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Could the JL Wrangler be automatic-only with a three-speed transfer case?

Jeep has been rather coy about the new JL Wrangler, but a recent Q&A provided a hint of their thinking, for instance, could it be automatic only?

THE OVERLAND EXPO is the world’s biggest trade show for offroaders, and this year Jeep hosted a question and answer session about the new Wrangler. Due some time in 2018 (we think), this new model will replace the much loved JK model which was launched in 2006.

Several of the questions Jeep asked piqued interest, covering:

  • a three-speed transfer case
  • not having a manual transmission
  • hybrid drivetrains
  • windshield not folding down
  • towing and payload for the four-door

Given the Wrangler is due soon – in car development terms – we speculate that the decisions are largely already made, and it’s Jeep gauging reaction to determine their messaging. With any major redevelopment cars change, and run the risk of alienating their existing base of buyers. The changes also open up the car to a new set of buyers, so the transition of buyers from old to new must be carefully managed.

An example of when it was not done well was with the Nissan Patrol Y62, which was a very different vehicle to the previous Y61 model. Therefore, it lost the existing owners, but Nissan didn’t really have a clear view of who would want to buy the car, so as a result it hasn’t sold and suffered a $20k+ price slash.

The problem is acute for the Wrangler for a couple of reasons. First, the Wrangler has many, many very loyal fans who don’t want to see the thing touched. Second, the changes Jeep are making are forced upon it and largely conflict with what the fans want.

Three of the big factors for any new vehicle these days are safety, cost of production and fuel efficiency. Those three will drive automatic transmissions, independent suspension and hybrid powertrains, all of which would be anathema to the average Wrangler owner. Like Land Rover with the Defender, Jeep will need to delicately handle its fanbase’s loyalites as it makes its vehicles compliant with the current and future regulations.

Here’s an excerpt from FCA’s 2014-2018 Business Plan which shows what they and other automakers need to handle over the next few years:

FCA-plans

What we do know is that for the moment the JL will retain its live axles, but as for the others…let’s take a look in more detail.

A three-speed transfer case

The current Jeep Wrangler is a very good offroader stock standard, but there’s factory-modified version called the Rubicon which has even more offroad mods, including a super low gear (crawl ratio) of around 80:1. This works well in the USA which has lots of very steep high-traction slick rock, but for markets like Australia it’s too low as our terrain is looser and not as steep. Unless of course you fit taller tyres, which Wrangler owners have been known to do.

A three-speed transfer case would be a good solution. Then there could be say a 1:1 drive for normal use as there is now, 3:1 for average offroad use, and 5:1 for really low-speed work. Maybe crawl ratios of 50:1 and 100:1 for the last two.

However, if there is a 7, 8 or 9 speed automatic transmission then the need for a three-speed transfer case is much reduced, especially with any hybrid drive which would see electrical power take over at very low speeds. Maybe Jeep know this, and are just offering it as a sop for doing away with the manual? Certainly low range is becoming less critical with every new vehicle release, and sooner or later will be deleted entirely for weight saving purposes.

Not having a manual transmission

Manuals are expensive to produce these days (like any variant of a vehicle), and Jeep will be looking at the numbers wondering if they stack up.  They’ll be asking themselves if no manual was offered, would people bitch about it and buy a Wrangler anyway? The answer is most probably yes, it’s a bit like holding your nose and voting for an unpopular politician from a party you’ve always supported, something many citizens of the USA seem to be grappling with right now. And the alternatives to the Wrangler are fewer and fewer, so from a purely logical perspective deleting the manual is probably the hard-hearted answer. But maybe not…Porsche, on the other side of the motoring world, has belatedly started championing manuals again.

Would Jeep exploring this question mean no manuals at all? Possibly, or maybe just not with the any of the newer engines.

Hybrid drivetrain

Emissions targets are only getting tighter (as Toyota’s chief sportscar designer mentioned), and hybrid tech is improving minute by minute. Put the two together and you have a hybrid future for sure. Would this be the JL? Maybe, maybe not…or maybe not in the first release, but you bet that every car manufacturer is thinking about it for all their vehicles. Again from a FCA report, here’s confirmation of a HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle):

wrangler-hybrid

Windshield not folding down

Like the Defender Puma which lost its classic vents in 2007, thereby depriving a generation of kids (and okay, adults) of ghost-driving hilarity, the Wrangler can’t retain its fold-down windscreen and meet modern safety standards. That has to go. By itself, I doubt many will miss it, but it’s another little bit of different charisma consigned to history.

Towing and payload for the four-door

This is interesting. Much as I love Wranglers (I even tried to buy one once, but Jeep managed to thwart the sale), the Wrangler has never been a utilitarian vehicle. It lacks payload, range and towing ability compared to the likes of the utes, Defender and 70 Series. Could the four-door, and the now-confirmed diesel and ute variants see a change of direction for Jeep to attack the serious tool-of-trade and overlanding market? It would make sense, as the more variants the base platform can support the more profitable it will be.

IMG_8030
JK Wrangler with the doors off and windscreen folded down. How much longer can we do this? And how long would a three-door survive?

The Jeep Wrangler will have to evolve, but there’s every indication that Jeep intend it to be as close as possible to what offroaders want. One of the attendees at the Q&A put it this way: “Overall, I went away with the sense that Jeep is building a next generation Wrangler that will be even more capable and versatile. And they can’t wait to show it to us!”

That the vehicle has to change is not the fault of Jeep, it’s a reflection of society’s evolving demands.


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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper