Finding Route 66 in a Jeep Wrangler
The Jeep Wrangler is like Vegemite; an acquired taste that you either love or loathe.
Me? I like them both - sometimes a little too much. I’ve owned two of the current Jeep JK Wranglers over the last decade. My first was a 2010 diesel-powered four-door and my current car is a 2013 V6 two-door, which, in my experience, is solid and dependable and - in spite of Jeep’s reputation for quality - has never let me down.
I find it perfect for lugging my camera gear around (it’s like a van when the back seats are removed) and I really enjoy its go-anywhere ability, particularly as I fitted 34-inch tyres, a lift kit and a light bar among the modifications.
Okay, so it’s not the most aerodynamic machine on the planet and the fact it is shaped like a house, with the frontal area of a block of flats, means it is a fairly thirsty beast.
But I love it. And I’m thinking of getting another one; the all-new JL Wrangler that arrives in Australian showrooms in a few months. Call me a masochist.
Before I commit myself (or get committed), I had the chance the sample the new Wrangler in its native USA with a road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to attend the annual SEMA show, the biggest automotive aftermarket expo in the world - where North America’s leading accessories suppliers would be showing off the latest modifications for the JL.
Having read the early reviews and Jeep’s own statements about the car on the 14-hour flight to LA, it is clear the new Wrangler is vastly better in almost every conceivable area over the current one, which, having dropped my JK at Melbourne Airport only hours before, wouldn’t be that difficult. It’s meant to be a much better car to drive on the road everyday and yet retains - improves upon even - its hugely capable four-wheel drive capabilities.
Maybe it’s my bleary eyes from the jet lag, but as I spot the Mojito Green Jeep in the carpark for the first time it’s actually hard to tell that it’s the new one at all. Even though the JL is totally new it retains the iconic boxy look of its predecessors, which is a good thing. The world needs more boxy cars I think.
But then, as I walk around and load my gear into the back seat, the nuances of the new one start to appear as if the JK was designed in two dimensions the JL was created in three dimensions. There’s more details in its boxy bodywork, the signature seven-slot grille - and the windscreen - are raked back for greater efficiency and the Jeep badge has been removed from the front and placed behind the front wheel below a cool-looking vent in the guard.
The exposed door hinges are still there, which gives you the ability to remove the doors completely, which is totally unique. And the windscreen still folds forward and latches onto the bonnet, which is even more unique. And, yes before you say but no one ever does that, I have often run my car without the doors and roof - but not for long periods though as Melbourne is hardly Los Angeles when it comes to weather.
The Rubicon-spec Wrangler is the most rugged of them all, and comes fitted with 33-inch BF Goodrich tyres and red recovery hooks on the front and rear bumpers.
As I jump inside, ready for a quick detour to Venice Beach to refuel with a breakfast burrito before heading out of LA, I wonder if I’m actually in the right car. Less than 24 hours ago I had stepped out of my old Wrangler and now it feels as though I jumped into the 21st century.
The JL’s interior has been totally revamped and it’s amazing how modern it looks and feels compared to my Jeeps basic black plastic guts. The instrument display is mostly digital and the central touch screen provides sat nav, Bluetooth, digital radio, smartphone mirroring for Apple and Android devices and a host of specific off-road pages. It’s like the Wrangler skipped two generations.
But Jeep hasn’t forget what the Wrangler is all about. And below the tech touchscreen there are still buttons to activate the diff lock, electronically disconnect the front sway bar and there are four switch blanks that allow owners to connect their own accessories, such as lights or a winch.
There are also three grab handles for the front seat passenger, two for the driver (how do you use both at once?) and even rear air vents and USB outlets for the rear seat passengers. This is modern…
After negotiatng some of Venice’s tight laneways I parked up for some food and a spot of push bike riding to stretch my legs. Having a reversing camera and parking sensors, plus cross path detection, makes parking this Wrangler much easier and way safer. The only parking sensor I have in my JK is the tow hook which informs me through touch that I’m too close to something else.
With the morning slipping away, I needed to start heading east and escape LA’s notorious traffic to make it to the Joshua Tree National Park, which is halfway to Vegas near Palm Springs and a Mecca for outdoor pursuits.
So I jumped back in the Jeep and keyed Joshua Tree into the nav, fired up the Apple CarPlay and got going. But minutes later, I was sitting at the lights when a equally green VW Thing drove past. It was Jerry Seinfeld filming an episode of his Comedians in Cars getting Coffee show. How Hollywood is that?
