“It’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand” is a phrase that I’ve seen on bumper stickers, spare tire covers, and everywhere else fathomable on Jeep Wranglers from my childhood onward. When I got some time with a 2019 Jeep Wrangler, I hoped I’d figure out just what that “Jeep thing” was. And maybe I’d even understand it.
Jeep wanted me to drive the 2019 Wrangler so badly that they shipped this blue four-door Sport S to my local dealership, who gave it to me as a loaner vehicle while my 2016 Ram 1500 was in for service.
I’ve been around Jeep Wranglers since childhood. I remember friends’ parents driving them when I was young and friends themselves driving them in high school and in our early postgrad years. Everyone drove a “TJ” Wrangler or older, so my time to date has been spent in vehicles last sold new in 2005 or so.
Old Jeep Wranglers are pretty spartan. They’re meant to go off-road first, with on-road functionality nothing more than a passing thought. And no matter where you drive them, they’re fairly slow. Yes, the old 4.0 liter inline-six is unstoppable, but it contributes to the older Wranglers feeling out-of-breath at highway speed. One high school friend had a TJ Wrangler with the 2.5 liter four-cylinder. Paired with oversized all-terrain tires, it was beyond slow in a straight line. “Handling” was also but a concept with the older Wrangler models. Steering offered some play off-center and bigger tires only added to the sloppy feeling.
So, old Jeep Wranglers were very capable, but toward the bottom of the list for “competent street cars.” Yet they were adored by owners who never took them off the asphalt.
The 2019 Jeep Wrangler addresses the deficiencies of the older models, while remaining “Jeep-y” enough to keep that certain something alive and well. The “JL” Wrangler was introduced for 2018 and is available in both two- and four-door variants, while also spawning the Gladiator pickup truck. My loaner was a four-door Sport S model, which is one step up from the super-basic Sport (which retains manual door locks and crank windows). The Jeep Gladiator is effectively a JL Wrangler with a longer wheelbase and different rear suspension.
JL Wranglers are now offered with three engine options – the 3.6L Pentastar V6, a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder, and (new for 2020) a 3.0 liter EcoDiesel V6. My loaner had the 3.6L Pentastar paired to Jeep’s 8-speed automatic transmission.
The Pentastar is a punchy engine, with 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. My complaints of older Wranglers were finally addressed by some solid power under the hood. Paired to the eight-speed, acceleration was more than adequate and the 2019 Wrangler was happy at 70 mph highway speeds.
Handling is fine, although I still found a dead spot just off-center in the slow steering. The Wrangler is not a canyon carver in the least. The turning circle was impressively tight, a benefit both in city driving and undoubtedly off-road.
Speed and handling are all secondary to two elements of this 2019 Jeep Wrangler, though – the roof and the doors.
The 2019 Jeep Wrangler is also offered with a plethora of tops. My loaner had the three-piece “Freedom Top,” which is a hard fiberglass material. Several variants of soft top are also available. I started my time in the 2019 Wrangler by removing the front panels of the Freedom Top. A few twists of latches and each panel removes quickly, leaving the front two seats open to the sky. The rear seats and cargo area remain covered unless you break out the included tool kit (more on that later) to unbolt the rear clamshell roof. While the front panels can be tossed in the cargo area, the rear-most roof section requires two people to remove and a garage space to store.
Driving the 2019 Wrangler as a (semi) convertible was fun. All convertibles are fun, really. I enjoyed the breeze on the mid-50-degree days we had around Washington, DC. The panels were easy to remove and install in just a few minutes. But as I drove, something was still missing.
My final day with the Wrangler saw me wrapping up on a client engagement at my day job. I was in a great mood and weather looked like it would hold out, even though rain was threatening. As I tossed my backpack into the back seat of the Wrangler, I wondered how easy the front door removal process truly was.
Jeep provides a small tool kit in the glovebox of the 2019 Wrangler that, allegedly, provides everything one needs to remove the doors and roof (and fold the windshield). I opened up the small Velcro pouch and got to work. After disconnecting one electrical harness and removing three bolts (two on the hinges, one on the door check), each door could be lifted off of the Jeep with ease. The rear doors come off just as easily as the front two, though I left mine attached.
I put one door in the back seat and one door in the cargo area and hit the road. It was chilly, so I cranked the heat to full-blast and lamented the lack of heated seats in my lightly-equipped Sport S trim (they’re an extra-cost option).
Regardless of ambient temperature, driving door-less was quite fun. Much like driving a convertible, you’re exposed to elements that you wouldn’t normally expect behind the wheel. The sound system’s speakers are all contained in the dashboard and roll bar of the Wrangler, so music can still be played if you are door-less. I felt like Derek Zoolander as I cranked up Wham! driving on the George Washington Parkway (he drove a Ford Bronco, but still…).
The Jeep Thing
Objectively, the Jeep Wrangler isn’t a good car to drive compared to anything else in its price class. My basic Sport S carried an MSRP of, roughly, $41,000 and they get more expensive as you jump trim levels and add options. $41,000 can buy a crossover or SUV that is quieter, handles better, is more refined, and so on.
But if you want a go-anywhere vehicle that can have nearly all of its body panels taken off in minutes, using a simple set of Torx bits, the Jeep Wrangler is your only option. There is a rustic, carefree charm that comes with a door-less, roof-less driving experience. It feels a little taboo, really. The Wrangler is modern enough, it is simple, it is fun-first, and when you bolt the doors and roof back on, it does its best imitation of something adults are expected to drive.