The new Jeep Wrangler JL took forever to finally (officially) arrive in South Africa. We took the entry-level Sahara 3.6 V6 AT three-door for a spin to find out if it’s still got that quintessential Jeep DNA that has elevated the brand to legendary status since the Second World War.
The new JL looks like a Jeep Wrangler. In fact, it looks exactly like a Jeep Wrangler. It’s an iconic silhouette that first appeared in 1941, during the Second World War. It eventually played a pivotal role in helping secure an Allied victory too, further swelling its legendary status.
The seven-slot grille, capped off with seven-inch round headlights. The familiar, boxy shape with upright windscreen. The wide wheel arches, with the wheels set in the corners for best approach and departure angles. Plenty of ground clearance. It’s all very Jeep Wrangler.
Yet, if you look a bit deeper, and a bit more closely, the new JL represents a gargantuan improvement over the previous JK model. On face value, it appears that Jeep’s engineers have hit the nail on the head. Keep it Wrangler, but make it 2020 Wrangler. So improve the JK’s notoriously unrefined on-road behaviour, but also ensure the JL is even better off-road than the JK.
There are a myriad of small updates and changes that are not immediately obvious, so let’s get stuck into some of those.
Keeping it Wrangler. Just better
There’s an old saying: the devil is in the detail. In the new JL, it’s the small details that are not immediately obvious that really sets it apart from the JK.
At the front, the seven-slot grille is a familiar feature, but on the new JL that grille is slanted ever so slightly at the top to decrease drag. Ditto with the new windscreen, which features a slant of around six degrees (and it can still fold forward). The JK’s dismal standard halogen headlights – a well-documented Wrangler bugbear – have been replaced with modern LED versions.
Another major practical (and safety) improvement is the relocation of the front indicators, that are now positioned on the side fenders, alongside sleek new daytime running lights. The indicators are now infinitely more visible than they were on the JK, where they were located under the headlights and often obscured by bull bars or aftermarket lights.
The sleek new front bumper remains a bulky business (you can still use it as a bench), and it is fitted with fog lights and sturdy tow hooks. The JL’s bonnet is also sleeker than the JK’s version, to further improve airflow and reduce drag.
A major design improvement on the new JL revolves around the bonnet latches. On the JK these were rubber items that clipped the bonnet in place. However, over time those rubber latches could perish and break, and cause that bonnet to not seal properly. This has now been rectified with sturdy plastic and metal latches. These still look cool, but they also lock the bonnet more securely, and should last much longer.
On the JK the front doors featured hinges and a piece of vinyl strap that prevented the door from swinging open completely. There was no tensioning force though, so if you opened a door, you had to make sure it didn’t swing open and connect something along the way. Ditto for when you wanted to get into the Jeep – you physically needed to hold the door in place to prevent it from flapping about.
This has now been rectified in the JL with a new control arm that ensures that it operates like a normal car door. So it will stay in place when fully open, and there’s another halfway stopping point too, for those tighter car park situations.
The basic side profile of the JL is very familiar, and at first glance quite similar to the JK. However, the flared wheel arches are different in design and size, and JL also has a (functional) vent just behind the front arches to assist in dissipating engine heat. There are some additional updates in lines and creases, but it’s subtle, yet effective. This Wrangler sure looks cool.
From a practical point of view, the JK’s older button-style door handles have been replaced with contemporary handle items.
At the back the JL features some slightly aerodynamic improvements. There are very cool new LED rear taillights and there’s still a full-sized spare wheel mounted on the side-opening rear door. The rear window wiper has been relocated from the top of the rear window to the bottom. The number plate has been moved from the body to the rear bumper.
A complete (interior) overhaul
The new JL’s interior has been completely overhauled, and represents a massive improvement over the JK.
In fact, the only familiar feature on the JL that JK owners will be familiar with, is the location of the electric window buttons, which are still located in the centre console. For the rest it is all new, and markedly more upmarket, modern and – dare we say it – more refined.
There’s a leather-covered steering wheel, there’s voice control for the top quality Uconnect 8.4-inch infotainment system, a 552 Watt Alpine premium sound system (All-Weather Premium Audio system with eight speakers), satellite navigation, new switchgear that elevates the Wrangler to a higher tier of luxury and, overall, a much improved sense of plush refinement.
Pray tell, there’s even a stop-start system: when you stop at a traffic light, the V6 engine will automatically switch off and then switch on when you depress the brake pedal (the system can be disabled too).
So that is like hanging a cow bell around a leopard’s neck and getting it to try and stalk an unsuspecting bokkie. But it’s all part of Jeep’s commendable efforts to drag the Wrangler into the 21st century, kicking and screaming.
