Since World War II, the Jeep name has been synonymous with handling difficult terrain. Its vehicles are known for climbing rocks and making tough trails passable. They have a cult-like following, with events seemingly every weekend for enthusiasts to chat everything Jeep.
But when I learned the 2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon was selected as MotorTrend’s SUV of the Year, I had to check it out for myself. Could something that’s best known for climbing mountains really make sense as a as family-friendly people hauler?
When I first saw the Wrangler I was to drive for a week, I could only think of one thing: Getting this Firecracker Red beauty off-road as quickly as possible.
Sitting on 17-inch wheels wrapped in 33-inch all-terrain BF Goodrich rubber, the Wrangler Rubicon looked ready to take on some trails. But that’s not why I was driving it (don’t worry, I did take it off the pavement — more on that later). I wanted to evaluate the four-door Rubicon to see if it lived up to the SUV of the Year hype.
Perhaps surprisingly, it did.
Getting into a Wrangler isn’t like getting into any other vehicle — especially given the exceptionally high step-in. You immediately know that you’re in something utilitarian, something different, and I enjoyed that vibe.
Gone are the clean and delicate finishes getting more popular in today’s cars. Instead, the driver is greeted with large, easy-to-understand buttons and toggles that are admittedly updated since Uncle Sam was fighting in Europe. Everything about the interior finishes makes the Wrangler feel tough and hardy.
But a deeper dive showed some nifty tech beneath the strong surface. The 7-inch infotainment (the Uconnect software used by FCA vehicles is my personal favorite) system worked well, especially paired with the optional Alpine sound system that included speakers mounted in the roll cage for roofless travel. A myriad of audio inputs were easily accessible below the touchscreen, as were some off-road and window controls. The latter surprised me, until I remembered Wranglers are basically built to be taken apart by their owners.
Speaking of, the Wrangler I drove was equipped with the optional Freedom Panels, which also brought in a hard top to replace the standard soft top. Basically, the panels are two sections of removable roof that are directly above the driver and passenger. Think of them like a sunroof, only one you can’t close or open while driving.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to learn how to remove the hard top or doors, but the online tutorials I watched made the processes look simple; remove a few bolts and you’re on your way, less roof and/or doors.
How many other SUVs out there are meant to be disassembled and even include a tool for doing so? Jeep stores its tool in the center console, by the way.
Where the Jeep really impressed me was the comfort it offered, both in the interior and in ride quality.
I found the interior to be welcoming. Granted, I drove one with the optional leather-trimmed bucket seats, but the interior was very comfortable after all-day use and had plenty of room for moving people and items — which is basically the new purpose of an SUV.
The street ride was nice. The Wrangler comes standard with a performance suspension and is geared toward off-road use, but running errands around town was quite smooth. Unlike other SUVs, I found the Jeep uncombersome to maneuver through tight downtown areas.
The optional 2.0-liter 4-cylinder turbo eTorque engine mated to an optional 8-speed automatic transmission performed nicely. Though there was a bit of the expected turbo lag, it delivered power when it was needed. I’d expect this to be an option added by a lot of people considering the EPA estimated average fuel economy figure is north of 20 mpg.
OK, now for the part you’ve been waiting for: The 2019 Wrangler absolutely chews up trails.
I took it down the Senator Highway, a highway in name only; it’s one of Arizona’s older backroads connecting small towns and cities more than an hour’s drive north of Phoenix that used to be frequented by people on horseback. It’s relatively well-traveled by four-wheel-drive vehicles and even some two-wheel drivers can handle it.
Naturally, the Jeep passed that test with flying colors. The suspension took everything I could throw at it and laughed it away. The four-wheel drive inspired plenty of confidence and the stance helped the Wrangler feel anchored at all times.
Some rockier side roads proved more of a technical challenge, but that was far more true for the driver than for the Jeep. I’m not sure the novice off-roader could get this thing stuck, unless they took on a serious off-road path.
After my week with the Wrangler, I realized how wrong I was to count it out as a possible SUV of the Year candidate.
Some may still lean toward the more refined finishes and features offered by other SUVs. However, I think the Wrangler offers much more. Sure, you can likely take some of those other ones on a trail or two, but they’re not built with an off-road-first mindset.
Personally, I enjoyed the feeling of driving a vehicle that is purpose-built to be used in a myriad of different ways. It’s simple, straightforward, enjoyable and meant to be used — and isn’t that what a sport utility vehicle is supposed to be all about?
2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, five-door SUV, four-wheel drive
Base price: $41,445 Price as tested: $55,400
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, 270 horsepower at 5,250 rpm, 295 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 118.4 inches Overall length/width: 188.4 inches / 73.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,439 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 22 city / 24 highway / 22 combined
Final assembly: Toledo, Ohio