Jeep Wrangler review: ‘It might not be the finest-built vehicle – but every journey is an adventure’

Andrew English on Jeep Wrangler
The Jeep Wrangler is priced from £61,125 - Simon Thompson

Along with Dodge, Jeep, the iconic American frontier car maker, was considered one of the few things of value acquired by Sergio Marchionne, the boss of Fiat, when in 2014 he purchased Chrysler, the smallest and most ailing of America’s “big three” car makers.

When Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) was acquired by Peugeot-Citroën, Vauxhall-Opel and Jeep became the smallest of stacking dolls inside the motor-making matryoshka known as Stellantis.

And while the Jeep-branded Avenger, an electric family SUV based on the group’s common drivetrain and chassis technology, won the European Car of the Year award in 2023, it was difficult to see how the rest of the marque’s archetypical all-American, go-anywhere vehicles would have any sort of future in Europe.

Rugged image

True, they have attitude and image in spades, appealing to that rugged individualism which celebrities and West Coast Americans buy into. Presumably the celebs can afford the fuel bills for these notoriously dipsomaniac vehicles.

Derived from the Second World War Willys Jeep utility 4x4, each Wrangler carries the marque’s celebrated Trail Rated badging as proof of excellence over an excruciating 12 miles of Sierra Nevada rock trail which even the hardiest of 4x4 experts approach with trepidation. Yet the reality outside of sunshine states is of rusty orphans with leaking hoods parked in cut-price supermarket car parks. This does not fit with the Jeep promise of wide skies, Stetsons and forever sunshine.

Jeep wrangler traversing
The Jeep has established itself as an icon of American motoring - Simon Thompson

Since 1986 and the first YJ-series Wrangler, and through four generations, this mid-sized 4x4 has almost wilfully cocked a snook at the ever-more-sophisticated SUV trend. Being a 4x4 based on a now old-fashioned separate frame with live axles at both ends, this was the US equivalent of the old Land Rover Defender. It was a market which Land Rover didn’t think worth competing in when, in 2020 it reinvented the Defender on a strengthened Range Rover Sport monocoque chassis for the L663 model.

Were they wrong? It looks like it since the Ineos Grenadier, the body-on-frame utility built in France and backed by Jim Ratcliffe, has proved that there is still demand for such rugged off-roaders. Yet the Wrangler is more of a lifestyle vehicle than one you sell to public utilities and while US sales are about 200,000 a year, in Europe it barely shifts 8,000.

What’s new

With prices starting at £61,125, this mid-life refresh shows a slightly updated body and new interior design, though UK buyers won’t be offered the biggest development, a plug-in hybrid drivetrain, the Wrangler 4xe. This has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, twin electric motors and a 17kWh battery giving up to 49mpg and an EV-only range of 21 miles, but it has fallen foul of right-hand-drive packaging issues. So with the UK, Australia and South Africa excluded, that’s a bit of an own goal for a global company.

Nor will we get the good old V-configured engines (a 281bhp, 3.6-litre V6 and a 463bhp, 6.4-litre V8) that will be offered in the US. Instead, we get the base 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine which delivers a not unrespectable 267bhp and 295lb ft, with an eight-speed automatic gearbox driving all four wheels via a transfer box to give a set of crawler ratios to negotiating extreme territory.

Two versions will be offered: the £61,125 Sahara with 18-inch wheels, power-adjustable and heated leather seats, keyless go, parking sensors all round and a reversing camera, plus a 12.3in touchscreen.

Andrew driving the Jeep
The Jeep Wrangler has an updated interior - Simon Thompson

The top model £63,125 Rubicon is more off-road-biased, with 17-inch wheels, softer leather seat upholstery, an off-road camera system and a fully-floating rear axle from 4x4 specialist Dana, which gives the capability of disconnecting the anti-roll bar.

All have a detachable roof and a sturdy looking roll-over cage complete with various auxiliary switches. It’s 4,882mm long, 1,894mm wide, 1,838mm high with the hard top and runs on a 3,008mm wheelbase. It weighs 2,028kg and the maximum towing weight is 2,495kg, a bit disappointing as most rivals will tow 3.5 tonnes. The boot is a respectable if not outstanding 533 litres and if you fold the rear seats the area is 1,044 litres, 2,050 litres if you load it to the headlining…

Serious off-road types will want to know the approach/departure/breakover angles; these are 35.4 degrees, 30.7 degrees and 20 degrees respectively for the Sahara, which is more than respectable for a road-legal car. The Rubicon can do a bit more climbing and descending as a result of its 252mm ground clearance compared with the Sahara’s 242mm. Both will ford up to 762mm.

Obviously Jeep’s distinctive seven-slot grille is retained and there are various bodywork additions, though none you’d shout from the rooftops.

“Jeep has been quite a niche product in the past,” says Kris Cholmondeley, Jeep’s affable new managing director. What he doesn’t say is the tiny UK dealer group has been in open revolt and the product line-up patchy. Steps have been taken to address this and the Car of the Year-winning Avenger will bring buyers to showrooms, but importing less than a quarter of the available Wrangler range won’t help the ambitious expansion plans.

Nor will the weather, since part of the Jeep rebranding has a whiff of wood smoke and open-air barbeques – which in the UK means standing about in the drizzle. There’s also a preponderance of bubble jackets, branded baseball caps and big sunglasses so everyone with a Jeep connection ends up looking like the extrovert US rally and stunt driver Ken Block.

