Product: Wrangler EcoDiesel
Release Date: December 2019
Base Price: $39,040
Off-road courses on media drives for journalists tend to be stage-managed affairs. There’s a bit of dirt and a couple of strategically-placed rocks designed to show off some nifty new feature, like a new forward-facing camera or hill descent control. There’s often someone in a company polo holding your hand from the passenger seat, too.
For the launch of the new diesel-powered Wrangler, however, Jeep took a different approach. I hopped in a Wrangler Rubicon EcoDiesel; someone told me to listen to the spotters and follow the Jeep in front; and with that, I embarked on an hour-long, rock-laden course through the red sands of Utah’s Sand Hollow State Park. Multiple colleagues described it as “probably the toughest drive I’ve ever done on one of these things.” I’m far from a seasoned off-roader, but that didn’t matter. The Jeep Wrangler is truly, as we put it in our first drive review, “a weapon for tackling the earth.”
And this Wrangler, the new 2020 EcoDiesel Rubicon, is the most potent weapon Jeep has ever put forward. It has a stupid amount of low-end torque — 442 lb-ft, to be precise — and you get it full bore at just 1,400 rpm. Even with a suburban-dwelling doofus like me at the wheel, it’s a relentless, rock-crawling animal.
I followed the instructions — disconnect the sway bar, lock the differentials, keep my up momentum in the sand — and clambered up and down grades and over boulders that would have broken an off-road trimmed crossover. The marvel was not what the Wrangler could do (that’s a given), but how effortless it felt with all that torque. The EcoDiesel Wrangler did not break a sweat during an hour of being put through its paces — and thanks to its capabilities, neither did I.
What We Like
Wrangler enthusiasts have clamored for a diesel engine for years. (The last time Jeep offered one was on the CJ-7 in the mid-1980s.) This no-longer-half-assed version from Jeep delivers the two main benefits enthusiasts wanted. First, as noted above, the diesel brings tremendous low-end torque. The 442 lb-ft the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 puts out is 182 more than the gas V6-powered Wrangler and 147 lb-ft more than the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Plus, that deep well of engine grunt comes almost immediately when you hit the accelerator.
The extra torque does not mess with the Wrangler driving experience; instead, it enhances it. It’s the powertrain the Wrangler deserves. Off-roading? The engine is relentless, perfect for crawling through events at low speed. On the pavement? This Wrangler passes on the highway without a pause and cruises up a mountain road at less than 2,000 rpm.
Diesel engines also get better fuel economy, which is a longstanding Wrangler weakness. The current V6 Wrangler Unlimited earns about 19-20 mpg in the combined city/highway driving cycle, according to the feds. Jeep has not received the official EPA numbers for the EcoDiesel yet, but the brand anticipates a 30-percent improvement (7-8 mpg) from the diesel. The fancy Sahara-trim EcoDiesels we used for on-road duty averaged about 30 mpg — mileage that rivals many popular crossovers. It also makes the Wrangler a much better candidate for overlanding, delivering roughly a 500-mile range on a tank of fuel.
Watch Out For
Choices are limited when you go diesel. The EcoDiesel only comes with the four-door Wrangler Unlimited body style and an eight-speed automatic. The good news? Jeep says there are no technical barriers to putting a stick shift if the demand arises. The depressing flip side? Jeep decided the Wrangler’s manual take rate — about 10 percent — did not warrant the investment to do it yet.
The EcoDiesel will be costly. If you’re a Wrangler enthusiast deciding between the EcoDiesel and a V6 with the manual, the engine itself costs an extra $3,250 over the V6 — but you also must pay for the automatic transmission, which adds another $2,500. The base model Wrangler Unlimited Sport trim winds up costing a little over $33,000 with a manual and a V6; the EcoDiesel equivalent will run just over $39,000, nearly the price of a gas-powered premium Sahara trim.
And of course, it still drives like a Wrangler. The cabin is cramped compared to other trucks and SUVs; the interior can be loud, with the wind noise and the dampened-but-still-present diesel growl. It’s not particularly quick, either, and steering on the highway requires paying closer attention than you’d like in this day and age. You can’t impeach the Wrangler for its coolness and off-road prowess, but you make sacrifices elsewhere for them.
The Wrangler occupies its own segment, more or less. Traditional body-on-frame SUVs are being killed off. The new Ford Bronco does not debut until next spring, so the closest current competitor is the Toyota 4Runner ($36,020). Many buyers will be deciding between the Wrangler and an off-road-tuned midsized truck — if not the Jeep Gladiator ($33,545), than the Toyota Tacoma ($26,050) or the Chevy Colorado ZR2 ($41,300). The latter also offers a diesel.
My first two cars were five-speed-manual Jeep Wranglers. Before heading to Utah, I would have said the automatic transmission and the Wrangler were mutually incompatible. Well, call me a convert: the EcoDiesel engine pushes the Wrangler to a higher level. After driving it, it’s hard to conceive of buying a Jeep without it.
Still, there’s the matter of cost. The diesel adds more expense to an already-expensive car. Loaded Rubicons will be crawling their way toward $60,000, which puts this off-roader with a wash-out interior right up in luxury car territory. But if the alternative is investing time, effort and a lot of money to mod a rig to reach that level of capability, why not spend the cash up front to buy one that comes that way out of the box?
Jeep hosted us and provided this product for review.
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