There’s no getting away from the fact the Jeep Wrangler is about as niche as they come.

No-one, not even Jeep, I suspect, would suggest that prospective Qashqai and Sportage customers should add one to their shortlist – “if it’s an SUV you’re after, come drive the original!”

Instead, a Wrangler is something you have to really want.

As it happens, it’s a niche I understand well.  I’ve owned several Wranglers over the years; I was an off-road instructor; I’ve driven them across America and rock-crawled through Moab.

As a result, I like to think I have a fairly strong handle on what makes a Wrangler.

Oh?  And what is that, exactly?

Wrangler is an off-road sports car.

Three of my Wranglers were the last-but-one TJ generation that reintroduced round headlights and switched to a new-fangled invention called coil springs.

The key elements in that particular recipe were the stump-pullingly torquey four-litre straight six, a manual transmission, and a soft-top as standard.

As a result, the Wrangler was quick (0-60mph in around 8 seconds, enough to see off a Golf GTI), fun to drive anywhere (and it could drive literally anywhere), and with the top down and the doors off it offered an experience that couldn’t be found anywhere else.

Sounds fun.  What happened after that?

Well, the Wrangler that followed – the JK – was developed during the DaimlerChrysler era, and although it proved both popular and very capable, it did lose some of its character.

Here in the UK, all JKs came with a hard-top that was notorious for leaking – an issue that was never resolved during its 12-year production run – while most were powered by a 2.8-litre turbodiesel, a development of that found in a London Taxi (no, really).  It was usually mated to a rather dim-witted auto, too.

That meant much of the Wrangler’s sense of fun and urgency had been taken from it, and while you could fit a soft-top to recapture the open-air experience, it wasn’t until later in its life that a 3.6-litre V6 became available here – although it was auto only.

So what about this new Wrangler?

The point of this impromptu history lesson is to illustrate what I was hoping for from this new ‘JL’ Wrangler; a return to its original sense of fun.

Certainly many of the styling cues are borrowed from previous Jeeps: the trademark seven-slot grille tilts backwards slightly just as it did on the TJ, while the headlight apertures intrude on the outermost slots, echoing those of the venerable CJ.

There are some less successful elements, however.  The front bumper, for example, is massive – a veritable park bench that precedes you everywhere you go – while some panel gaps are huge and offer unwelcome glimpses of an unpainted sub-structure beneath.

Can you still fold the windscreen down?

Yes, just as you’ve been able to since 1941, although you have to take the wipers off to do it.

Kudos to Jeep for having found a way to achieve this while meeting current crash safety rules; their solution has been to leave the roll-bars in place while the windshield glass and frame fold forward in a separate unit.  Undo a couple of bolts and you can take it off the Jeep completely.

You can take the doors off, too, made easier now by integral carrying handles, unequal length hinge pins, and a convenient place to store the bolts in the boot.

What about that roof?

Ah yes.  In the UK all models come with a hard-top as standard whether you want it or not.  It’s been updated for the new JL Wrangler, but reports suggest it still leaks.

Its various joints creak incessantly over bumps, too, and the roof gutter hasn’t been extended, so climbing aboard after rainfall causes water to cascade down the dashboard.

For £2,200 you can add either a Sky One-Touch Power Top (an electrically-retracting fabric section in the roof of a hard-top) or a fabric soft-top.  The latter runs along rails in the roll-bars which makes it easier to use, but does leave it in a rather ungainly heap once lowered.

Does it come with a suitably chunky engine?

Neither the 3.6 Pentastar V6 or 3.0 V6 diesel are available here in the UK.  Instead, we have a choice of either a 2.2-litre turbodiesel (technically, it’s a 2.1) from Alfa Romeo with 197hp and 450Nm of torque, or a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol with 272hp and 400Nm.

Both are mated to an eight-speed automatic designed by ZF – again, whether you like it or not.

What?  No manual?

Nope.

Climb aboard and you might discover at least part of the reason – there’s absolutely no room for a clutch pedal.  In fact, there’s not even space for your left foot, so much does the transmission intrude into the driver’s footwell.

Thankfully, the eight-speed unit does an excellent job most of the time, and although it can be caught off-guard in certain circumstances, it’s generally fairly quick to recover.

Presumably the 2.0-litre is the one to have?

We think so.

At idle, it sounds awful – like a bag of spanners in a washing machine, in fact – but from inside things are impressively subdued.  It emits a strangely charming, truck-like whistling from the turbo at low speeds, but at a cruise there’s little more than a distant grumble.

It is bloody quick, too.

It’ll happily chirp its tyres off the line and pummel the air into submission for 7.3 seconds, at which point you’ll be doing 62mph and everyone around you will be wondering how you got so close to the horizon so quickly.

Yet this welcome turn of speed doesn’t come with a huge environmental cost.  Emissions for the two-door Wrangler are 198 g/km, only one away from the diesel’s 197 g/km, while during our testing we averaged around 28.4 mpg from our four-door Rubicon.

This is all sounding quite positive.  Does it still ride like a bucking bronco?

Actually, no.

Let’s not kid ourselves, there’s only so much you can achieve with a ladder-frame chassis and solid axles, but Jeep’s engineers have moved the mounts for the control arms and dampers and this has improved both handling precision and bump absorption no end.

