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What Jeep needs to get right with the upcoming JL Wrangler, Part II: 4WD & Off-Road Hardware

Ross Ballot November 22, 2016 All Things Hoon, Featured 14 Comments
jlwranglerforums

A wild JL Wrangler mule appears, amid some off-road testing —– Source: JLWranglerForums

Pitting the company versus the buyers: From turbodiesel to pickup, your semi-comprehensive and somewhat speculative guide on the upcoming JL Wrangler

[This is Part 2 of a multi-entry installment about the 2018+ Jeep Wrangler. Stay tuned for further installments, and further breakdowns of what we want Jeep to do vs what Jeep will actually do.]

Part 2: 4WD & Off-Road Hardware

You know what must be a stressful job? Redesigning something as beloved as the Jeep Wrangler. I can’t imagine that being part of the team helping to prepare any other all-new vehicle is anything short of overwhelming, and, with so much riding on its success, it has to be a thousand times more so to be part of the crew working on Jeep’s four-wheel-drive convertible off-road legend. Even compared to the re-introduction of another treasured nameplate, a la Bronco (which we’re hoping Ford doesn’t screw up), contributing to a project with so much riding on the line must induce high-level stress. It’s one of the few vehicles that the general American public cares about, and one that everybody expects to live on forever. The Wrangler is, after all, an American icon.

As such, it’s absolutely crucial that Jeep gets the next generation of Wrangler right; not just to help the company meet sales projections, but to succeed with the buyers as well. Amidst an explosion in sales and no sign of slowing down, Jeep is at a crossroads: build a vehicle that will sell, or build a vehicle that’s true to the loyalists and hardcore off-roaders? In Part 1 we explored the JL’s exterior and what it will take to make it a success, so now let’s dive into the prospective upcoming Wrangler’s 4WD and off-road hardware/credentials, dissect what Jeep needs to do to please everybody, and hopefully paint a picture of a desirable future JL in which Jeep can hopefully please the consumers and the corporate heads alike. Now, if you will, jump with me…and don’t dream too much about a Rubicon pickup along the way.

Since we’re going through this in an order somewhat resembling the importance of what makes the Wrangler the Wrangler, next up is the other other item that, after the body, defines the nameplate: its off-road capability. No other new mass-market vehicle on sale today has such trail-worthy potential out of the box, and especially not so at the price point at which the Wrangler is sold. Given the company’s history of trail-worthy vehicles and its nonstop push (i.e., sales pitch) to sell their trucks on the premise that Jeeps enable the buyer to “get out there and do stuff,” it’s crucial as ever that Jeep maintains the Wrangler’s unparalleled rock-crawling, mud-throwing, and water fording chops.

offroaders

Source: Offroaders

What will “the people” want from the JL when it goes on sale? I’m not trying to get too psychologically deep here, but “most people” want to be able to think they can go wheeling. “Most people” want to feel that in owning a Wrangler, they’re rugged and outdoorsy. They want to feel like they can go anywhere, and drive over anything. They want a Wrangler to show others how exciting and adventurous and free they are. It’s an expression of their ideal selves, rather than who they actually are. But that’s only “most people” who buy the Wrangler, seeing as an overwhelming percentage– I’m guessing deep into the 90%s– don’t so much as touch gravel roads, let alone a proper trail. These people sit opposite the actual off-roaders, those who beat on their rigs and who use four-wheel-drive and low range and who think about things like articulation and locking diffs. And as long as the Jeep has four-wheel-drive, that’s all “most people” will want or care about, even knowing in the back of their minds that they will never scratch the surfacre of what their Wrangler is capable of. Simple as that.

For the “wheelers,” Jeep will need to maintain its Rubicon model. Sure, many people build up their rigs from a lower-spec model, but Jeep’s “halo car” (halo truck?) needs to be there for the off-roaders to aspire to owning and to allow for an extreme amount of out-of-the-box capability with a warranty to back it up. The Rubi needs the electronically disconnectable swaybars, beefed up transfer case, super low crawl ratio, ample ground clearance, and factory-installed off-road-suited tires, the attitude to back it all up. Jeep would do well to push the Rubicon Hard Rock even further by offering full skids, heavy duty bumpers with a front winch, a bit of body armor, and an even lower crawl ratio, a slight lift, and even meatier tires. Dreaming? Sure. Want? Duh. Would they sell them? I’d put money on them flying off the lots, even at $45k+.

motor-trend

Source: Motor Trend

But what does Jeep want to sell? They’ll probably continue with the standard Rubicon soldering on with equipment comparable to what it’s always had. Given what seems like a never-ending contract with BFGoodrich there’s a chance it will ride on BFG AT KO2s or Mud-Terrain KM2s depending on the actual JL trim. Or, based on some spy photos we’ve seen, the Rubicon could ride on Goodyear Wrangler DuraTracs– extremely capable and popular off-road tires that are still very tarmac-compliant. Jeep will probably wait a few years to release an updated Rubicon Hard Rock, equipped with a nice hood, some stickers, a beefier front bumper, and a price bump to match. As for the rest of the JL lineup, especially so for the lower trims, they’ll probably give them the 4WD, low range, proportions, size, clearance, and so on to make it decently capable off the showroom floor, abut nowhere near stepping on the toes of its Rubicon big brother. Just capable enough to give wheelers a taste, and to get them to modify their rigs or get into a Rubicon.

motoringme

Source: MotoringMe

It has to be noted that there’s rumors of the JL Wrangler making use of independent front suspension (IFS), which would be a landmark change and the first time the solid-front-axle (SFA) was forfeited in favor of IFS on the Wrangler. Let me be clear: this would be a monumental change equivalent to that of the Corvette going mid-engine for its C8 generation. On a “bigger things,” taken-as-a-whole level, this would be a good move: IFS is more comfortable on the street, and can still be made somewhat capable off-road. However, for the die-hards and the off-road enthusiasts, IFS poses a substantial decrease in versatility versus its SFA counterpart. Potentially practical and beneficial from a corporate viewpoint, but against the nameplate’s mantra. As such, I’m suggesting– and hoping– that more street-going models get IFS (to help with ride quality, fuel efficiency, etc.) but that the off-road variants retain a SFA. It would also be nice if you could select a solid axle as an option on the lower models, in case you someday want to build up a dedicated trail rig from a lower-spec trim. While modern IFS is very flexible and does pretty great off-road (look at the FJ Cruiser), it’s still no substitute for a proper solid axle. Hopefully we’ll get both, but I’m not holding my breath. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised to see a solid axle, and wouldn’t be surprised to see an independent front setup. Then again, very little surprises me these days.

trucktrend

Source: Truck Trend

So long as even the base model JL promises the ability to drive easily on a beach, make it through deep snow, and look like it’s worthy of the Trail Rated badge, Jeep will do just fine selling the JL to those who want to look like an off-roader adventure-seeker without actually having to be so. Obviously us enthusiasts only hope for more off-road capability, but as long as the JL matches what the JK can do it will be accepted as a success. On the flip side, any backwards progress would be deemed unacceptable and an attempt to neuter the Wrangler. But Jeep knows better than that, and if anything the onslaught of Trailhawk models is proof that they’re dedicated to holding true and strong to their history and to the future of driving off the beaten path. If there’s one thing that Jeep knows, it’s how to build a proper off-road vehicle. With the upcoming JL Wrangler, we should see more of what we love about Jeeps: legitimate off-road chops in a vehicle that you would actually want to wheel. I’ll say it again: Bring on the JL.

This has been Part 2 of “What to expect when you’re expecting a new Jeep.” Stay tuned for Part 3 in the upcoming days…or weeks…or whenever I get around to it.

jeep

The original Rubicon —– Source: Jeep

  • Rover 1

    “build a vehicle that will sell, or build a vehicle that’s true to the loyalists and hardcore off-roaders”

    Why the ‘or’?

    For the best authenticity why not both?

    And IFS like a Humvee or a Range Rover? What’s wrong with that?

    • outback_ute

      I don’t think a Range Rover is as hard-core capable as a Wrangler, and more importantly it can’t be upgraded as much or as easily. The Humvee isn’t really comparable due to the extra width allowing longer suspension arms that wouldn’t be possible on a Jeep. Short IFS arms limit wheel travel.

