2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited V-6 AWD Automatic
With its rugged capability and easy access to the open air, the Jeep Wrangler has excelled for decades as the off-road totem of the brand. And to the Jeep faithful, redesigning such an icon, as has been done with the new-for-2018 JL version, will always bring concerns that modernity will dilute the charm of this cherished backwoods four-by-four. Indeed, the new JL advances the formula further than ever before, but die-hard fans of the seven-slot grille shouldn’t fret over what is the most accommodating Wrangler yet.
As we learned during our first drive of the JL model, Jeep did not screw up its latest poster child. But those examples were mostly of the range-topping Rubicon specification that are outfitted with meaty tires and beefier axles for maximum trail swagger. While such capability is central to its mission, the modern Wrangler, through ever-increasing technology and refinement, also has become a unique open-top alternative to conventional SUVs that rarely venture off the beaten path. Reinforcing that truth is the JL’s four-door-only Sahara trim level (Jeep no longer officially refers to the four-door Wranglers as the Unlimited, but the word continues to adorn the side of the vehicle). The Sahara slots just below the Rubicon in the lineup and, for the first time ever in a Wrangler, brings an available full-time all-wheel-drive transfer case for improved traction and stability in day-to-day driving.
A Wrangler for the Road
Like all JL-generation Wrangler Unlimiteds, the Sahara rides on a 2.4-inch-longer wheelbase than the previous JK Wrangler Unlimited and is some 3.5 inches longer overall. Despite the growth spurt, its steel ladder frame is both stronger and lighter than before, and lightweight aluminum has been employed for its doors, hood, and tailgate skin—the last of these laid over a magnesium frame. At 4469 pounds, our JL test truck weighed 129 pounds less than a similar JK Unlimited we tested.
Where the Sahara breaks with tradition is in its optional $595 Selec-Trac transfer case, which adds an Auto all-wheel-drive mode to the Wrangler’s rear-drive and high- and low-range 4WD settings. As with the Sahara’s standard Command-Trac part-time setup, Selec-Trac features a modest 2.72:1 low-range ratio, and its Dana 30 front and Dana 35 rear stick axles house 3.45:1 gears. Opting for Selec-Trac also tacks on a $595 limited-slip rear differential and requires the new-for-2018 eight-speed automatic transmission ($2000) in place of the standard six-speed manual. Rolling stock consists of 18-inch aluminum wheels wrapped with rather street-friendly Bridgestone Dueler H/T 685 all-terrain tires, size 255/70R18.
The resulting uptick in performance is significant: Motivated by the standard Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 boasting 285 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at a rather high 4800 rpm, our Sahara scooted to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.2 at 90 mph—improvements of 1.6 and 1.4 seconds (and 7 mph) over the previous JK with its five-speed automatic and Goodyear tires. Even more impressive was the JL’s enhanced grip, which saw skidpad performance rise from the JK’s lowly 0.63 g to 0.73 g and shortened the 70-mph-to-zero braking distance from 209 feet to a more acceptable 176. The latter is also helped by larger 12.9-inch front and 13.4-inch rear disc brakes.
Given the new Wrangler’s improved EPA fuel-economy estimates, its greater observed average of 17 mpg—2 mpg higher than the JK’s observed number and just 1 mpg less than its city rating—was largely expected. We also weren’t surprised that it managed only 20 mpg on our 200-mile highway loop, which is 3 mpg lower than its EPA highway figure. To the atmosphere, even this latest Wrangler with its slightly faster windshield nonetheless boasts a bricklike aerodynamic profile.
Still Tows the Line
As arguably the cushiest pavement-cruising configuration of this dedicated off-road vehicle, the Sahara may seem somewhat blasphemous to hard-core Jeepers fond of rock-crawling and mud-bogging. But don’t call it a wimp, not with 10.0 inches of ground clearance and heady angles of approach (42 degrees), departure (36 degrees), and breakover (21 degrees) that let the Sahara roll over obstacles that would hang up a conventional crossover.
Driven normally, the Sahara has a relationship with the road that’s notably less compromised than in previous Wranglers. Its electro hydraulically assisted steering, paired with a 15.6:1 rack, is slightly more direct than the JK’s hydraulic setup and moves with much greater precision. The steel coil springs and Sahara-specific monotube dampers, along with the Unlimited’s long 118.4-inch wheelbase, serve up relatively good ride quality and positive highway tracking. Finally, the eight-speed auto is a boon to the Wrangler’s flexibility on the move, smartly jockeying its ratios in response to throttle inputs to compensate for the V-6’s lack of low-end grunt.