You don’t need to take the 2018 Jeep Wrangler off-road to enjoy driving it. Every ride in this thing feels like an adventure. But when you do push it off the edge of the map, the barbarian spec Rubicon becomes the best sidekick you could ask for.
(Full Disclosure: I begged Jeep for access to the new JL Wrangler, and the company was finally able to oblige me over Memorial Day Weekend. Unfortunately, the previous borrower had cracked the windshield and there was no time to repair it before my scheduled trip, so I’m obligated to inform you that the glass damage you’ll see in some pictures was battle damage, not a manufacturing defect.)
The outgoing JK Jeep Wrangler was solid. And honestly, so was the short TJ before that and even the square-eyed YJ in the ’80s and early ’90s. But the new-for-2018 JL is so much nicer inside and so much easier to use, without sacrificing the capability that made Jeep famous in the first place, that driving it just made me want to tear off into the sunset and never come back.
So this last long weekend, that’s exactly what I tried to do.
Our adventure started late Friday night, Memorial Day weekend, like so many others: sucking fumes in the scrum of traffic entering Los Angeles International Airport.
My old man was flying in from Boston to get a tour of the desert, and I couldn’t wait to use that as an excuse to spend some quality time with the new Wrangler. And dad, too. Of course.
The airport traffic is where I first noticed that the clutch in the Wrangler Rubicon’s manual transmission is ridiculously light, like a button, and that the LED headlights are intimidating enough to sear the eyes of those who would dare cut me off for a late merge.
By the time I finally made it to the Terminal 4 curb, my dad had a look of exhausted bewilderment but quickly snapped back to reality when he spotted the Firecracker Red Wrangler.
“Good eye,” I said, as his bag landed on the rear seat with a thud and we shook hands. “You’re easy to spot,” he replied. “Those new headlights are, uh, pretty darn cool.”
Even though he was being thrown straight into California gridlock after a six hour flight across the country, my pops was amped to be out west and in the right seat of a new Wrangler. So was I, because the route I’d prerun on Google Earth was going to be excellent:
Los Angeles to Big Bear Lake via the brief-but-delightfully twisty Route 330, some wheeling among the trees at elevation, then across the rough and craggy Smarts Ranch Road to Joshua Tree for some fun in the sand. On the way back, we’d hit open BLM land in and around Johnson Valley before coming down the Angeles Crest Highway with an off-road epilogue across the short Mount Mooney truck trail. And then finally, back to the Beach Cities region where I like to tell people I reside.
Saturday morning, it was on. First thing. After a heavy breakfast of snappy-hot Louisiana hot links at S&W Diner and a bunch of coffee, dad and I were loaded up and leaving west LA at the crack of nine. Thirty. Ish.
While we caught up on each other’s lives and dad gave me advice on my pending nuptials (pretty much refrains of “Don’t DO it, bro! Just kidding, she’s wonderful.”) we got to make observations about the Wrangler Rubicon’s behavior on a slog across Interstate 10.
It’s noisy, but acceptable. Certainly no louder than a Subaru BRZ at a sustained 70 mph. It’s stable, too. I didn’t have any weird wobbling issues but, of course, you do feel how high the Jeep’s center of gravity is on exit ramps.
I also quickly became frustrated with the Wrangler’s cupholder situation. The center console has room for two American-sized steel coffee cups, but that leaves you no place to stash water bottles. The mesh pockets in the doors are hopelessly inadequate for this task.
As for the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, I didn’t find it egregiously weak, but you don’t want to count on it to hit holeshots through traffic.
Fifth and sixth gear seemed like they were pretty high and close together, too. I almost wanted to leave the Wrangler in fourth to keep some power on tap, but for the sake of saving fuel I pretty much just puttered along in sixth and accepted my fate of double-downshifting any time I wanted to make a pass.
Driving to Big Bear from Los Angeles gets fun as soon as you leave the main highway. Route 330, which takes you up out of the valley and into the land of lanky trees, snakes up through canyons and through some spectacular vistas.
Unfortunately, on this particular Saturday morning, soupy fog trapped us in a slow line of cars carefully picking their way through a decidedly un-scenic ascent.
“It gets way better,” I promised my dad, as we listed and rolled through the turns in a grey cloud, like a fishing trawler that’d gone too far from shore.
Up the hills, high gear wasn’t happening. The V6 just needs to be wound up to access most of its 285 horsepower, and almost every drop of the engine’s energy is required to get the 4,400 pound Jeep up a grade.
The Wrangler may be more refined than ever, but there’s no escaping physics when you’ve got straight axles and tall all-terrain tires underneath you. Body roll is going to happen here, and if you’re not used to trucks, it can be a little unsettling. That said, if you have spent much time in older 4x4s the 2018 Wrangler will seem pretty damn smooth.
After climbing to a few thousand feet above sea level, we were out of the clouds and into one of my favorite off-road settings: curvy, rutted dirt tracks that wander through thick forests of tall and thin trees.
