Is the New Jeep Wrangler JL Better Than the JK?

By Nena Barlow

This article originally appeared on fourwheeler.com.

With the introduction of the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL, one can’t help but wonder how it compares to the previous generation Wrangler, the bestselling JK. If you read no further than this, here it is: The JL is better than the JK. For simplicity, I will only discuss how the JL Rubicon compares to the later-version JK (2012–2017) Rubicon. I won’t even discuss comparisons to any Wrangler built before the 2012 model, because, well, that just wouldn’t be fair.

My first JL, nicknamed “Juliet,” arrived on Tuesday, January 29. She is an Unlimited Rubicon with the eight-speed automatic, 3.6L V-6, optional dual top, 8.4-inch control screen, tan leather, metal bumpers, tow package, and heavy-duty electrical system. We have also received some JLs with cloth seats, 7-inch screens, and plastic bumpers. We’ve had a chance to wring them out on Sedona’s backroads and mountain trails, Moab red rocks, snow, sand, SoCal freeway traffic, San Bernardino Mountain trails, and some rally-speed driving choppy back roads. I giggled with glee the whole time. Here are the highlights of the JL to me, in no particular order:

Performance

  • Beefier front axle housing and bigger brakes. (Yay—FINALLY!)
  • Amazingly quick and smooth power from the next-generation 3.6L V-6 paired with a new-to-Wrangler eight-speed automatic transmission that is well proven in other vehicles.
  • Rubicon SmartBar, better known as the anti-sway bar unit, has better connectors and seals.
  • Even smoother and more aggressive traction control and hill descent control.
  • Steering is hydroelectric and that means consistent power delivery, regardless of rpm—all really important when crawling with lockers on.
  • Tighter turning radius.

Interior

  • Dramatically improved back seat comfort.
  • Big control screen and features that finally bring the Wrangler into the 21st century, like a heated steering wheel, 300-plus
  • satellite radio channels, Apple CarPlay, Siri interface, and an interior quiet enough to actually use and enjoy those features.
  • Four built-in auxiliary switches in the center dash to easily add things like off-road lights, winch shutoff, fridge, radios, etc.
  • No irritating foam-filled rollbar pads. And the rollbars are color-matched!

Exterior

  • Soft top. I cannot stress enough how big this is. I hear angels singing every time I have to manipulate this top. It is so NOT the cursing and the pain of the JK four-door soft top. No zippers. Can I say that again? NO zippers. You get to keep ALL the skin on your fingers! We expect to see Unlimited owners using their soft tops, not selling them on Craigslist.
  • High fenders on the Rubicon. You can now fit 35s or 37s with just a 2-inch lift. More on modifying the JL in my next article.
  • Two things that always bothered us on JKs: the evaporative canister near the rear driveshaft and the vacuum brakeassist canister in the front bumper. On the JL? Gone. Well, not gone, but tucked up in places where we don’t have to care about them anymore. Yay!
Jeep designers fought hard to keep the iconic fold-down windshield. It now takes only six bolts to fold it down. As Head of Jeep Design Mark Allen puts it, “And it doesn’t look like a potato chip any more. Other fun things that don’t have windshields? Skateboards, surfboards, snowboards…” Thanks, Mark!

Head’s Up

Are there things I don’t instantly like? Of course! As a rule, Jeep people are opposed to change, and we will certainly never have a Wrangler that comes from the factory totally enthusiast-proof. But, I can deal with that. Here are a few of the things we will address for Barlow needs:

  • Seat height. Anyone over 6 feet 4 inches tall is going to have an issue in the front seat with head clearance on the roof and B-pillar.
  • Stop/start feature. Not a big fan.
  • Undercarriage protection. There are still a lot of things exposed that we will want to better protect for our more “rough and tumble” Jeep lifestyle, like the rear diff, sway bar, and oil pan and transmission area.

Closing Thoughts

There are myriad other details about the new Wrangler that clearly tell us Jeep designers truly are Jeep fans. They love the Wrangler, and they know how we want to use it. There are too many good things to list here, but the bottom line is that in my opinion the JL is a win for the enthusiast.

In case you are wondering, I plan to rub this in even more next month when I talk about how much easier it is to modify this JL than any other previous Wrangler. Until then, Happy Trails!

Almost everything in the front end of the JL is beefier: steering, brakes, axle housing—all things some of us have been known to burn up on JK’s.
The angle of the JL windshield is slanted back an extra seven degrees to reduce drag, thereby increasing fuel economy. This helps with wind noise, too. We have noticed an average two mile per gallon increase in gas mileage so far. Also note shameless self-promoting product placement.
I appreciate these seemingly small details which are actually a big deal to Jeepers. These are the wires for the auxiliary switches in the center stack of the JL interior. They can also be accessed under the dash.
I admit that when I saw this next generation center axle disconnect on my Power Wagon, I immediately had a bad flashback to YJ days with the ever-problematic vacuum-actuated unit. This is NOT that. I have confidence that this unit will function much more reliably, as well as increase fuel mileage and reduce some wear and tear on front drive line components.
Not only is the backseat far more comfortable, but the leather seat optiom has the center fold down armrest and cupholder. The rear seats of the JL Unlimited are at an angle more suitable to actual human use, instead of the uncomfortably upright rear seats of the JK.
Still no impact protection for that expensive SmartBar, but we did get a ponytail-style connector instead of the problematic pin-style on the JK. The unit itself aslo has seals on both ends to, hopefully, eliminate the water intrusion problem. While the factory optional metal bumpers will deflect a lot of potential damage to that unit, Barlow’s will still want to add some aftermarket protection.
Here is all of the stuff to which we may want to add extra protection. The oil pan, transmission pan and transmission cooler lines are all a little too exposed for our liking. While factory undercarriage protection has always been barely adequate, we will feel better once we have an aftermarket skid plate that protects the oil pan back to the crossmember under the transmission.
Potential problem? In order to shave off weight, there appears to be less metal on the rear diff housing, with a thin exposed lip hanging down in harms way. This may require an aftermarket diff guard for us “heavy users.”
Though we didn’t have a bone stock JK to compare articulation, we were surprised at how much more aggressive the JL’s traction control system was, even compared to a modified JK. Note those high Rubicon fender flares, just begging for 35’s or 37’s. And they all but have “cut here” stamped into the flare line. More on that in my next article.
The automatic stop-start feature that turns off the engine when you stop at stoplights or in traffic does seem to save fuel, but it is unnerving until you get used to it. I know that I’ll soon stop panicking that I stalled the Jeep whenever I pull up to a stop light. But it is also easy to push the button too many times when you mean to turn off the Jeep and then wonder why the Jeep is beeping at you because it’s in “accessory” mode, not “off.”