There’s Only One “Absolutely Proper” Jeep

Ever since electric cars started to go mainstream, back in the early days of the Model S, I’ve often expressed an opinion that electric fits best in two different, often overlapping situations – plug-in hybrids, and high-torque applications. Plug-in hybrids like the Volt appeal to me because they offer the fuel savings of electric for in-town driving paired with the peace of mind of ICE infrastructure for longer travel, bundled with the driving pleasure of instant torque all the time. Later, we finally started to see electric in pickups and semi tractors, where that torque can be put to use where it is perhaps most appreciated, albeit with range becoming even more of a limiting factor.

The reports of fun’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

When FCA started to embrace electric I was cautiously optimistic – if anyone could do so without taking the fun out of driving, it would be Dodge and Jeep, the companies stuffing V8s into anything and everything, not going down without a fight. And along came the Jeep line of 4xe models, traditional Jeeps with electric power added. Emphasis on added, because these aren’t “traditional” plug-in hybrids. They still have the same standard and optional Jeep elements as before – transmissions, diff lockers, low range gearing – the works. They’ve just got electric batteries stashed in the chassis, and electric motors ready to pitch in and aid the gas engine as desired.

The Rubicon looks every bit as good offroad as it performs there.

I got to spend some time with the 2024 Wrangler Rubicon 4xe. It’s absolutely a proper Jeep, and I don’t make that statement lightly. It drives like a Jeep, but also like a large pickup truck. There’s lots of torque and a soft suspension, leading to the front end lifting up when accelerating, and bounding up and down after a stop (as EVs often do). Even though I was driving a 4-door Wrangler, my brain felt like I had a 6’ bed behind me 100% of the time, and that’s how I felt I should drive. I am happy to report that never led me to make any blunders. Like an old truck, perhaps even moreso the Rubicon 4xe felt sure-footed, but required constant steering input back and forth to keep it going in a straight line on the highway or Interstate.

Make sure to top off the washer fluid.

On rough terrain the 4xe excels as a Wrangler should. It throws mud, flies over bumps, plows through puddles, and feels like it could catch air now and then without damaging itself or its occupants. The suspension never conveyed a single hard jolt like most cars do on rough roads or dirt. It is a proper offroad machine that instills confidence and is a blast to drive across the dirt.

Off the road, the 4xe is a powerhouse. I found a trail that was rated at 4/10 by onX Offroad and set off with Jono. At a stop, I put the 4xe into 4L and immediately noticed exactly the changes in driving I would expect in any other similarly equipped vehicle. Much lower speed, obviously even higher torque, and an audible gear whine.

Pedal down = Jeep goes, period.

At the trail, we found nearly all of the criteria for such a trail, and the Wrangler unsurprisingly took on all of them with relative ease. Washed out ruts, loose rock, holes, hairpin turns, and steep grades pushing 18%. It was dry – I wouldn’t have attempted this trail if it had rained recently – and the Jeep simply made it happen. I didn’t even touch the equipped diff lockers. I just pushed the gas or brake, and steered, and the 4xe did the rest with a reassuring whine from the gearing that reminded me at all times that I was driving a capable machine and wouldn’t be slipping backward toward the dropoff I had just driven past.

As someone who doesn’t have much off-road experience, parts of this one were anxiety-inducing, but the Wrangler encouraged me to press on. However, certain parts of the 4xe experience gave me cause to be a little bit more cautious than I might need to be with a pure ICE Jeep. Not because of any inherent flaw with electric, but the way the electric drive is paired with the gas engine.

The 4xe remains a capable offroad machine largely because it does not implement hybrid-electric in the traditional configuration that uses a gas engine purely as a generator to charge the batteries. In the 4xe, there’s an electric motor attached to the engine and another to the transmission, as additions to the existing traditional powertrain. Great for off-road, because the transmission and traditional axles can stay more or less as they have always been. However, with the engagement or disengagement of the gas engine comes a jolt, a sudden increase or decrease in acceleration or engine-braking, which was disconcerting during a slow climb or descent on the trail. Manageable once I knew to be ready for it, but I didn’t know exactly when to expect it, and it became a sort of boogeyman waiting in the shadows to trip me up when I was more keen to focus on staying on the trail and keeping the rubber on the dirt.

The scenery sure is pretty where the road cars can’t go.

While out on the trail, Jono and I tried out one of the 4xe’s electric offerings – a 120v Power Box which provides wall power from the hybrid battery pack, and lasts a long time depending on the load you put on it. A convenient indicator on the dashboard shows you the approximate remaining charge, while the box draws power from the charge port in front of the driver door. The 4-door Wrangler made it easy to bring a computer tower I built with a Pentium III and period correct hardware, and a CRT monitor, on our offroad expedition. The Jeep powered both easily, so Jono and I were able to enjoy our retro computer games of choice in the middle of nowhere without a power pole in sight.

For the professional grass touchers.

The interior of the Wrangler 4xe is like that of any other modern Wrangler, with a collection of offroad controls at the center, along with the window controls, since the doors and roof can be removed the same as always. Seating position is unusual as EVs go, like you’re sitting in a box – because you are. It takes a bit of getting used to, but is comfortable. The cupholders are disappointingly small for a vehicle that one might take on an expedition. My 34oz Camelbak water bottle only partially fit in the cupholder, if I really smooshed it in there.

I guess I’m supposed to have a cooler in the back.

The infotainment system is an afterthought, but a fairly decent one. The screen is nice and responsive – too responsive, in fact, to the automatic headlights. When they made their all-too-frequent changes between on and off, the infotainment screen switched between bright and almost completely dark and invisible. I found myself choosing the headlight state manually to avoid this. The stereo lacked depth – it would have been unacceptable in any other vehicle, but in a Wrangler I can understand why subwoofers weren’t a priority.

Who needs infotainment when there’s Windows 98?

I can’t imagine spending the extra money for the 4xe over an ICE Jeep, given that the hybrid-electric variant retains one of the biggest and most beneficial omissions of any other EV, the automatic transmission, the Achilles’ heel of cars. As someone who drives a 6-speed, and would prefer an EV over an automatic transmission-equipped ICE car, Jeep missed an opportunity to cut out the 8-speed and send electric power through the 4WD system. I’m sure they have their reasons, but Jeep further complicated a drivetrain with electric motors bolted on when they had an opportunity to simplify it by decoupling the ICE from anything but an alternator and using both the ICE and electric motors more optimally. This is reflected in the gas mileage, which is pretty shockingly bad for a hybrid if you disregard the “started with a full charge” advantage. I appreciate the torque, but I don’t feel it’s worth it unless the buyer mostly drives their 4xe short distances and can really take advantage of not buying gas. Then again, it’s not about miles per gallon with a car like this, is it?

It’s about smiles per gallon (or kW).

While it’s a fun vehicle, as any Wrangler is, the 4xe feels very niche, like a party trick if a party trick were a whole SUV. Quick off the line, quiet at low speeds, great for obstacles in your path, and amazing on rough terrain, the benefits of the 4xe are limited in practical use and seem most likely to appeal to someone who wasn’t going to buy a Jeep unless they could buy it as an electric. If one day CAFE standards make us choose between the 4xe and no Wrangler at all, I suppose I can live with this one.

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