Though the Jeep Wrangler SUV — and its brand-new pickup truck sibling, the Gladiator — seem pretty archaic in design, the truth is, these rugged off-roaders are super modern and tech-heavy. In fact, Jeep engineers have had to specially redesign a number of technology features to make sure the Wrangler and Gladiator can still maintain their rugged ability without fail.
Following the Gladiator's debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show a few weeks ago, we sat down with Brandon Girmus, Gladiator brand manager, and Brian Lees, Wrangler chief engineer, to learn just how these rough-and-ready vehicles use reworked tech for optimal performance. Here are five of the Jeeps' most interesting tech tricks.
Driver assistance tech that doesn't get in the way of Jeep stuff
The radar sensor — the component primarily responsible for getting radar-guided cruise control to work — is typically placed inside a car's front grille or lower bumper. But those locations aren't ideal for a Jeep Wrangler or Gladiator that's capable of fording up to 30 inches of water. Also, complicating the nose with complex electronics is a no-go if you're selling your vehicle to buyers who heavily customize their rides with upgraded bumpers, winches, LED spot-lighting, etc.
So when it came to equipping adaptive cruise control on the Wrangler for the first time, Jeep had to take a different tack. Rather than the radar unit being placed at the very front of the vehicle, it's located behind the windshield and in front of the rearview mirror, which means no negative impact on customization, all while still allowing you to flip down the windshield for a bug-in-teeth thrill.
For Wranglers or Gladiators with the eight-speed automatic transmission, ACC works across the SUV's or pickup truck's entire speed range. For people like me to whom a manual transmission is as necessary to life as clean drinking water, if you want to row your own, you can also enjoy radar cruise control, which is rare in the auto industry. That said, manual-transmission ACC deactivates at speeds less than 15 miles per hour if you have to have a clutch pedal. The addition of the radar unit also unlocks other driver-assistance features tied to that component, such as forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking. Other driver aids include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and ultrasonic parking sensors out back.
The rearview camera is also innovatively placed. It resides inside the hub of the spare tire and wheel holder, and remains there regardless of whether you have a spare mounted on the back swing gate.
The base Wrangler Sport comes standard with a 5-inch touchscreen and Bluetooth streaming, which is just fine, but you can jack that all the way up to 8.4 inches with Rubicon and Sahara models. The 8.4-inch system comes with all the features you'd expect in a thoroughly modern vehicle, such as embedded navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a 7-inch TFT instrument cluster display, Wi-Fi capability and satellite radio with real-time traffic information.
To go the extra mile, the Wrangler and Gladiator also allow you to call up Off-Road Pages on the infotainment screen. Kind of like what you get on a much more expensive Mercedes-Benz G-Class or a Range Rover, Jeep's Off-Road Pages give you information about your steering wheel angle, transfer case, the vehicle's pitch and roll angles, ride height, traction management system information and whether your sway bar is connected/disconnected or whether your axles are locked/unlocked. On top of that, the Wrangler offers up to an impressive seven USB ports, three of which are USB Type-C. That's as many USB ports as you'd get in larger, three-row SUVs.
The mild-hybrid is just as capable
The newest engine for the Wrangler is a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Those figures compare favorably with the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, which is rated at 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, but what makes the new four-cylinder stand out is its eTorque 48-volt mild-hybrid system that uses a 0.3-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.
With the eTorque system, not only can electricity be recouped through regenerative braking, but it can also be recovered via the crankshaft. The Ram 1500 features this eTorque system on its V6 and V8 engines, and many automakers like Audi and Mercedes-Benz are quickly rolling out this mild-hybrid tech.
"So when we are slowing down, we can have the MGU [motor generator unit] turn on. It can clamp down on the crank and put some energy back in the system. That's how we can recharge," Gladiator's Girmus says. Girmus also says that because of the MGU's crankshaft clamping, the 2.0-liter engine can provide just as much engine braking as the larger and inherently more resistant when off-throttle 3.6-liter V6.
Near the back and underneath the vehicle lies the briefcase-sized power pack unit (lithium-ion battery), which is watertight and is encased within a skid plate.
"Every Wrangler is Trail Rated. So we've got to make sure it lives through mud, it lives through water, it can get beat up on the trail," Girmus says. "So it's kind of the uniqueness of putting any kind of hybridization on a Wrangler: it's that added dimension that it's got to pass and be able to go over the Rubicon trail."
The hybrid assistance also makes the Wrangler more responsive under acceleration by adding up to 70 pound-feet of torque to the driveline. As a result, the Wrangler, absent turbo delay or lag, doesn't feel turbocharged at all. Step on the gas, and you get instant, confident power. It's really all the engine you need in a vehicle like this. Unfortunately, as we reported earlier this month, the Gladiator won't be getting the four-cylinder, likely due to the inherent heat stress of towing.
Electronics that still work when wet
At this point, we've established that the Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator are loaded with electronics, but things that run off electricity don't play nice with water, so how are the Wrangler's and Gladiator's complex electronics engineered to hold up as they ride in vehicles that are capable of fording 30 inches of water?
"So we have a 30-inch water-fording depth, which means we strike a line right down the vehicle," Wrangler's Lees says. "Anything, any electronic device that is housed below that line has to be completely submersible. Anything above does not have to be, but it has to be water-resistant."
But don't think electronic components above the fording line have it any easier, for they have to undergo a 16-hour mist test. "At our tech center in Auburn Hills, [Michigan], we have a booth that we put the Jeep in," Lees says. "We take the top off, we take the windshield, fold it down, windows down, and then for 16 hours, it's just got a fine mist that is raining down on it."
Lees says the mist test is meant to simulate the Wrangler's and Gladiator's water resistance in the event the vehicles are left exposed in a thunderstorm while camping.
"We have to make sure that […] when you walk in and you see water puddled everywhere in the foot wells […] we don't strand the driver," he says. The misting may last 16 hours, but the vehicle is periodically checked over the next several months to make sure everything, from the USB ports to the radio, still operates.
"What we found when we run these tests [is that] water gets into places that we had no thought that it would be and just starts dripping down. So we may have to be really strategic and put some type of awning or umbrella over the top of a certain electrical component because water can drip down on it."
Top-down with a quickness
One of the coolest things about the new Jeep Wrangler is its Sky One-Touch power top available on four-door Sahara and Rubicon models. Think of it like a retractable fabric roof that, when used along with the easily removable rear-quarter windows, gives you just as much wind-in-hair thrill as any other convertible on the market.
But because its fabric roof doesn't open into the path of rushing air, the Sky One-Touch system can be operated at up to 60 miles per hour, just like the Fiat 500C's similar canvas-roof-on-rails setup. Pretty much every other convertible top can only be opened or closed at speeds below 31 mph.