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Lifestyle Review: 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2021-12-07 Elliot Alder , Renita Naraine
2021 Jeep Wrangler 80th Anniversary Edition © Provided by Driving.ca 2021 Jeep Wrangler 80th Anniversary Edition
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Renita Naraine: I would assume that when most people think of a Jeep, there are a few distinct images that come to mind. I don’t know about you, but when someone mentions Jeep, I instantly assume they’re talking about a Wrangler — though Jeep has quite the SUV lineup (not to mention the Gladiator) — and indeed, we are here to talk about the Jeep Wrangler.  When I think Jeep, I think of the tire on the back, and its overall boxy look. You don’t have to be a gearhead to be able to point one out when it drives past you — even my kids notice them, especially when it’s customized with a vibrant colour. 

Research

Next, many people are likely to associate the Jeep with off-roading, and a quick search on Jeep’s website brings up countless videos and images of adventurous Wranglers flying through the sand and air. There’s even a new Wrangler Rubicon 392 coming soon; it’s got a 6.4 litre Hemi V8 engine and claims “legendary off-road capabilities” for this “quickest, most powerful Wrangler ever.” 

However, you don’t need to be an avid off-roader to love a Wrangler. At the end of the day, it’s also an awesome SUV that has the ability to slot itself into various lifestyles. We’re in fairly different stages of life across the Driving office, to say the least. I’ve got three kids to lug around, and you’ve got the wind in your hair and a camera around your neck, always ready to go. 

We recently tested some Wranglers, and despite them being a bit different, they were Wranglers nonetheless. They’re functional and capable of serving different purposes in our everyday lives, and knowing a couple others who own a Wrangler, we decided to dive into its versatility.

Elliot Alder: Different lives indeed, though at least our vehicles were less so. I was out in an 80th Anniversary Edition Wrangler with Jeep’s diminutive 2-litre turbo four, while Renita experienced the improved 4xe plug-in hybrid version. Both were 5-door ‘Unlimited’ models, making these Wranglers the most practical of the bunch — and indeed, of any Wranglers ever sold. 

Looking back on extensive experience with the previous ‘JK’ generation, the new ‘JL’ Wrangler is far more livable than ever before. Sloping the windscreen back a few degrees has eased the Wrangler’s aerodynamic form and significantly reduced the apartment-building handling in highway winds. Interior construction has stepped up, with pleasant soft-touch materials and the strong UConnect infotainment system. It’s all still very Jeep, but a little more car-like and a little less agricultural.  

More than just creature comfort, however, the introduction of the 4xe hybrid and 4-cylinder turbo models are big steps forward for the brand. Though Jeep has long been beholden to offroad purists (or its own lack of innovation), its growing lifestyle demographic was poorly served by the limited, thirsty powertrains of yore. Today, the available 4-cylinder makes 270 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque while drinking 11.5 L/100km city, 9.9 highway, and 10.8 combined — decent figures for a brick, and heaps better than the last-generation V6-only model, which consumed 14.7 L/100km city, 11.7 highway, and 13.4 combined. Augmented with two electric motors in 4xe configuration, the plug-in hybrid Unlimited astonishes with 375 horsepower and 470 lb-ft and can supposedly reach as low as 4.8 Le/100km combined; though conventional ratings remain slightly above the non-hybrid at 11.6 L/100km city, 11.9 highway, and 11.7 combined. 

The arrival of justifiable fuel economy is only a small answer to the question of livability, however. As a single young ‘adult,’ the Wrangler excites with its well-recognized form, wide range of customizability, fun gimmicks and easter eggs, and a thriving enthusiast culture. More tangibly, the Unlimited provides ample space for cameras or camping gear in the back, as well as tolerable (if upright and wooden) rear seating for a few friends. Spending time north of the city, the Wrangler is as ready to pop to the shops as it is to venture down green lanes or to retrieve equipment from the back of a farm field. I don’t actually identify as a ‘Jeep person,’ but I can see something like this 80th Anniversary Sport working for me. 

I suspect, however, that this experience might be a little different with a partner and three kids!

RN: You’re definitely right. While it’s not the best family car, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have the ability to be one if required, or if you’re just a huge Jeep fan and refuse to let your family have a say on the matter. We recently drove the 4xe to Canada’s Dinosaur Park in Indian River, Ontario because duh, Jurassic Park had an epic Jeep in it, and it allowed my kids to stick their head out of the open roof, putting them inches away from some of the dinosaurs. 

As noted in my previous review, this PHEV has a pretty steep starting price of $60,000, which is roughly the same price as the top trim, fully-loaded Chrysler Pacifica. I’m not trying to compare a minivan to a Jeep, but if we’re talking about comfort and space, then it’s a no-brainer for me — for that type of money, I want all the space and comfort I can get (and the option to split up fighting kids). That being said, the Wrangler did have ample cargo space to fit my stroller, overnight bags, and everything else we needed for a mini vacay. But a little more legroom taken from the cargo space might have been nice, considering a tall driver would leave minimal legroom for the second row passenger behind the driver’s seat.

