2018 Jeep Wrangler: An icon continued

Wrangler has its roots deep in history and its eye firmly on the future. We drive it seven decades after its Willys Jeep ancestor helped win World War Two

Where to start? Perhaps 1941, when Willys-Overland won the contract to provide the US military with a lightweight reconnaissance vehicle with its ‘MA’ design. Maybe 1987, with the first model to wear the Wrangler name – albeit a direct successor to that original Willys-Overland Jeep.

Actually, let’s start here, in 2018, with the all-new Wrangler (codenamed JL) and – supposedly – ‘the most capable SUV ever’. How about that for a confident claim? The Wrangler is a confident sort of car, mind.

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Offered with either a 2.2-litre diesel or a 2.0 turbocharged petrol, as ever with this ladder-frame 4x4 the Wrangler is pitched at those who want an adventure as much as they require transport. This is no commuter’s sport utility vehicle, so forget about obvious rivals in the Wrangler’s circa £44k-and-up range (prices for the newcomer are yet to be confirmed). A BMW X3 rival this is not. It’s way more interesting than that, not least thanks to the heritage in which it’s rooted…

The design

Nowhere is the Wrangler’s history more obvious than in its design. Jeep hasn’t been subtle about it. The beautifully simple, unmistakable outline of the Willys Jeep is displayed on the alloys and the gearstick, so the brand’s history is right there in front of you. Less obvious nods to the historic models are everywhere else, too.

See the way the outer slats of the trademark seven-slat grille wrap around the owlish headlights? That harks back to the 1945 CJ-2A; the first civilian iteration of the Willys. This was the first Jeep to get the seven-slat grille, and it also had larger headlights than the military version, hence the need to eat into the grille design.

And the three nubs poking out of the circular trim on the steering wheel? That’s a nod to the Willys’ three-spoke wheel. A metal plate screwed to the 2018 JL Wrangler showing its off-road abilities mimics the unmistakable military-grade affair also screwed to the original. Even the dashboard architecture, with its broad, horizontal plane and upright centre stack, is deliberately reminiscent of the long-lived CJ Jeeps.

Lead designer Chris Piscitelli – whose favourite Wrangler ancestor is the wonderfully perky-looking 1954 CJ5 model – reckons there are some 15 or more ‘easter eggs’, or direct design nods to the older Jeep models in this all-new version.

Even the windscreen flips down, a la the original, and those external hinges don’t just look cool – they allow you to take the doors off, to reveal the chunky ‘sports bar’ that gives a stripped-down Wrangler a distinctive, extreme, almost exoskeleton look. All Wranglers have removable roofs to make that possible, of course. It’s your choice whether to go for manual or automatic fabric roofs, or a modular hard-top.

Regardless of how you spec it – whether in three- or four-door form (the latter of which has a 3.0-metre wheelbase that’s over 500mm longer than the rather better-proportioned three-door), hard-top or soft-top, butch-looking Rubicon or more comfort-oriented Sport and Sahara trims, the Wrangler looks great – both as a modern off-road spectacular and as an homage to the original.

The drive

This is a brilliantly two-faced car. I started out in a four-door Sahara, which is about as on-road oriented as the Wrangler gets. You wouldn’t know it, mind, as we bowled around the roads surrounding Jeep’s mountain base in Spielberg, Austria.

All models get an eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox with low and high ratios, and a two-speed transfer case that allows the Wrangler to slip between rear- and four-wheel drive while you’re on the move. The Rubicon is the off-road specialist, set apart by heavy-duty axles, hydraulic bump-stops, locking diffs instead of the standard car’s open (or optionally limited-slip) diffs, and even an anti-roll bar that can be disconnected for maximum possible articulation.

Honestly? Even the standard Wrangler feels ragged in ordinary driving. The lump and lurch of the long-travel suspension never goes away, and between the chunky 70-section tyres and ponderous steering with 3.6 turns lock to lock (3.2 in the three-door model), it feels like the hard work you’re putting in at the wheel is having only a cursory influence on where the car is actually pointing.

That comical sense of disconnect is only further emphasised in the Rubicon, especially on specialist off-road tyres; you may just as well send a postcard to the front axle begging for a tighter turn-in, as wind on more lock if the car’s settled into its characteristic arc of understeer.

And yet there has been a big enough improvement in refinement that it would be possible to do big miles in the new Jeep without feeling put out. It settles down on the motorway, and with all the interior comforts on offer it’s easy to see how the model has moved on from its less premium-feeling predecessors.

Even so, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Jeep is terribly uncouth on road – by any standards, let alone those of the high-calibre SUVs you can get at the Wrangler’s peaky prices.

Get it off-road, and it shows its other, vastly more impressive face. This is always where the Jeep was intended to work best. It seems ironic that, of various possible legends, the most likely origin for the brand name ‘Jeep’ is the soldiers in World War Two, who shortened ‘general-purpose vehicle’ to ‘GP’. The leap from there to Jeep is obvious.

For all that, I’d say the Wrangler is in reality anything but general purpose in the literal sense. It has a seriously specific purpose, as was proven by how unfathomably easy it made its way up the drizzly, rock-strewn, mud-choked mountain paths on which Jeep allowed us free rein.

We’d swapped into a three-door Rubicon by this point, which is at the ‘strap a winch on it and find the loneliest bits of the planet’ end of the off-roading spectrum.

The way it clawed over the Austrian mountain terrain was almost surreal. I tried to get out to take a photo at one point, but the track was so steep I could barely stand on it. I’d have needed crampons to scramble up on foot, yet the Jeep genuinely made it feel like a Sunday drive.

As long as you’ve thunked the stubby lever into low-ratio 4WD, pressed the buttons to lock the diffs and disconnected the anti-roll bar (or sway bar in Jeep talk), it’ll mountaineer its way over horrifying cambers and inclines, complete with tree roots and sharp rock sections. There were moments during my drive where the car slipped and floundered momentarily, and I felt the dread uncurling as I imagined radioing for help and admitting defeat, only to find that giving the diesel engine a few more revs had it digging in and scrambling onwards.

It’s a total, heart-racing riot to drive in this sort of situation. Proper, ‘grab it by the scruff of the neck and find out which reaches the limits first, you or the car’ ¬– and I’d put money on it not being the car. You need to be in genuinely perilous terrain to even test the Jeep’s abilities.

It is, literally, military-grade off-roading. Which means that it has no direct rivals, at least until the new Land Rover Defender turns up later this year. Even so, the Wrangler is not cheap. You can expect the Rubicon to be deep into £50k territory, and that’s before you start playing with the official Mopar customisation options that could easily see you reaching for £60k and beyond.

In this respect, the Wrangler has long since departed from the basic-and-affordable criteria of the historic models. The original 1945 CJ-2A – the first civilian version of the original Willys-Overland MB that started it all – cost $1090 (£824). In today’s money, that’s somewhere around $15,000. The only new Wrangler you’ll be getting for that sort of money is one that’s been crashed.

Then again, it’s not bought by farmers anymore; it’s a lifestyle purchase. And while it is objectively quite terrible on road, it’s also wicked fun in a ragged, caricature of an SUV kind of way, and utterly unstoppable off-road. More than that, it’s got character coming out of every quick-release bolt and rubberised panel – and not many modern cars can claim that. Ultimately, 77 years on, it’s still got the Willys-Overland to thank.

The history

Jeep started with the Willys-Overland MB that is recognisable the world over. It was the first car of its ilk, with 16,000 originally commissioned (off the back of the very first MA design that won Willys the contract) in 1941 for the US Army at a unit cost of $738.74. Such was the significance of the MB to war efforts that General Marshall, US Army chief of staff during World War Two, described it as ‘America’s greatest contribution to modern warfare’. Willys-Overland went on to produce around 368,000 MBs, and Ford – under licence – a further 277,000.

After the war, Willys registered the Jeep trademark and, in 1945, overhauled the MB to turn it into a civilian vehicle. The Jeep CJ-2A was born. It was an agricultural vehicle, and – complete with a 60bhp 2.2-litre four-cylinder in-line engine – it was good for 60mph on the road yet could also ‘do the job of two heavy draft horses, operating at 4mph for up to ten hours a day without overheating’ according to Jeep.

The CJ went through various mild modifications until a new model arrived with the CJ-5 in 1955 – two years after Willys-Overland was sold for a remarkable $60 million to Henry J Kaiser. By now, public interest in off-roaders was growing, so the CJ-5 – which was based on the military M38A1 Jeep designed for the Korean War – brought better refinement and a longer wheelbase for more comfort.

Ultimately, the hugely successful CJ remained much the same for 20 years. In 1976 the CJ-7 arrived, offering a moulded plastic roof and steel doors among other upgrades, but the CJ-5 continued in production alongside the CJ-7 right up until 1983, meaning that it had an impressive, near-30 year production run.

Finally, even the CJ-7 gave way to demand for more luxury and better on-road ability, as Jeep sought to provide an answer to those who still wanted rugged off-road skills but also demanded a fashionable, compact 4x4. Step forward the 1987 Jeep Wrangler, codenamed YJ – the first model to wear the Wrangler name, and a seismic shift from the agricultural and military roots of the MB and CJ models that so thoroughly established the Jeep brand.

Jeep was right to make that shift, though, as proven by the 630,000 YJ units it sold. This was also the first and only Wrangler model to have square headlights, and was launched in the same year that Jeep was sold to Chrysler.

The all-new 1997 Wrangler returned more to the styling of the CJ-5 and 7, with its round headlights, and further stepped up the luxury and space aspect that was now key to Jeep customers. It was also this version of the Wrangler that saw the Rubicon name first used, alongside a new Unlimited model name, to differentiate between off-and on-road-oriented versions.

The 2007 Wrangler (JK) got a new frame, and also introduced the innovative four-door, removable soft-top design that’s now one of the most popular formats for the Jeep. It was also the first Wrangler to offer seating for five adults – a practical feature that’s still present in the long-wheelbase versions of the all-new 2018 Wrangler that succeeds it.

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