      • Rover 1

        Putting Range Rover may be distracting. Plenty of people round here like the off-road capability of the Discovery 3 & 4 with IFS and IRS.

        • outback_ute

          They are the same mechanically as the RR aren’t they? While they will do what 95% of people need, I still would doubt they are as capable or able to be made as capable as a Wrangler or solid axle Landcruiser or Patrol. Given the latter two aren’t built any more, it only increases the case for a solid axle Jeep IMO.

          I wonder whether any of the “expedition vehicle” companies make a body extension for the Jeep to improve cargo capacity?

    • Jamey Burgess

      IFS isn’t as durable (at least for the cost) as a solid axle. Nor is it as flexy off road (again at least for the cost.)

    • Ross Ballot

      What I meant was:
      If they make it more comfortable, more road-friendly, etc, it will likely come at the sacrifice of some of the off-road capability. And yet, if they retain all of its off-road prowess, they will likely push away some customers who otherwise would want a Wrangler.

      The Humvee had portal axles, which are in a completely different league. Yes, it’s technically IFS, but on another planet compared to what the Range Rover and FJC have/had.

      • Jamey Burgess

        The Hummer is more of Jeep than a KL Cherokee will ever be. And I like KL’s!

        AMC 20 center sections FTW!

  • outback_ute

    Get it wrong and the older Jeeps will basically stop depreciating I guess.

    I don’t think a SFA/IFS divide would be a good idea necessarily, there are less-hardcore Jeeps available for people not willing to deal with a SFA. It reminds me of Holden introducing the first Commodore; they had experienced major structural failures with early Opel-built prototypes (through stress readings the Opel engineers said could not be right!) and considered at one point building “city” and “country” versions of the car. They didn’t do that because of the probability that a “city” car would be taken on rough roads and experience problems and damage its reputation. Jeep should be wary of watering down the Wrangler.

    • Ross Ballot

      Valid point. Especially with the new Compass, they have a full lineup of other vehicles that they can sell to those who don’t want the Wrangler badly enough to deal with SFA. For those who can handle it, and those who want the capability, the Wrangler is there.

  • Jamey Burgess

    Mention IFS or IRS again in relation to any “real” Jeep, and we RIOT. Blasphemy!

    None of the spy shots have shown an IFS and I believe Allpar have shot that down as well.

    IFS/IRS would ruin it. So many of our customers see the solid axles as “durable” and “Jeep.” Even the soccer moms. 90% of the Wrangler customers are “lifestyle” purchasers. And yes the IFS/IRS would make a arguably better riding, safer handling, lighter vehicle, with very little affect on the off roading ability that the average customer does.

    But then, why wouldnt you just buy a Cherokee?

    • Ross Ballot

      Huh, must have missed Allpar saying no-go on IFS. Glad to hear it.

      All I’m saying is that they’d probably sell a bunch more of the JLs if they ride better/smoother, handle better, and get better gas mileage than a would-be SFA counterpart. Then again, the people buying them are probably buy them regardless of those factors. Agreed on the “lifestyle purchase” part for sure, I’d think it’s maybe even higher than 90%…sadly.

      Re: “why not just buy a Cherokee?” I honestly think many people want a Wrangler, and if they don’t buy one they consider the Cherokee’s competitors pretty seriously. It just doesn’t have the allure that the Wrangler does.

      • Jamey Burgess

        Dana also had a renewed contract in the mix as well. Need to use ye olde Google to make sure, but I’m almost positive.

        The thing about the Cherokee is, and I loathe to say this, it’s better than any Wrangler in every aspect. EXCEPT off roading and interior space (and warrrany claims!) I’m a three Wrangler owner myself, my wife has one, and my son has a 2001 Grand.

        99% of people that buy a 4 door JK dont need any of the capability it has built into it. Even the base models. Let alone the Rubicons. But yet, its exactly what people want.

        • Rover 1

          For the same reason people buy watches waterproof to 1000m so they can wear them while showering?

          • Jamey Burgess

            Exactly.

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