The three-door Wrangler is still a three-door Wrangler, so although front seat occupants don’t have it bad at all, the rear pews are not the kind of place adults would prefer to spend extended amounts of time. For short trips they are okay for two persons of average height.
Getting into those rear seats has been slightly simplified on the JL, with the release lever for the front seats (to fold and slide forward) now located on the outer edge of the front seats.
Behind the rear seats there is a space. But it’s still a ridiculously small space. We actually contemplated traveling five people up in the cabin (this is possible at a squeeze), but when we saw how many bags had to go with, we parked the Jeep and reverted to a vehicle with some packing space.
If you prefer to do your Jeeping with some wind in the hair, there’s more good news: Jeep’s Freedom Top three-piece modular hardtop is still standard. So you can remove the entire roof and go ‘topless.’
On the JK this roof removal and fitment was a task that often required a braai, some empathetic friends, a case of beers and plenty of encouragement. The good news is that new roof is both lighter and the removal process easier. You can also remove the front aluminium doors.
I say old chap, it’s all very refined, isn’t it?
Jeep’s familiar Pentastar 3.6-litre V6 petrol mill continues to do service in the latest JL, albeit in slightly refined form (it’s said to be six percent more efficient, thanks to minor updates and improvements).
So you get a handy 209kW of power and 347Nm of torque, the latter peaking at 4 100r/min. The biggest (and possibly the best) news in regards to the JL’s upgraded drivetrain is the addition of Jeep TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic gearbox. Based on ZF’s renowned eight-speed automatic ‘box, the Wrangler’s driving experience has been completely transformed.
It’s now silky smooth, yet powerful. It’s responsive, yet efficient. The ‘box has made a marked difference.
The JL has not forsaken the Wrangler’s legendary off-roading ability. In fact, it’s upped the game. It still rides on hardy solid axles in the front and rear, and the Sahara is now equipped with Jeep’s latest Command-Trac 4WD system.
In the JK you could choose between two-wheel drive high range, four-wheel drive high range (locked 50/50 between front and rear axles), and low range (locked 50/50 between front and rear axles).
The JL’s system has some new party tricks. Besides the advantages of a lower crawl ratio afforded by upgraded Dana axles, the Sahara’s 4WD system features the addition of a 4WD Auto selection.
In this setting the vehicle will run in default rear-wheel drive, but when the drivetrain sensors detect possible wheel slip, power will be diverted to the rear wheels too. This is ideal for slippery roads, and adds a whole world of grip in low traction conditions (compared to the sometimes sketchy JK set-up during a heavy downpour on slippery tar roads).
In essence then, you can run the Sahara as a full-time AWD on tar too, greatly enhancing traction.
The suspension (a new five-link coil spring and track bar set-up) itself has been tuned for improved ride quality and stability. There are disc brakes on all four corners, ensuring solid stopping power.
There’s never been a safer Wrangler than the latest JL. It is said to boast over 65 active and passive safety features. This includes a Parkview rear backup camera, Park Sense rear park assist system, an ABS braking system, electronic stability control (ESC) with electronic roll mitigation and four standard airbags.
The drive – on the road
The front door handles, and their solid operation. That’s the first thing that impresses about the new JL. No more flimsy buttons to press. Just a solid pull on the solid handle, and the door – now weighted like a normal car door – swings open impressively.
Slide in behind the wheel and you have to catch your breath for a moment. This is all new, all luxury, la-de-da. It’s an entirely new playing field for the Wrangler. There’s an LCD screen between the two traditional analogue dials, displaying anything from tyre pressures to fuel gauge to radio stations, and much more.
There’s also climate control (that works a charm) and those centrally mounted electric window buttons, as well as a 12V jack and a USB port. The centre console is dominated by the large 8.4-inch screen, which also features a touch function. So you can scroll between radio, media, navigation, and you can access Apps (when connected to the interweb).
Right, so let’s get down to the actual drive. The new eight-speed gearbox has completely transformed the Jeep’s driving experience. It is super-smooth and efficient, and it forms an improved partnership with the 209kW V6 petrol engine.
Although it’s obviously no sports car, the 1.9-ton Sahara completed the 0-100km/h sprint in 9.1 seconds – fast enough to trounce a few boy racers in their wannabe go-faster-with-wings-and-scoops jalopies. It will eventually run out of steam at around 180km/h, a bit faster than we’d prefer to be going in a three-door Wrangler.
The ride quality is certainly improved too, and at highway speeds the new JL is really pleasant, efficient and comfortable. At a true 120km/h the big V6 engine ticks over at just 1 800r/min in top gear, with plenty of torque in reserve for overtaking slower traffic without swapping cogs.
If you manage to ignore those boy racers at the traffic light, you can expect an average consumption of around 12.6 litres/100km, around town. If you hit the open road at a sedate pace that figure may dip to under 10 litres/100km – numbers Jeep JK owners can only but fantasise about.
