The South Island of New Zealand is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It lures you in with green shires speckled with sheep but then rips you to shreds if you stray too far beyond them. The mountainous “Southern Alps” hide razor-sharp terrain, craggy cliffs that plummet into valleys and fjords, glacial deposits that look like billiard tables of the gods and endless dark ridges, shrouded in clouds and frighteningly ominous from every angle. This is no mere vineyard haven and sweater-factory, all verdant vistas and playful lambs; New Zealand is far more metal than you’d expect. Even the lakes aren’t to be trifled with: Wakatipu, on whose shores sits the ski-and-adventure hub of Queenstown, is more than a thousand feet deep and so cold a swimmer could perish in minutes even in summer. Venturing out from any road and the pavement yields quickly to gravel, then dirt … then fate.
In other words, it’s a fantastic place to test the new Jeep Wrangler.
Few vehicles, after all, are as eager to confront the casually cruel authors of millions of years of geological revisions — and then unceremoniously flip them off — as the Wrangler. Sure, Defenders are the go-to pack mules for vast stretches of the unpaved and unruly, and Toyota Hiluxes have a way of spontaneously respawning after being blown to bits by rebels, but the Wrangler offers far more than just utility and durability. It also offers seemingly endless capability. In its top factory guise, the Rubicon trim level, it’ll make quick work of glacial deposits and the slipperiest of mountain passes. When modded by the armies of enthusiasts in the Wrangler universe, mountains tremble in their presence. To those folks, the Wrangler is a tool, whether deployed right off the assembly line or deemed a mere starting point for upgrades. It’s a weapon for tackling all the challenges Earth can provide. No tuner road-rocket comes close when it comes to the fanatical dedication of the Wrangler’s base.
As such, the release of an all-new Wrangler, now in its fourth generation after its initial bow in 1986 — though even that was a decades-long evolution from the iconic Jeep Willys of WWII and the CJ lines that came in the interim — is a seismic event, one as carefully scrutinized as any new Porsche or Ferrari. So its debut, on a mountaintop in New Zealand where we first met the legendary trail-tamers, was no ordinary SUV launch or rote redesign briefing. It was the heritage-strong bestowment of even more capability than previously imagined — and what better setting than New Zealand’s treacherous terrain?
First, of course, we had to get off that craggy mountain, which involved lots of low-gear crawling to modulate our speed — and preserve our brakes — over some often slippery rock-on-rock terrain. It was a cold spring morning in November, with snow still on the peaks and yet another front moving in. Our caravan included four variations of the new Rubicons: a two-door with a manual transmission and the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, producing 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. A four-door with the new 270-hp/295 lb-ft. turbocharged four-cylinder, which is actually a mild hybrid is also available, as well as a hardtop four-door V-6 and a soft-top four-door V-6. (A diesel variant will arrive in 2019. The new lineup also includes an electrically powered soft-top, but that wasn’t available yet.) Pulling down fabric roofs manually was in the past a daunting proposition for Jeep owners, but now it’s a breeze thanks to a smart mechanism, tensioned with clock springs, that gracefully slips the roof rearward and out of sight.
Engine: 3.6-liter Pentastar V6; 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four
Transmission: eight-speed automatic or six-speed manual
Horsepower: 285; 270
Torque: 260 lb-ft; 295 lb-ft
Price (base): $26,995 for V6 two-door (Rubicon $36,995)
Other design enhancements emerged during our descent into the valley. The most obvious is the front grille — the familiar seven-slot design now features outer slats that intersect with the headlights, as in the original Jeep CJ. Optional LED headlamps, fog lamps, and taillights give it a modernized look and the windshield is angled more rearward for improved aerodynamics. Inside, the center stack has a clean form that also echoes classic Jeeps, with metal accents and sculpted, easily accessible switches, knobs, and USB ports (four total) that are also weather-sealed throughout. As a result, you can still hose out your muddy Jeep, as veteran off-roaders have become accustomed to.