In the wild

We headed off into the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales in search of testing terrain, which wasn’t too far away. On the road the Wrangler has its limitations, but they are surprisingly few. While the shallow windscreen, intrusive roll cage and vertical dashboard make driving seem like staring through the gunner’s slit in an armoured car, the on-road ride is surprisingly good, even in the Rubicon version. The anti-roll bars work hard to restrict the cornering roll but don’t leave too much side-to-side head tossing. The steering, while slow, is also quite direct for such a steering-box/live axle-based system.

Jeep Wrangler going uphill
The Yorkshire Dales made for the perfect terrain to test the Jeep's offroading abilities - Simon Thompson

While the 2.0-litre engine sounds far from the yee-harr V8s of the American versions, it’s effective and gives quite brisk performance, only sounding strained if you attempt an overtaking manoeuvre.

Like a lot of these utility off-roaders, the Wrangler has a “best speed”, in this case between 50 and 65mph on a rolling A-road. Over hill and dale, the Tarmac flows gently under the bluff nose and the rather leisurely reaction to the major controls seems in keeping rather than a hindrance. In some senses the tyre roar and differential whine (still in evidence despite improved soundproofing) is proof of concept and somehow comforting. There’s a terrific heater and air-conditioning set-up, with separate controls under the touchscreen.

Turn off the road and you almost sense the Jeep pricking its ears in anticipation. These unmade Dales tracks were unlikely to stop a Wrangler on heavily treaded tyres and so it proved, although you need to understand what all the switchgear does before rock climbing. In that respect it’s less electronics-based than, say, the new Defender’s Terrain Response system, but more automated than the levers-and-buttons approach of the Ineos Grenadier.

Off-roading like this is where driver experience and tyre choice count for at least as much as vehicle ability, but when the going gets tough the Wrangler is at least a match for its rivals. When you watch it grinding slowly and inexorably forward on precipitous slopes, with only two tyres finding sufficient grip, it seems like a good friend to have in a tight spot.

The Telegraph verdict

With the off-roading included, I managed about 21mpg against an official WLTP economy of 24.8mpg, while the CO2 emissions of 269g/km will mean your first year VED will be £2,745. No one said these vehicles will be cheap to run; a diesel engine would have been a nice option here.

Jeep Wrangler going behind wall
'You might have to make serious compromises in how to use the Jeep Wrangler' - Simon Thompson

With a new product portfolio on the way this year and next, Jeep is finally starting to receive the attention and investment it deserved but its more conventional offerings, while anachronistic, are the heartland of the badge. The Wrangler might not be the finest-built vehicle and you might have to make serious compromises in how you use it, but it’s the type of car in which you return home expecting to find arrows in your hat. Every journey is an adventure; sometimes a good thing, but not always.

With a new battery electric off-roader, the Recon, on the way as well as the 600bhp Grand Wagoneer, Jeep is going places in the market with what seems like a seven-car range in the UK. By the end of next year we’ll have the Recon, Renegade, Compass, Wrangler, Grand Cherokee, Avenger and Wagoneer, but when it comes to actually taking people, dogs and stuff well off the beaten track, the Wrangler stands alone. Long may that continue.

The facts

On test: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Body style: five-door 4x4 utility SUV

On sale: now

How much? £63,125 (range from £61,125)

How fast? top speed 99mph, 0-62mph in 7.6sec

How economical? 24.8mpg WLTP (21mpg on test)

Engine and gearbox: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, eight-speed automatic gearbox, transfer box with locking differentials, four-wheel drive

Maximum power/torque: 267bhp @ 5,250rpm/295lb ft @ 3,000rpm

CO2 emissions: 269g/km

VED: £2,745 first year, £600 next five years, then £190

Warranty: five years/75,000, with three-year servicing and five-year roadside assistance

The rivals

Land Rover Defender 110

From £63,670

Dubbed “the unstoppable 4x4”, there’s little doubting the off-road ability of the latest Defender, although in the absolute extremes a car-like monocoque chassis and independent suspension won’t get you quite as far as live axles and a separate chassis. The cheapest 110 is the D250 with a 249bhp turbodiesel engine giving 33.1mpg and 0-62mph in 7.9sec. Notwithstanding recent reliability issues, the new Defender is a rather lovely vehicle with great on-road ride and handling.

New Toyota Land Cruiser

£55,000 to £60,000

With a throwback design based on the original FJ60 Land Cruiser, the forthcoming fifth-generation model is promised to be stiffer, more practical and more go-anywhere than any of the previous models. Based on Toyota’s New Global separate chassis architecture, at 4,920mm long the new model is slightly longer than its predecessor with a much-improved interior. Likely to be offered with a 2.8-litre turbodiesel engine driving all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox at launch, with a mild hybrid drivetrain expected to follow.

Ineos Grenadier Trialmaster station wagon

 From £73,000

It’s taken a while for Jim Ratcliffe’s new car firm to settle and deliver consistent quality, but we understand it has made progress. There’s no doubting the potential of the Toby Ecuyer-designed utility with its massive off-road capability, along with smooth BMW diesel and petrol engines and a ZF eight-speed transmission. Fuel consumption for the petrol is not great however and the on-road behaviour is, well, busy. If you have serious work to do out in the wilds, this will fit the bill; if you want a Chelsea tractor, look elsewhere.  

Mercedes-Benz G-class G350d,

From £94,000

Formerly known as the Geländewagen, or G-Wagen, the G-class was originally the inspiration of the Shah of Iran. Built in Austria, the G-Wagen gained a reputation for off-road competence and a very high price. In 2018 Mercedes-AMG extensively re-engineered the entire car but retained its ladder-frame chassis. The 2019 G350 diesel engine version gave it genuine 30mpg ability and a five-figure price, but that’s dropped so now the cheapest way into a Geländewagen is with the 450D AMG Line Premium Plus at £136,690 – ouch.