Interestingly, the new JL three-door’s fuel tank is marginally smaller than the JK version, at 66 versus 68 litres. However, because the JL is more fuel efficient, the range has slightly improved – you can expect just over 500km between refuels (at 12.6 litres/100km).
It’s not perfect, no. Our test unit had quite a lot of steering play around the centre steering point. So, especially on undulating tar roads, we had to constantly correct the line with minor movements of the tiller. If we had to pay more than R800 000 for a 4×4, we wouldn’t expect such a fallacy. You do get used to it, it must be said.
The drive – off the road
This is now where the sum of all the new Wrangler JL’s parts is supposed to come together and result in one unstoppable 4×4. And that’s exactly what happens.
The shorty Sahara actually has 280mm of clearance at the front and 265mm at the back. And remember, this is straight out of the box, with the stock rims and tyres. Throw in the excellent approach and departure angles, the new Command-Trac 4×4 system with an even lower crawler gear, and the electronic traction aids, and this Jeep has upped the off-road game over the previous generation JK. Wheel articulation, for the record, remains virtually on par with the JK.
In the past a short-wheel base Wrangler, running at a brisk pace on a heavily corrugated gravel road could be an entertaining business, the tail tending to bounce around some. Sure, the stability control did keep things in check, but you always felt like you had to hold onto that steering wheel just a little bit tighter than you’d normally would.
Now, with the five-link suspension set-up, the relocation of some other suspension parts and the 4High Auto function, gravel roads – no matter their condition – no longer cause sweaty palms in the Wrangler’s cabin. It tracks true and straight, inspiring confidence, despite the steering system not being as impressive as the rest of the package.
Add a wading depth of 760mm, a surprisingly tight turning circle (10.36-metres) all the low-down grunt and high-end power of the Pentastar motor, and this Sahara will go places that are normally the reserve of only the Wrangler Rubicon (with front and rear lockers, front sway-bar disconnect and mud terrain tyres).
It certainly is more 4×4 than most owners will ever require.
R860 000. That is a lot of money for a two-door Jeep Wrangler – it represents a jump of R200 000 over the previous generation JK 3.6 V6 Sahara.
Fact is, comparing the new JL to the older JK is like comparing coffee to tea. They may share the same silhouette, name and ancestry, but for the rest it’s chalk and cheese.
The latest JL is a thorough makeover of the legendary Jeep. Refined, modern, luxurious, more capable then ever before and still as fashionable as a pair of South African-flag undies, the JL sure is a desirable piece of 4×4 kit. It is definitely on our Christmas wish list.
Remember: when Ford first announced the pricing of its Ranger Raptor, just about everyone threw their hats upon the ground, saying no-one will ever pay more than R800 000 for a… Ford Ranger. Now there is a two-year waiting list for the same Raptor.
Here’s hoping the new Jeep Wrangler JL will head down the same path. It certainly deserves to do so.
If it doesn’t fly off the showroom floors (and we sadly suspect sales will be slow), Fiat Chrysler SA will seriously have to consider bringing the Wrangler 2.0T (with a two-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine with 200kW and 400Nm of torque), available in the US market as an entry-level derivative, to our shores.
Apparently this is currently under discussion, but nothing has been confirmed yet. Here’s hoping it does.
For Jeep fans’ sakes.
Jeep Wrangler 3.6 V6 Sahara three-door
Engine: V6 petrol
Displacement: 3 605cc
Power: 209kW @ 6 400r/min
Torque: 347Nm @ 4 800r/min
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
4WD system: Part-time four wheel drive (2H, 4H Auto, 4H and 4Low)
Driving aids: ABS, Hill Descent Control, Blind Spot Warning, Rear Traffic Alert, electronic stability control and traction control
Differential lock: No
Tyre size: 255/70 R18
Tyre brand: Bridgestone Dueler H/T
Rim size: 18-inch
Suspension front: Five-link, live axle
Suspension rear: Five-link, live axle
Brakes front: Ventilated discs
Brakes rear: Ventilated discs
0-60km/h: 4.1 seconds
0-100km/h: 9.1 seconds
60-120km/h: 8.4 seconds
Quarter mile: 16.5 seconds @ 137.7km/h
60-0km/h: 2.3 seconds and 15.6 metres
120-0km/h: 4.5 seconds and 63.7 metres
MEASUREMENTS AND CAPACITIES
Engine speed at 120km/h: 1 800r/min
Average fuel consumption: 12.6 litres/100km
Fuel tank capacity: 66 litres
Ground clearance, front: 280mm
Ground clearance, rear: 265mm
Weight: 1 880kg
Warranty: Three-year/100 000km
Maintenance plan: Three-year/100 000km
Service interval: 15 000km
Price: R860 000