Jeep owners’ input weighed heavily in this redesign, like a vast army of cranky muses who were quite vocal about how much they hated trying to install the soft-top roof or replace their doors after overlanding. The former has been resolved via the new single-motion roof retraction mechanism; the latter via a pair of pins for each door in slightly different lengths that allow you to seat one and then the other, rather than having to line both up simultaneously. The doors, incidentally, are now made of lightweight aluminum, further helping ease their removal, in addition to lightening the vehicle in general when they’re attached. Customers also groused about the windscreen removal process — a purist preference, to be sure, but one that should at least be easy if it’s permitted at all. It previously required the extraction of dozens of bolts, but can now be folded forward after undoing just four and popping the windshield wipers off.
Once off the mountain, we encountered an onslaught of challenges. We crossed rivers and traveled downstream in gushing creek beds, both possible thanks to the Jeep’s 30-inch fording depth. We clambered into and out of tight crevices framing sunken creeks, thanks to the newly improved approach angle of 44 degrees, breakover angle of 27.8 degrees, and departure angle of 37 degrees, with 10.9-inches of clearance that helps the Wrangler manage a huge variety of obstacles in general. In one instance, a previous-generation Wrangler in our party — a JK, as opposed to the new JL, designations that aficionados will recognize — found itself impaled on a small ridge that all four JL’s had easily managed moments before. Its driver gave up and found another route.
It’s a weapon for tackling all the challenges Earth can provide. No tuner road-rocket comes close when it comes to the fanatical dedication of the Wrangler’s base.
A greater challenge came in the form of a boulder field deposited in a valley by a glacier. At first glance, it seemed impossible — that no vehicle could possibly make it through the punishing gauntlet intact. But we methodically soldiered on, in, over and through. Wrangler’s off-roading creds have been significantly enhanced, particularly in the Rubicon version. Next-generation solid Dana front and rear axles add increased durability; it’s equipped with a Selec-Trac two-speed transfer case with full-time four-wheel-drive for automatic distribution of power; a new electronic sway-bar disconnect that improves wheel articulation as the terrain grows gnarlier.
Driving the six-speed manual through the boulder field, I assumed my relative lack of experience in such scenarios would find me chronically stalling while inching over the terrain. But the Rubicon now has a crawl ratio of 84.2:1 (77.2:1 on the automatics, in the 40’s for the entry-level Wranglers — still no slouch for basic off-roading), meaning you’re able to slow down to a near stop without engaging the clutch. The wheels receive higher amounts of torque in the process for ultra-precise maneuvering and throttle application sans all the embarrassing power surges you’d get if you were trying to massage the clutch. Underneath, four skid plates and bars protected the truck’s bits and pieces while tubular steel rock rails along the rocker kept the body intact and the 33-inch standard tires on the Rubicon — mounted on 17-inch off-road wheels — further helped keep the pace up as spotters guided me through the multitude of threats in the trench. It was an exhilarating pass through a challenge that would quite literally stop most other off-roaders in their tracks.
All of this is fantastically exciting stuff for Jeep enthusiasts, but here’s another breakthrough for the Wrangler that many hardcore owners may not cop to caring all that much about: on-road manners. To some, it’s been a badge of honor that the Wrangler, so deft off-road, has maintained fairly appalling performance on the pavement, where it has exhibited heavy vibration, road noise, and body roll. But the engineers dug into this challenge, hardening mounting points to reduce vibration and tuning the suspension to smooth out quirks without compromising off-road performance. As a result, when we hit the asphalt in only the last hour of our three days of exploration of the South Island, rolling through the twisting blacktop on the way down Lake Wakatipu to Queenstown, it felt about as enjoyable as any contemporary SUV. That feeling was courtesy of such integrations as those USB ports, the fourth-generation Uconnect infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and several pinch-to-zoom screen sizes available, not to mention safety features such as blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection.
The new Wrangler’s on-road enhancement completes the modernization of this storied brand — this powerful tool that can now tackle the smooth as well as the rough. It sure seems to offer a lot of invincibility — something that goes a long way in a landscape like New Zealand’s.
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