In the fully-electric mode, you won’t get many kilometres, but school drop-offs, grocery runs, and a potential short drive to work could see you saving a ton of money on gas, as well as reducing fuel consumption on longer road trips. However, my main issue was forgetting to charge it often, and also knowing that I could easily rely on the gas option. 

I can only assume that most Wrangler owners don’t have large families, but after driving the Wrangler around for a week and getting a couple waves of acknowledgement from other Jeep owners, it slowly grew on me. It wouldn’t be my first choice of vehicle for my family, but it’s far from the bottom of the list.

 Canadas Dinosaur Park in the 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe © Renita Naraine Canadas Dinosaur Park in the 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe

EA: I think that outside the immediate Jeep following, neither the first choice nor the last sums it up well. But without kids in my life, my concern for adult rear passengers is a big deterrent. Legroom is adequate for me at 5’8, but like the RAV4, the Wrangler’s back seats might as well be church pews. They’re sternly upright and unpleasantly stiff, keeping upholstery together beneath child seats or pets’ paws, but also making long journeys thoroughly unpleasant for adult passengers. 

More than this, my $44,095 80th Anniversary Sport S Unlimited tester arrived at a steep $60,220 with a generous but sensible option list. It’s well-equipped, with excellent LED lighting ($695); 3-piece hardtop ($1,295); powerful upgraded audio as part of the $2,995 80th Anniversary appearance package, which also includes heavy-duty shocks and the Technology Group; heated steering wheel, front seats, and remote start ($995); adaptive cruise with front collision and advanced brake assists ($1,450), and a bunch more. Even subtracting the handful of options that I’d leave at the dealership, desirably equipping this Wrangler would still cost approximately $58,000. So when I say that this could work for me, I should note that it would only work if someone else were making the payments. 

Jeep folks will attempt to allay this concern with reassurances of Wranglers’ consistently high-ranking retained values, and there is an argument to be made there. But if you’re shopping for the long-haul without any plans to cash out later, be mindful that you’re paying for that grille and the mythology that surrounds it. Lifestyle is a big part of the Jeep brand, and the cost of entry is something each individual shopper will have to consider. 

That said, the Wrangler retains its wide appeal for good reason. It’s an emotional, exciting vehicle drenched in popular nostalgia, and even on-road drivers can feel like adventurers for a middle class-accessible MSRP. That the new JL has improved so significantly over the shortcomings of the 2007-2018 JK generation makes it even more attractive, though it’s still a Jeep, for better or worse. 

In regular driving the Wrangler Unlimited feels wobbly but stable, with soft suspension and tall sidewalls that soak up the bumps. Front seating is broad and should accommodate all sorts of body types, though shorter folks may find it a bit of a climb. The 2-litre turbo four is thrifty and quick, massively exceeding my expectations. 

You have a friend with a new JL, right?

 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe © Renita Naraine 2021 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe

RN: My friend George Skaruz, a 28-year-old tattoo artist, owns a 2021 Jeep Wrangler Sahara 4-Door. “It fits my lifestyle by keeping me safe, and feeling safe when I drive in the country,” especially in snowy weather, he said. The Wrangler may not be for big families, but it definitely has the ability to comfortably fit a couple children, if needed. George doesn’t have his own kids, but frequently travels with his niece and nephew, and he’s confident that they fit comfortably and safely in the back. 

He said the Jeep was his dream car, and just like you previously said, George confirms, “I love that you can customize and change things to make it your own. There are endless aftermarket parts,” such as tents, mattresses, and other adventure accessories. The back seats easily fold down to provide room to carry larger cargo, as George often makes use of all the Jeep has to offer. He loves to go camping and with the Jeep’s great 4×4 capability, he trusts it’ll safely get him to places that a regular sedan couldn’t. 

He also said while the overall look of the vehicle appealed to him, there were a few other important factors that made him choose the Wrangler. “I really wanted a manual transmission but to still have SUV space,” he explained. “The six-cylinder engine had more guts than the four-cylinder cars that I was used to driving. I was ready for a more powerful vehicle.”

Clearly, the Jeep is made for many different lifestyles, as neither of us lives remotely similar ones, but have found it useful in many different ways.

EA: I think that perspective really rounds this out. Though perhaps not ideal for full-time use with your three growing kids, the Wrangler Unlimited had me smiling on my own and your friend feeling ready for the road ahead. 

In sum, these Wranglers present a usable, customizable platform for those who want the utility of an SUV and the capacity for some extra fun. Jeep has preserved the flawed charm of the Wrangler’s classic profile and footprint, still with whiffs of that unwieldy solid-axle handling and characteristic wind noise through the seams of a questionably-sealed top. That said, it’s been well streamlined for the modern market, and if you can justify the drawbacks, the new JL can be a more liveable vehicle than any before. The Wrangler is a peculiar experience that surely isn’t right for everyone , but if you’re into it, there are some encouraging reasons to consider one.

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