I’ve finally found the trail too far, or so it seems. My Jeep made easy work of the rutted roads, the nearly two-foot deep creek bed, and even some ragged rock piles it has faced so far. But now, deep in the back woods of Texas Hill Country, the only way forward is to surmount an impressively forbidding stone cliff rising at nearly a 40-degree angle.
After a moment’s hesitation — by me, not the 2021 Wrangler Rubicon 4xe — the Jeep quickly claws onto the stone, steadily clambering its way up to the peak, and then over to the equally treacherous slope back down.
The effort would be impressive enough were this a normal Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. But this is the SUV brand’s first plug-in hybrid, and I’ve spent the entire time out on the trail operating entirely in battery-electric mode.
While Trail-Rated Jeeps may offer a way to get deep into natural settings, the brick-like Wrangler isn’t exactly an environmentalist’s dream machine considering how thirsty it is for gas. But Jeep recently declared its goal to be the “greenest” SUV brand out there. And the new 2021 Wrangler 4xe models are the first step. The compact ute is only the second plug-in hybrid developed by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, (the Italian-American automaker that recently merged with France’s PSA to form Stellantis).
Two versions of the PHEV are just now rolling into U.S. showrooms, one based on the familiar Sahara trim, the other on the rugged Rubicon, with its higher ground clearance, knobby tires and other off-road-ready features.
Both share the same, basic gas-electric drivetrain and 17 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. On road, the system delivers a marked improvement in both performance and fuel economy. A driver, meanwhile, can choose from three different operating modes which, among other things, allows the batteries to be saved until you get out on the trail. Switch to e-mode and you’ll hear the sounds of nature without the drone of a gas engine.
The current-generation Jeep Wrangler went through a major redesign for the 2018 model year, although those not closely familiar with the model might not have noticed much of a change. That was entirely intentional, Jeep brand design chief Mark Allen said at the time, declaring his two key goals “(were) to get a lot of heritage into the look of the vehicle and, secondly, to improve the experience.”
The Wrangler grew a wee bit bigger, gaining about 1.4 inches in the two-door version’s wheelbase and 2.4 inches for the four-door. Overall length was stretched 1.5 and 2.5 inches, respectively. Even so, the turning radius became a foot tighter. Ride height and ground clearance remained the same — except on the Wrangler Rubicon which added another inch of clearance.
There were some subtle tweaks meant to improve aerodynamics, like the more steeply angled windshield. And there were functional and safety updates, like the repositioned high-mounted rear brake light. But even the more modern projector headlights retained the classic, round Wrangler shape.
With the 4xe, you’d again have to look closely to spot the differences. The most notable is the use of distinctive blue tow hooks. And the plug-in gets a charger port in the front left fender twinning the aluminum fueling door in the rear quarter-panel.
With the 2018 makeover, the Wrangler received some welcome updates, including a large touchscreen above the center stack and a digital information center between the traditional, analog tach and speedometer. It also got high-tech features such as onboard WiFi — with the infotainment system now running a late version of the Uconnect operating system. Like other Wrangler’s the 2021 4xe models get many of the latest advanced safety technologies, from a backup camera to forward collision warning and blind-spot detection.
The Rubicon 4xe features pretty much everything needed to tackle tough trails. A driver doesn’t have to reach far to shift the two-speed transfer case, disconnect the rear sway bar or operate the front and rear locking differentials, among other controls.
But there are some features unique to the plug-in hybrid. Buttons controlling the three different powertrain operating modes are mounted on the instrument panel to the left of the steering wheel – more on what they do in a moment.
The driver information center, meanwhile, lets you track the PHEV system’s operations, counting down remaining range, for example. The infotainment screen can be used to adjust various plug-in functions, such as increasing battery regeneration.
The lithium-ion battery pack is mounted under the rear seats. The development team has done a good job here minimizing intrusion into both the cabin and cargo bay.
The drivetrain is unique to the Wrangler 4xe line, Jeep engineers deciding not to share the PHEV system developed for the Chrysler Pacifica minivan. It starts out with the same, 2.0-liter inline-4 offered in conventional Wrangler
models since 2018. But two electric motors are added, one replacing the starter/alternator and a second fitted into the 8-speed automatic transmission — which gives up its normal torque convertor. The “P2” motor in the transmission does most of the work.
All told, the PHEV sees peak output jump to 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. By itself, the turbo-4 engine gives conventional Wrangler models 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. The added muscle kicks out 0-60 launch times of 6 seconds. The 4xe models retain the 3,500-pound tow ratings of Sahara and Rubicon models using the conventional 2.0-liter turbo drivetrain. But the plug-in system delivers a significant increase in the sort of low-speed grunt that can help off-roaders creep and climb their way across the roughest trails.