Like any self respecting fame whore I punched the 203kW/400Nm 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder engine and accelerated to catch up with him and yell out “Jerry” on a loop to see how long he would put up with me for. Not long it turns out…
Anyway, it was the first time I’d mashed the accelerator and I was surprised how quickly it accelerated. It’s actually a really good engine, and a great fit in the Wrangler, but the modern turbo engine is - at the moment - only produced for the US, with Australian-bound Wranglers fitted with the same 3.6-litre V6 as before, or a 2.2-litre four-pot diesel.
With stardust still drifting from the bonnet I head east on Interstate 10 and it is immediately noticeable that the JL is a lot more stable than the JK at highway speeds. It’s a constant battle in my Wrangler to keep it heading in a straight line, as I’m always having to do slight corrections to the steering input. But that’s not the case in the new one as it tracks straight and feels much more securely planted, which makes for a more relaxing drive over the old car.
A couple of hours later, I swing off the massive four-lane Interstate and on to Twentynine Palms Highway that leads to Joshua tree, taking in the view of the wind farms along the way. Even after that much time behind the wheel I still feel fresh, as the leather wrapped seats are super supportive and sized to accommodate people with big buts, legs, guts - or all of the above. I discover the heated seats and steering wheel function and ponder what was my derelict life without a heated steering wheel?
I stop in the town of Joshua Tree for a quick coffee stop before my ascent into the national park, which has been on my bucket list of destinations for a long time. And it didn’t disappoint, as the mind-blowing scenery is car photography heaven for me with spectacular views in every direction.
I have a go at lowering the softop for the first time and find that’s it’s a lot easier to do than before. I even discover a trick where you just unlatch it, speed up to around 35km/h and let the wind do the rest.
My green Jeep is doing its best to blend into the background here. I stop and take some pictures at Jumbo Rocks campground and then also at Rocky point. I could be here for a week photographing the scenery and the Wrangler but, as the sun drops over the horizon, I need to find some accommodation for the night.
My JL is equipped with the optional LED lighting package which is so much better than the old car’s candle-powered headlights and it’s nice to be able to see properly as I drive off the mountain. The stability control also gets a little workout on the sand covered desert road but I arrive safely at Twentynine Palms, find a Motel and enjoy my Denny’s dinner. Tomorrow I’m planing to be in Vegas for the first day of the SEMA show.
I hit the road early heading north, and not far out of town I spot a lifted Wrangler coming towards me. I wait for it… and then his hand goes up! The Jeep wave is alive and well.
Not long after, I hit the historic Route 66 and stop at Roys Motel and Café in Amboy for some more photography. Opened in the 1940’s, the once bustling diner is now little more than a beautiful sculpture of mid-century Americana on a deserted highway.
Leaving Roys, I cross the state line into Nevada and don’t have far to go now. The eight-speed gearbox makes for laid back highway driving as the engine sits around 2000rpm. I’m also enjoying the nine speaker Alpine audio system and the abundance of USB outlets.
The Las Vegas skyline rises from the desert like an oasis, but before entering Sin City I decide on a detour to Nellis Dunes, which is a 10,000 acre off-road playground just 20km out of town. Having only experienced its (significantly more comfortable) on-road manners I can’t resist taking the Wrangler in for a tear around to see what it can do off the beaten track.
I fire it up and down sand dunes among quad bikes, sand rails and a bunch of heavily-modified four-wheel drives. And, as good as the JK already is, the new Wrangler is so much better. It’s amazing. The only downside being the grab handles that hang down from the top of the front side windows, which smack into the windows constantly and a horribly annoying tapping noise.
With the fun over it’s time for me to get to the SEMA show and start exploring whats new in the aftermarket world. I park up and, by chance, I’m right next to old JK. I talk to the couple that own the Jeep and ask them what they think of the new Wrangler. Words like ‘neat’ and ‘awesome’ are used often but what I think they like most - and me for that matter - is that the JL has retained everything that was great about the JK including its legendary off road ability but improved everything else that really matters in day-to-day driving. It’s become the hardcore off-roader that can also do the mundane daily driving.
The JL Wrangler is everywhere at SEMA and there is not a standard one in sight. Theres a six-wheeler, a V8 powered one, nearly every stand in the 4WD hall seems to have one and they are all fully kitted out. No wonder it was voted SEMA 4x4 of the Year for the ninth consecutive time.
I suspect that my Jeep parked back in Melbourne might know what I’m thinking.
2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Price and Specifications
Price: from $63,950 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 3.6-litre V6 petrol
Power: 209kW at 6400rpm
Torque: 353Nm at 4800rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, 4WD
Fuel use: 11.7L/100km