleration. Being a normally aspirated petrol engine there’s no lag, and the power is delivered in a nice and linear fashion through a smooth eight speed auto gearbox. For the performance on offer in a brick-shaped vehicle, the 12.1l /100km consumption isn’t too thirsty.
The brick shape does have a drawback in creating some wind noise at higher speeds, but it’s not excessive, and the 552-watt Alpine all-weather premium audio system does a good job of masking any unwanted external sounds.
The solid-axle front and rear suspension doesn’t give the Wrangler the greatest ride quality. In regular driving it’s a bit of a jittery bucking bronco and the handling is squirrely. But, as expected, it finds its groove when tar turns to dirt.
The Wrangler Sahara I tested is not as off-road-focused as the Rubicon version, primarily because it has a rear limited-slip differential instead of locking front and rear axles, and more road-based tyres.
Nevertheless, in our off-road test at the Kungwini 4x4 trail near Bronkhorstspruit, the Sahara impressed with its ability to scale tough obstacles that included steep climbs, soft sand, mud and rock climbing. With low range engaged there wasn’t much that paused the vehicle in its tracks, even with its road tyres.
The Command-Trac 4x4 system features a new full-time mode that automatically switches from 2WD to 4WD when conditions dictate. It can be switched to a fixed 50/50 split of torque to the front and rear axles. Downhill descent control is part of the repertoire.
The elevated 260mm ground clearance keeps the belly out of harm’s way, and it can wade through water 760mm deep. The short wheelbase makes for a tight turning circle that provides great manoeuvrability on off-road trails.
The one-star crash rating is a blot in its copybook. It’s also a high price to pay for all this authenticity and off-road ability, at just shy of R860,000.
But the new Wrangler is a devastatingly good off-road vehicle, and since the demise of the old Land Rover Defender, it doesn’t really have any direct rivals.
Jeep Wrangler 3.6 Sahara 2 door
WE LIKE: Authentic toughness, off-road ability, modernised interior
WE DISLIKE: Poor crash rating, no left footrest for driver
VERDICT: The iconic off-roader gets modernised, but not too much
Motor News star rating
Design * * * * *
Performance * * * * *
Economy * * *
Safety * *
Value For Money * * * *
Overall * * * *
Type: V6 petrol
Type: 8-speed automatic, Command-Trac transfer case
Type: Four-wheel drive
Top speed: 177km/h
Fuel Consumption: 11.7l/100km (claimed) 12.1l/100km (as tested)
ABS brakes, stability control, four airbags, climate control, remote central locking, cruise control, keyless operation, electric windows, electric mirrors, Uconnect multimedia system, front and rear USB ports, cloth seats, 260mm ride height, LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, wash out interior with drain plugs, 430l boot with rear seats folded, Alpine premium audio system, rear parking camera, removable doors and roof panels, fold-down windscreen, 255/70 R18 tyres
Warranty: Three years/100,000km
Maintenance plan: Three years/100,000km
Lease*: R18,217 a month
* at 10% interest over 60 months no deposit