Jeep launched the all-new JL-series Wrangler for 2018 with a larger footprint and much-refined powertrains. (Bill Visnic)

What we're driving: 2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

A testimony to how good the new-generation JL-series Wrangler is on the tarmac: it was really quite civil in an 800-mile, nearly all-highway week of travel to the Detroit auto show in January.

Doesn’t mean I’ll ever see the Wrangler—regardless of the new JL’s comparative refinement—as a reasonable thing for driving on pavement virtually all the time. You know, the way almost all Wranglers are used.

For around-town driving and errand-running, the 4-door Wrangler Unlimited, even in rough-and-ready Rubicon trim, is hardly an ox cart, but once you get past the image thing, driving to and fro on solid and front and rear axles and nearly 11 in. (279 mm) of ground clearance doesn’t seem the most rational of commuter-vehicle choices. And although the JL’s wheelbase is stretched by 2.4 in. (61 mm) to a reasonable 118.4 in. (3007 mm)—the same as a Honda CR-V—the high center of gravity and hefty curb weight of the Wrangler Unlimited make abrupt steering and cornering feel dicey.

The brilliantly tuned gas-charged dampers make for a gorgeously supple ride, even on knobby-ish 17-in. tires. If the cranking potholes that symbolize the state of America’s infrastructure are part of your daily grind, the Wrangler, born to bash boulders, laughs at such trivialities.

The Wrangler Unlimited we drove was fitted with the 3.6-L and its 285 hp and 260 lb·ft (365 N·m) that didn’t have too much trouble achieving and maintaining parity with other traffic, but the Wrangler’s still bruising aerodynamic profile makes maintaining a 75-mph Interstate cruise a bit of a chore, not to mention a not-inconsiderable assault on the ears, particularly with the soft top. At Interstate speeds, the Wrangler Unlimited didn’t have a prayer of achieving its 23-mpg highway rating; on flat highway, the Jeep rarely produced mid-teens efficiency readouts. The new 8-speed automatic transmission keeps the powertrain howl calmer than in any prior Wrangler, but at a scandalous $2,000 option price.

Fact is, this Wrangler Unlimited’s as-tested price of $54,385 stopped me in my tracks. I understand FCA’s position: the Wrangler, as an acknowledged individuality icon in a sea evermore generic grocery-getters, is one of the hottest tickets out there, so strike while the iron is hot. But the company should take caution in a dealer’s recent comment to Automotive News that he and others are growing concerned about the Wrangler’s ballooning price points. The Wrangler’s a lot of fun with a lot of character, but there’s a price to pay—in more ways than one.


2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

Base price:        $41,445

As tested:         $54,385

Highs:                Conquer anything on- or off-road; one-of-a-kind image; improved everywhere

Lows:                 Mediocre fuel economy; only-adequate refinement; getting pricey

Takeaway:         Entertaining and iconic, but if you rarely leave the pavement…

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