With traction control off and the Wrangler in rear-wheel drive, the Jeep was happy to skid and scamper over loose terrain. Dropping it into four-wheel is easily done while rolling, with a lever next to the shifter as god intended, and instantly changes the off-road experience from goofy-fun to effortlessly grippy.
Dirt tracks spiderweb up, down and out in every possible direction around Big Bear Lake and on these easy trails we started playing with some of the Wrangler’s toys. If you have more time than we did, you can also find much harder routes in the same area.
While we were ripping fire roads, I played with some of the Jeep’s features.
The small screen between the speedometer and tach is customizable to an impressive degree. Not only can you adjust the main piece of information in the middle—anything from a cool tilt-and-roll gauge to audio info to transmission temp or whatever else—but you can also change what’s displayed in the periphery, which I loved.
Want the outside temperature displayed on top? Top-left? Somewhere else? You get a ton of adjustability there which I really appreciated.
But the centerpiece of the new Wrangler’s technological interface is the optional 8.4-inch screen in the dash, which is nicely integrated and features a deep catalog of apps and info to display.
This brings us to the only trouble I had with the Jeep all week: the app called Off-Road Pages, which is basically a gauge pod screen showing you all the vehicle’s vital signs, could rarely load without crashing and kicking me back to the home page. More frustratingly, I asked Jeep’s people about this and they couldn’t offer much of an answer as to what was happening.
Apparently the feature was supposed to be available in “late 2018 and 2019,” which doesn’t really explain why it only half-worked in my ’18 Wrangler.
It’s annoying as hell and I’ll keep looking for solutions. But in the meantime, I have to say, the view from behind the wheel of the Wrangler in the forests above Big Bear was a lot better than anything on the screens, anyway.
Overlanding On The Rocks
With refresh iced coffees in the console cupholders, a bundle of overpriced firewood in the back and a full tank of gas, my pops and I rolled out of Big Bear toward Joshua Tree for the next phase of our basic bitch backcountry quest.
“We’re taking a shortcut,” I told dad. “The long way.”
He figured out what I meant as I peeled off Route 18 onto the rocky goat path that drops into a place called Cactus Flat. The Jeep bounced and bucked in protest as I forced us over sharp rocks with its big all-terrain tires hyper-inflated for highway travel.
At a lower speed, the Wrangler easily walked its way down a track I really wouldn’t have taken many lesser vehicles down.
“Four-wheel drive recommended,” dad snorted. “Those signs kind of undersell, huh?”
“Haha... ah,” was all I bothered to reply, wondering to myself just how long of a long-ass day we were in for with the entirety of Smarts Ranch Road between us and our next opportunity to stop for beer.
On GoogleEarth, it’s clear that Smarts Canyon Road connects Big Bear to Joshua tree. If you search it right now, you’ll see that the nearby landmarks all have names like corny movie titles: “Heartbreak Ridge,” “Lone Valley,” “Deadman’s Ridge” and something called the “Eye Of God” were all pretty much along the way, but I had no idea what they were.
I also had no idea how rough Smarts Ranch Road would be, because this a journey no Google StreetView hath dared explore yet.
For hours, the Wrangler bumped and burbled its way across the rocky trail. Eventually, my frustrations with being jostled eclipsed my laziness and I let some air out of the tires. A drop from 40 to 27 psi pretty much transformed the ride from decidedly rigid to basement-couch comfortable. Anyone with off-road experience will now be saying “no shit.”
“I could zoom right over all this on my dirt bike,” I bragged to dad, who clearly didn’t care. In a creepy coincidence, we came upon a dirt biker moments later... who was screaming in pain, being loaded into the back of a truck by some friends. We offered assistance, but could only help by moving our Jeep out of their way.
“You don’t do this kind of riding solo though, right,” Pops asked. Nah, man. I’m not trying to be bear food.
Dirt biking is fun, and much faster than a stock Jeep Wrangler over rough terrain. But even on overinflated tires, the 4x4 is a hell of a lot more comfortable. And safer. And air conditioned.
The Smarts Ranch track really only gave the Wrangler one opportunity to work hard: one particularly craggy ascent that I couldn’t get a good line on. “We gonna have to turn around?” Pops pitched.
“My dude, the Rubicon does not simply ‘turn around,’” as I was thrilled for the opportunity to use the second shifter lever. “Besides, this story is going to suck if it ends with ‘we bailed at the first obstacle.’”
Popping the Rubicon into low range engaged the Jeep’s massive torque multiplier, and roared the rig straight up a sloppy line on the steep rock. “Behold, the power of the transfer case,” I shouted to the steering wheel.
Now dad was impressed. So was I, to be honest. Low range hadn’t just made the Jeep feel more powerful, it turned the thing into a mechanized mountain goat.
The ridiculously light clutch still vexed me a bit in this off-road section. I really struggled getting used to the pedal’s complete lack of haptic feedback. The friction zone is way down deep in the pedal travel, too, but I managed to only embarrass myself with two stalls on the trail.
Dry Lakes And The Real Joys Of Desert Driving
Dad and I made it over the hill to Pioneertown and Joshua Tree in time to catch a desert sunset, from an incredible vantage point high above the dry lake just north of Joshua Tree National Park.
