By Mike Milne
New models and stylish new designs are usually seen as a main ingredient for steady or increased sales — for boats and vehicles. But with some popular tow vehicles, the opposite is true. Sales of the Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer and Jeep Wrangler remain strong mainly because they have changed very little in recent years. All three are genuine body-on-frame mid-sized SUVs, with off-road capability and decent tow ratings.
The Explorer and 4Runner have 5,000 lb (2,268 kg) tow ratings, while the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is rated up to 3,500 lb (1,588 kg). The Explorer got a minor makeover in 2016 and a new safety technology package for 2018, but its squarish body design remains. The Toyota 4Runner’s body shape is more rounded though just as dated.
The Jeep Wrangler is almost in a category by itself. To understand why you have to know that Wrangler owners are aficionados as much as motorists.
When you drive a Jeep Wrangler — sorry, other Jeep models aren’t included — you usually get a friendly wave from the driver of any other Wrangler you meet. As they say, it’s a Jeep thing. Be prepared to wave back.
Given a combination of owner loyalty, visual recognition and serious off-road capability, re-designs are approached with great care. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), the current keeper of the Jeep legacy, knows not to mess with a good thing. So, the Wrangler is extensively updated for 2018 but still looks very much like a member of the family.
I tested a 2018 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara last spring to see how it measures up. Finished in the optional billet metallic colour, with a body-coloured hardtop and 18-inch wheels, it looks stylish and muscular. FCA’s 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6, with electronic stop-start, pumps out 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque. Fuel mileage, between 12 and 13 L/100 km in practice, is not bad. If you like to run with the top down, there are plenty of new options.
With the optional Trailer Tow group, including a Class II hitch and four- and five-pin receptacles, the test vehicle is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds. Its fording ability makes launching from beaches or less-developed ramps no problem. The 2.72:1 Command-Trac part-time 4X4 system is standard on Sahara, but the test vehicle was also equipped with the optional Selec-Trac full-time 4X4 system (helpful with poor on-road conditions) and the Trac-Loc anti-spin differential rear axle (for added capability on- and off-road). Heated leather seats and a heated steering wheel are a nod to the creature comforts demanded by some Jeep owners.
The most visible changes to the Wrangler Unlimited are bigger windows, a new windshield — raked back to help aerodynamics — and slight modifications to the iconic seven-slot grille. The upper portion of the grille has also been raked slightly.
Upon close inspection your new Jeep friends are sure to recognize those and other changes. But they will still wave and welcome you to the club.