NEW YORK CITY—I went to the New York premiere of two Jeeps that will probably sell really, really well—a refresh of the Cherokee and an all-new Wrangler.
Between 1942 and 1945, there were 361,339 Willys Jeeps made. The GIs who rode them into the ground in Europe (average life span, 90 days) probably never imagined that a vehicle looking not all that different would still be on the road 70 years later—I’m sure they thought we’d be in rocket cars by now. There were no plans to make Jeep a brand in 1945.
But American love for these basic all-wheel-drive transporters just seems to keep growing. Some 190,522 Wranglers were sold in the U.S. last year, and another 17,296 in Canada. (The numbers are down a bit, because Jeep reduced fleet sales by 60 percent.) Around the world, 1.4 million Jeeps were sold in 2017.
Scott Tallon, Jeep brand director, said that New York has become the “Jeep capital of the world,” which is hard to believe—the off-roading opportunities are limited. But it was confirmed by the New Yorkers present. Wranglers are everywhere, perhaps because of the city’s legendary potholes, but you don’t really need AWD to get through them.
“There is no more important vehicle to Jeep than the Wrangler,” said Tallon. Indeed, it’s the ur-Jeep, and its fans are traditionalists who don’t like to see change. So a design that was current in 1945 is still mostly there, with updates around the edges.
The windshield folds down, for purists who want a mouth full of bugs. The aluminum doors are still removable, including in the four-door Sahara model. Wrangler owners do that. My most common sighting of a Wrangler Rubicon (the two-door) is not on some trail head, but in college town traffic, top and doors off, keg in back, and kid with backwards baseball cap and muscle shirt in the driver’s seat.
The new one has “unmatched crawl ratios” and “up to 30 inches of water fording.” There are 33-inch tires available. Full-time 4WD is offered for the first time on the Sahara, with a two-speed transfer case you can set and forget. But can it carry two full kegs?
I found earlier editions of the Wrangler noisy, rattly, thirsty and underpowered. They’re not known for reliability. But now the company says the on-road experience is vastly improved, as is fuel economy. That’s a tribute to a new engine, a two-liter turbocharged four that can gives the Wrangler 30 mpg on the highway. Not bad for a vehicle with the aerodynamics of a brick. You can still get a six-speed manual, but most people will go for the eight-speed auto.
You can go upscale in a Wrangler, but why? Order leather seats and its going to be harder to hose down the interior. That said, most buyers (85 percent) are opting for the Sahara, with a modicum of creature comforts—seven USB ports! “USB is the new cupholder,” Tallon said. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto!
I got a brief ride in the new, refreshed 2019 Cherokee. It seemed better screwed together than previous iterations, but a few months of New York’s mottled roadway surfaces might loosen it up. The four-cylinder turbo in the test car produces 270 horsepower, and incorporates start-stop technology—which even Rolls-Royces are using now. The turbo connects to an “enhanced” nine-speed auto.
The Cherokee has to be good, because it’s in the largest SUV segment in the market. No carmaker can be taken seriously without a midsized entry these days. The new car is not a big visual departure, but it got a nose job and now offers LED head- and tail lamps, a one-piece aluminum hood for weight savings, and the one-kick hands-free liftgate that everyone wants.
The ”TrailHawk” package is available for Jeep owners who are serious off-roaders. Not that many people check that box because not that many SUV owners ever go off road. The last time I checked, it was 10 to 15 percent. But the mean streets of New York, while nominally paved, will test your Jeep anyway.