On its way to treading lightly, but not quite there


The expected arrival later this year of the Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid will mark the first time that an iconic “tough truck” off-road SUVs gets a charge port. 

In efficiency, it won’t be a tough crowd to one-up. Until then, in badged-and-branded EcoDiesel form, the Jeep Wrangler turbodiesel’s 22 mpg city, 29 highway, 25 combined gas-mileage ratings are the best you can get in an ultra-rugged off-roader sold in the U.S. Given that, taking the Wrangler diesel out for a drive earlier this year seemed like a check-in we needed to make prior to any drive opportunities with the PHEV.

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel - drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel – drive review

That’s of course ahead of the arrival of the Rivian R1S electric SUV and the exclusive, Class 3-rated Bollinger B1. There might be a few others, as well: The Ford Bronco Hybrid won’t have a charge port—at least not right away—and Tesla hasn’t given a clear picture yet of how off-road capable the Cybertruck might be. 

The Wrangler I drove was the ever-off-road-ready Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4×4.Unlimited refers to the four-door body style and Rubicon being the most capable trim in the lineup. 

Even though the Wrangler was completely re-engineered and redesigned for 2018, it maintains not just the vintage-vehicle looks and cues, but a vintage-SUV driving position. Unlike some other new SUVs—and most crossovers—you sit on the Wrangler as opposed to in it. The likeness to an all-capable riding horse isn’t a stretch, as with the flexible roof layout, flip-down windshield, and removable doors, everything above the saddle/seat level can seem superfluous. It’s charming.

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel - drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel – drive review

I wouldn’t call the 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 charming, but it doesn’t loudly stake its claims on compression ignition everywhere it goes. Cold starts were somewhat noisier, and there was a slight bit more driveline vibration for the first few minutes of driving after setting out; but there was none of the noisy clatter that diesels have had in the past. Once fully warmed up, the turbodiesel settles to a low purr you might mistake for that of a gasoline engine. 

The engine makes 260 horsepower, and its impressive peak 442 pound-feet of torque is made from just 1,400 rpm—an output that is definitely not as flexible as an electric motor might be down low. There’s often a half-second or more of lag after you step into the accelerator until the engine delivers a surge of torque, and it’s unrelated to the 8-speed automatic transmission. Unless you stomp your right foot down to the floor, the transmission holds the line in the gear you’re in and just waits for the boost to build. Likewise, off-the-line acceleration is underwhelming unless you first brake-torque to spool up the turbo. 

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel - drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel – drive review

The Wrangler’s curb weight might contribute to those impressions that the powertrain is taking a deep breath before anything assertive. In Rubicon trim, the Wrangler Unlimited EcoDiesel weighs 4,862 pounds—a hefty weight for a vehicle that measures about 188 inches long and really doesn’t have much back-seat space. 

I didn’t drive the Wrangler far beyond the pavement this time, but I can attest Wrangler Rubicon models are aces. Almost entirely on-road, in the rigors of a busy week of errands and two runs to outer suburbs, the Wrangler didn’t feel as much in its element. The weight, together with the high-profile off-road tires and wheels, and its old-style recirculating-ball steering gear, give the Wrangler throwback-SUV driving experience that involves many small steering-wheel adjustments—with matters getting much worse with tramlined freeway surfaces. 

That said, the Wrangler is in its element in the city. You have a great vantage point and are always aware of where your corners are. What matters at creep-along speeds maneuvering around boulders can be of use in tight parking, too.

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel - drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel – drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel - drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel – drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel - drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel – drive review

Ride quality is pretty good—although most people will find seat comfort front and rear both come up short—and road noise coming through from the BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain tires was less than I’ve experienced in Wranglers before. At 70 mph expect a big part of the interior noise to be the rush of wind noise around the corners and top, however. Some things never change, but to its credit you can now carry on a conversation at highway speeds with the roof in place, with only slightly raised voices.

Major options included the Sky One-Touch Power Top setup with a rear wiper, rear defroster, and removable rear quarter windows ($3,995); an upgraded 8.4-inch touchscreen navigation system with Alpine premium audio, SiriusXM Traffic Plus, and a 4G LTE wireless hotspot ($1,695); leather upholstery ($1,495); LED lighting ($1,045); and the 8-speed automatic transmission and EcoDiesel engine option (together $6,000). Just getting steel bumpers was a $1,395 option. In all, the Wrangler had more than $21,000 in options, which brought the sticker price up to $63,715.

That price also included the $795 trailer prep package, which included electrical upgrades, a Class II receiver, and a wiring harness. That boosts the Wrangler’s maximum tow rating to 3,500 pounds, versus 2,000 pounds.

According to the trip computer, I’d averaged a bit over 20 mpg with the Wrangler in 73 miles of mixed conditions that included three cold starts. Giving the Wrangler the benefit of a warm engine, I zeroed the trip once again and managed an average of about 25 mpg over 49 miles at go-with-the-flow highway speeds ranging mostly between 65 and 70 mph. 

Overall, in nearly 120 miles of driving, my average clocked in at about 23 mpg. 

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel - drive review

2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon EcoDiesel – drive review

In May, Jeep said that the current generation of the Wrangler has the potential to account for a 14-metric-ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the previous generation of the Wrangler—a 15% overall reduction in GHG. That comparison was with the 2.0-liter turbo-4 gasoline engine and covers material use and the impact of fuel production and delivery in addition to the vehicle’s fuel consumption.

With the very well-executed Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, FCA has shown us that it has the engineering expertise to bring a more useful plug-in hybrid to market. As it stands, Jeep has much to gain from electrifying the Wrangler, which is at its best cruising around the city or out on a trail in the wilderness—and the diesel just doesn’t make as much sense here as it might in a long-haul towing truck. With tailpipe emissions written off in town, and the precise torque for off-roading, the Wrangler plug-in hybrid seems like the one worth waiting for. 



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