More of the same, and that’s good.
What It Is: A current-generation, four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited—or at least that’s what the engineering team driving it wants you to think. Instead, this is in all likelihood an early test mule for the next-generation Wrangler, which is due out in a year or so as a 2017 model. This Wrangler’s bodywork might be unchanged from ordinary Wranglers’ duds, but it is hiding chassis, suspension, and possibly even body enhancements that will appear on the new model.
Why It Matters: Few modern vehicles have the iconic status of the Wrangler, and thus any clean-sheet redesign is approached with a mixture of reverence and skepticism. The fanboys all want to know if Jeep will give up on the Wrangler’s tried-and-true formula—rugged ladder frame, proper four-wheel drive with low range, and a pair of solid axles—while the rest of the world wonders how Jeep can stick to its guns while also embracing modern fuel-economy realities. We’ve ascertained that the new Wrangler won’t be the radical departure the hard-core fans feared, as it will keep its solid front and rear axles, four-wheel drive, and body-on-frame construction. However, that body could be at least partially rendered from aluminum, and you can bet the stout frame will get stronger yet lighter. So far the only Wrangler feature to fall on its sword is the fold-down windshield, a novelty that, it’s suggested, goes unnoticed by all but the most fervent Jeep owners.
Platform: These spy photos give us our first good look underneath the next Wrangler—literally, as our intrepid spy actually crawled under a prototype. Unfortunately, the photographer was only able to gain a peek at the Wrangler’s aft end, but from what we can see, the SUV uses new axles, new suspension geometry with a relocated lateral link, and new exhaust bits.
Otherwise, the Wrangler’s underbody situation is markedly familiar, with coil-suspended Dana axles at each end—the rear axle, currently a Dana 44 piece, is unmarked and features a new differential casing we haven’t seen before but we suspect is still a Dana model—and a boxed frame. We’ve heard some rumors of a longer wheelbase being part of the next Wrangler’s plan, with most of the speculation driven by the prototypes’ vertical strip between the front fenders and the base of the windshield. Indeed, this apparent body modification is present on the prototypes pictured here, but close visual comparisons between them and the current Wrangler indicate no change in wheelbase. Just look at the running boards, which fit nicely—and would be a curious component to modify for an engineering mule. Our guess? The strip is there to throw people off; of what, we aren’t sure, although it is possible that Jeep’s engineers are taking a page out of Ford’s development handbook and have built a current Wrangler body out of aluminum for testing and are hiding it in plain sight.
Powertrain: Besides having learned that Jeep is working to ensure Chrysler’s ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic fits in the new Wrangler (it doesn’t fit in today’s model), most of the SUV’s underhood secrets remain just that. Depending on how much weight Jeep is able to remove from the Wrangler, the SUV could perhaps utilize a four-cylinder as it has in the past, but the most likely engine remains the updated version of today’s Pentastar V-6. A diesel four-cylinder could make the grade, and it should, given how a torque-rich but efficient diesel and a blunt, un-aerodynamic SUV with off-road aspirations are a great match. Four-wheel drive will be standard, but you already knew that.
Competition: Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, Subaru Forester, Toyota Tacoma.
Estimated Arrival and Price: The next Wrangler is said to be making a late-2016 debut; the Toledo factory where today’s Wrangler is built is already retooling for the next-gen version, as well as a new Wrangler-based pickup. With demand for the Wrangler often outstripping supply, and the anticipated increase in aluminum use, Jeep could name its price when it comes to the new one, but a starting MSRP near today’s R600,000 mark is likely.