The Wrangler has that weighty, tarmac-smothering feel to it.  Large undulations in the road surface can induce plenty of head-toss, especially laterally, but for everything else the new JL rides impressively well.

Equally impressive is the road-holding.  I’d counsel a healthy degree of caution to new owners before getting too carried away, as learning the ways of the suspension as it loads and unloads during changes of direction as well as the capabilities of off-road tyres on tarmac takes some time.

With that mastered, the JL can be thrown around in a way you’d never imagine.  I don’t think you could ever call it agile – recirculating ball steering makes that largely impossible – but despite the overwhelming feeling that the Wrangler is something to be manhandled rather than threaded through corners, it’s still an incredible amount of fun.

I assume it’s still awesome off-road?

Of course, although the UK specification can be a little confusing.

Jeep UK bills the 4WD system in Sahara and Overland models as Command-Trac, while the Rubicon features Rock-Trac, both of which are traditionally part-time systems.  However, all three models bear a 4H Auto position on the transfer case shift lever, which would suggest it is in fact the Selec-Trac full-time system.

We have asked Jeep to clarify, but no-one seems to really know what lies beneath.

Whatever the deal is, the Rubicon does still feature a 4:1 low range with 4.10 axle ratios, front and rear electric diff locks, and an electrically disconnecting front sway-bar (anti-roll bar), making it arguably the most off-road capable vehicle out of the box.

You’ve not mentioned the interior.

Perhaps this is the area that’s seen the biggest change.

There are soft-touch materials in places the Wrangler didn’t even know it had, plus technology that would previously have been unheard of: a new touch-screen Uconnect infotainment system, digital instrument cluster display, USB ports (including USB-C), and more.

It’s definitely more up-to-date than ever before, but it’s not especially roomy.  Tall drivers may find their head hits the roll-bar if they recline too far, while the door grab-handle encroaches on the space for your right leg.  Couple that with the lack of space for your left foot and dials that are easily cut off by the steering wheel and it’s not difficult to feel cramped in here.

However, the boot on four-door models offers a respectable 533 litres, and with rear seats that fold both forward and down, that easily increases to 1,044 litres of almost flat load space.

You mentioned Uconnect; does it have any more gadgets?

Yes, quite a few, in fact.

There’s a 552 Watt Alpine audio system with a giant crowd-pleasing subwoofer in the boot, although bass rather dominates its sound presentation.

Uconnect includes both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and while the built-in satnav works well, it insists on asking not once but twice what country you’re in when entering an address.

Then there are LED headlights and tail-lights, a reversing camera, parking sensors, keyless entry, and – with the optional Technology Pack – blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert.

Hmm, this is all beginning to sound very expensive.

Yes, and this is the Wrangler’s biggest problem; under Fiat’s ownership the Wrangler has more than doubled in price.

The range starts with the two-door Sahara at £44,865, while the more desirable four-door Rubicon weighs in at £48,365.  Add a colour other than white and an option or two, and you’ll be looking at £50k.

Trouble is, at fifty grand people will expect a commensurate level of quality, but the JL just isn’t there.  Particularly concerning are the cases of weld failures around chassis brackets, among a litany of other issues, while in Euro NCAP’s tests the Wrangler achieved only a one-star rating, with occupant protection rated as poor in many areas due to structural deformation.

There is also something of an elephant dominating one corner of the room.  At fifty grand you have to ask yourself: do I really want to take this off-road?  In the US, dealers are already reporting rising levels of unsold stock as customers suffer from ‘sticker shock.’

Gosh.  But price aside, is it any good?

Yes, and that’s the problem.  It’s almost everything I wanted from a Wrangler, although personally I’d have to resort to aftermarket bumpers and tops to repair the damage done by the standard UK specification.

It’s remarkable that in this litigious age with ever-tightening regulations, Jeep have managed to update it without sacrificing the Wrangler’s core features.

It’s still an off-road sports car – perhaps more than ever.  It’s just a shame the price means few can appreciate it.

Tester’s Notes

  • No space for clutch or left foot
  • Some switchgear disappointing – start button, column stalks
  • Electric windows aren’t auto up
  • Roof gutter doesn’t continue into windscreen, allowing water to cascade onto dashboard
  • Surprisingly little cabin space, with limited headroom – tall drivers may hit the roll-bar
  • Petrol engine rattly from outside, but well subdued at a cruise
  • Wind noise through various hard-top seals, creak constantly over bumps, tyre noise fairly quiet for MTs
  • Rides well over most bumps, surprisingly fun to manhandle through corners
  • Astronomical price, quality levels not consistent with a £50k price tag
  • No entry-level Sport model
  • Euro NCAP performance woeful
  • Worrying clonking noises from front end of our test car
  • Cooling fan runs a lot during off-road driving
  • Rear bumper likely to last 5 minutes off-road, front bumper comically massive
  • 28.4 mpg on test
Entry-level Price£44,865Price as tested£49,840
Engine1995cc 4-cyl turbo petrolTransmission8-speed auto
Power272hp @ 5,250rpmTorque400Nm @ 3,000rpm
0-62N/A for RubiconTop speed97 mph
Economy (WLTP)25.4 – 25.7 mpgCO2213 g/km
Dimensions4882 x 1894 x 1848 (LxWxH)Kerb Weight2034 kg