As with the conventional Jeep models, motorists will have plenty of options when behind the wheel. There are numerous transmission modes, including full-time and part-time four high, and four low.
Separately, there are three hybrid modes. One lets you drive solely on power drawn from the 17 kilowatt-hour battery. The 4xe Wranglers get an EPA estimated 21 miles range per charge. There’s also a conventional hybrid mode that blends power from both the gas engine and electric motors. A third, “e-Save” mode puts a priority on recapturing energy normally lost during braking and coasting to build up the battery pack’s charge. You can use that to save battery power for later, such as when driving out on the trail.
The 4xe system also allow you to further increase brake regeneration so that, when you lift off the throttle it feels like you’ve downshifted a couple gears. Often called “One-Pedal” mode, you can use the throttle alone, in many situations, rather than jumping back and forth to the brake pedal.
Safety and Technology
The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe models boast plenty of technology onboard, including specially modified versions of the driver information center and Uconnect infotainment system. These make it easier to see how much range you have, track down a place to charge and control some plug-in functions, such as brake regeneration.
The one disappointment was the lack of a generator feature like Ford now offers on the conventional hybrid version of the new F-150 pickup. With 17 kilowatt-hours of stored energy the Wrangler 4xe models could readily offer power not only at a campsite but also even your home — as many owners in Texas discovered during the freak ice storm several weeks back.
As to recharging, using a standard 120-volt outlet will take about 12.5 hours on a fully drained pack, a 240-volt circuit cutting that to as little as 2.5 hours, depending upon the available amperage. The 4xe models cannot plug into the new public quick-chargers popping up around the country.
But they can use Level 2 public chargers, something found at many hotels and other locations. And Jeep is setting up solar-powered charging stations at the trailheads of many popular off-road destinations, such as Moab, making them free for Wrangler 4xe owners to use.
If you’ve not spent any time in one of the current-generation electrified vehicles, getting into a Jeep Wrangler 4xe can be a real surprise. In hybrid mode, the instant torque provided by its electric motors yields a significantly more aggressive launch, for one thing. And there’s seemingly endless grunt, even when operating in all-electric mode, that makes easy work of tackling even the most aggressive obstacles.
I ran the trail out in the Texas Hill Country entirely on battery power — and the 4xe development team estimates you can run as much as three to four hours out there without the pack running out of juice and firing back up.
True, there was a modest whine from the two motors and crunching from the tires, but with the windows open and roof rolled back or taken off entirely, you connect with nature in a way you just can’t running on an internal combustion engine.
As with the conventionally powered Rubicon, those big, knobby tires and the higher ground clearance do impact driving dynamics. So does the relatively high mounting position of the hefty battery pack. So, buyers need to know there are some compromises to on-road handling with the Rubicon 4xe.
Those who aren’t expecting to be doing truly serious off-roading might consider opting for the Sahara model, instead. I spent several hours driving that version of the plug-in on the way back to Austin and found it offered much better on-road manners than the Rubicon.
As I noted in a separate report on the Jeep Wrangler 4xe line, there are a number of different ways to measure the payoff of going with the plug-in hybrid line. There’s the surprising near-silence you experience driving in all-electric mode out on the trail. And there are the bragging rights of “going green,” at least to some degree.
If you get the EPA-estimated all-electric range of 21 miles you’ll have saved about a gallon of gas. For many owners, that might handle much, perhaps even all of a typical day’s commute or errand running. Charge up regularly at home or office and you could go days, even weeks, without firing up the gas engine.
But does the plug-in hybrid make financial sense? The Jeep Wrangler Sahara 4xe starts at $47,995. The Wrangler Rubicon 4xe pushes that to $51,695. Add to those numbers accessories and a delivery fee of $1,495. That means you’ll pay about $8,000 more than models using the conventional, turbocharged 2.0-liter drivetrain.
The 4xe doesn’t actually use all 17 kilowatt-hours in the battery pack. Jeep execs are mum on specific details but we estimate the number is actually around 13 kWh. Expect to spend somewhere around $1.50 to charge a fully drained pack, or a buck or so less than what an equivalent gallon of gas would cost. At that rate, you’d have to use up a pack’s worth of power every day for more than 20 years to break even financially.
But that’s before factoring in the $7,500 in federal tax credits most Jeep Wrangler 4xe buyers are expected to qualify for. Suddenly, the deal makes plenty of sense when you also consider the added performance and other benefits of going with the plug-in hybrid.
Jeep brand boss Jim Morrison is confident a “substantial” number of Wrangler buyers will opt for the new 4xe models. Plug-ins haven’t taken off as solidly as conventional hybrids, or even all-electric models, in the U.S. market. But considering the pluses the Wrangler 4xe offers, along with the tax credits, he just might be right.