Again, the Jeep’s ability to clamber and scramble its way up and over whatever was in front of us unlocked a whole new tier of coolness for our little trip. The two-tracks winding up big piles of rock were as open to us as any other road.
My old man is well traveled, but he’s lived in the heavily regulated northeastern U.S. his whole life. He was blown away by the “drive anywhere” freedom you’re granted in the open desert.
As for me, all I have to add is that the Wrangler will rip a healthy power-over donut in second gear on a flat, loose surface.
Dismantling The Jeep
We spent our second day in Joshua Tree checking out the park, where you can’t drive like a lunatic and most roads are paved. That didn’t bother me at all, because it was the perfect place to test out the new Wrangler’s soft top and door removal.
The Wrangler’s soft top comes down in four pieces, as it always has. First you have to remove the rear window, which is done by tugging the bottom half outwards and sliding the whole thing to the left.
Then the rear-sides have to go away. To do this, you have to unsnap the sides of the window, which grip the roof’s frame like little rubberized claws, and then slide the whole thing out on a track.
It’s not easy to explain with words, and the user’s manual in the glovebox didn’t do a much better job, but as soon as I scrubbed through a YouTube instructional video I could do the process in no time and my second attempt was even easier.
After that, lifting the rest of the roof back is just a few plastic clips and one gentle heave.
While the old JK Wrangler required you to wrestle with zippers, the new JL’s soft top roof feels so much more robust and easy to use that it might be the single biggest improvement to the vehicle’s user experience.
By the time I was ready to return the Jeep, I could go from open to closed (including removing the windshield, which is also super easy now) in under nine minutes. If you were to buy one of these, after a few weeks you’d be taking it apart and zipping it together in even less time.
The JL’s doors are easy to remove too, though the process is largely the same as it was with the JK. The windshield, like I said, comes out in about one tenth of the time it took to remove the old one but you still don’t want to utilize this feature if you plan to drive more than 40 mph. Even with googles on, the wind becomes hilariously oppressive.
But for slow national park touring, you cannot beat a dismantled Wrangler. Running with no doors or roof lets you feel like you’re in the environment you’re driving thorough. It’s everywhere. It’s all over you. And it’s a wonderful feeling.
I can’t get over this: The JL Wrangler is so much easier to strip than its predecessor that it alone is enough of a reason to upgrade from an old Wrangler.
When the sun started getting powered up, we put the roof back up but left the sides and doors off. This “umbrella mode” gave us the skin cancer protection we needed without losing much of the breeze we were enjoying.
Fans of automotive adventure could not possibly have asked for a better update to the Jeep Wrangler than what we got with the JL. The 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon feels like a truck–classic, utilitarian and a little rough. But it’s been refitted with just enough modern tech inside. Somehow, even the giant high-resolution infotainment screen doesn’t feel out of place in an aesthetically archaic vehicle.
The improvements to the roof’s ease-of-use would have been enough to make the JL a legendary step forward for the Wrangler, but the beautiful interior puts it over the top.
Besides the buggy Off-Road Pages app and the depressingly high cost of this vehicle, it’s extremely easy to option one to $50,000 like our tester, I couldn’t really find anything I didn’t like about the new Rubicon and the experience I had exploring in it.
Hell, according to the trip computer we even averaged just over 20 mpg even with a whole day of slow-paced off-roading. (Granted, we basically coasted down the length of Angles Crest Highway to make up for the crawling, but still.)
The Ultimate Jeep
Jeep’s changeover from the longstanding JK Wrangler platform to the new-for-2018 JL has been big news over the last year, and in that time we’ve talked all about the design, engineering and ethos that make this machine iconic.
Simply said, it’s a new truck that looks (and when you want it to, feels) like an old truck. Everybody loves that shit. Jeep has managed to bottle a universally appealing amalgamation of good-old-days nostalgia and untethered-youth rebellion to create a product pretty much everyone can appreciate.
There’s no complex formula or secret sauce here. The Wrangler is deadbolt simple: steel frame, boxy body, stick axles and the same basic face the world as associated with freedom since 1941.
The Wrangler’s anachronistic appeal is cool just because... it is. And of course, because the vehicle’s off-road capability actually is robust enough to stand up to the kind of riotous bad behavior you see in Jeep commercials on TV.
Our own David Tracy, a Jeep nut who actually helped engineer the new Wrangler in his previous job at Fiat Chrysler, gave it a shakedown and concluded that it didn’t get soft, it got better. And that was encouraging news because when a new Jeep comes out, Jeep fans are typically obligated to declare that it sucks, that the last Jeep was the last “real Jeep” and anyone who buys the new Jeep is a sucker and a pretender and a clean-shoed mall crawler.
But the whole reason the Wrangler’s successful is that you don’t need to be on an epic journey for the thing to be fun. Driving this thing feels like an adventure the second you climb into it. And when you do want to tap into the JL’s off-road abilities, you can have no doubt that the thing’s got your back.