Today, Stellantis (the company formerly known as Fiat-Chrysler before a merger with Peugeot) sent me something really cool to review: a 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe (pronounced “four by E”), in Rubicon trim. Like many readers, I was skeptical, too. The vehicle only offers 21 miles of electric range before becoming a hybrid, and next to even my 2018 Nissan LEAF, that’s that’s pretty pathetic. After getting some fairly extreme wheel time with the 4xe, I can already confidently say that the capabilities are worth the tradeoff in this case.
In later articles, I plan to go more in-depth about the vehicle’s efficiency numbers and also get some video clips of it tackling some of the worst challenges West Texas and Southern New Mexico has to offer. Today, though, I took a simpler approach to get acquainted with the vehicle. I used it like the average buyer would: electric city driving during the week and some adventure on the weekend.
First, I used the vehicle to run errands like most people would. This gave me a decent idea of what city driving is like on electric only. For daily needs, this either covers needs completely or knocks out enough gas burning to make the effective MPG really, really high.
Second, I took the Jeep out on some off-road trails to see what weekend fun is like. Sure, for many trails you’ll need to use some gas to get to the trailhead, but once you’re there, you can choose how you want to power your trail experience. On full electric (in 4-Low as needed), I didn’t encounter anything the Jeep couldn’t tackle on electric power alone.
The Commuter & Grocery-Getting Experience
I had a fairly busy day planned already, so I was ready to get started running errands in the Wrangler as soon as Jeep dropped it off. In went my camera gear for some photos I was taking, some Amazon returns, and two kids to try on clothes. I went back inside to get my water bottle and found my wife in the driver’s seat when I came back out. I turns out that she had always wanted a Jeep and never bought one, and there was no way I was going to pry her out of the seat.
It turns out that her dad’s fears when she was younger (“You’ll roll that thing over!”) were largely unjustified. Yes, it’s a Jeep and I wouldn’t go around trying to drift it, but it’s the 4-door Jeep, which gives it a longer wheelbase, and Jeep design has come a long way over the years. On the street, the suspension was surprisingly firm and controllable, with some relatively minor brake-dive about all it had to show for being a Jeep. Body roll and other things that bring discomfort on city streets was all very well controlled. You can’t treat it like a sports sedan, but you don’t have to drive around fearing that you’ll end up wrong side up if someone looks at it wrong.
Unlike some PHEVs I’ve driven, like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, it’s very hard to get this Jeep to burn gas in electric mode. Nothing short of a hard mash of the skinny pedal will make the turbo-4 bark to life. With the 180 lb-ft of torque the electric motor can provide you, normal driving only requires fairly light presses. With 2/3 or 3/4 throttle, you can even get decent passing power out of it without burning a drop of gas.
If you do need more power than the motor can provide, and you mash that pedal to the floor, it will deliver a LOT of extra power to get around some moron who’s trying to cut you off. Even then, it’s not harsh like my old Chevy Volt was when it barked to life. The engine comes up, gives power without making a ridiculous amount of noise, and then shuts off almost as soon as you’re done with the extra power.
Bottom line: you won’t accidentally burn gas. The 21 electric miles will be electric miles if that’s what you want. Need more than 21? If you have a place to charge it during the day, you can fill the battery back up in about 2.5 hours.
I only had one small gripe: even with maximum regen turned on, there was no hold feature. For most driving, especially in traffic, you can get around using only one pedal. It will slow almost to a stop. However, when you want to come to a complete stop, you’ll still need to put your foot on the brake and keep it there. If you release it, the vehicle will “creep” like an automatic transmission. If there’s a way to enable full one-pedal driving, I haven’t found it yet.
The Off-Road Experience
While the 4xe only gives you a few miles of electric range, it does this without compromising what it is. The vehicle is a real Jeep Wrangler. They didn’t cut any essential Jeep corners to electrify it. It will do anything a gas-powered Wrangler Rubicon (or Sahara if you buy that one) will do, and more.
How? Instead of optimizing for efficiency, Jeep built the Wrangler 4xe to be as much like a normal Jeep as possible. The electric motor is built into the 9-speed automatic transmission, which is bolted to the back of a gas engine. The power (whether electric, gas, or a mix of the two) comes out the back and goes into the same transfer case as a normal Jeep. The power then goes from the transfer case to solid front and rear axles (the Rubicon has real Dana 44s front and rear). Even the battery is safely tucked away inside so you don’t lose even a sixty-fourth of an inch of clearance.
So, yes, it’s a real Jeep, 100%, and not some wannabe.
Yes, I’m sure. I tested it.
The end result is a vehicle that uses a lot of electricity to get around, but it’s the most capable off-road electric vehicle someone can purchase today in June 2021, and there will be things it can do that the full EV competition won’t do for the next few years.
Even after searching for hours, I couldn’t find anything it couldn’t climb up and/or over (within reason, of course — I won’t try something I know is not possible for a stock Jeep). It made quick and all-electric work of deep sand arroyos, steep rocky climbs, and even a “Level 4” or “Level 5” trail (as defined by the local off-road club):
4. “Road surface consisting of loose rock and dirt with some rock surfaces. Heavy erosion, rock steps no higher than 18”, small boulders up to 12”. At least 33” tires required”
5. “Road surfaces are rutted and rocky with ledges or boulders not exceeding 24”. At least 33” tires required. Traction added device (lockers, limited slips) or working winch helpful. Good vehicle approach and departure angles helpful”
The Level 5 trail was enough to make me a little afraid in a couple of spots, but it was never anything the Jeep couldn’t take care of as long as I picked the right line (an essential skill one must learn from others). It always had enough room to fit between the big boulders, and when things were just a little too much, the skid plates kept anything bad from happening.
Don’t worry, Stellantis, the Jeep came away without a scratch!
Unfortunately, I’ve only been out at night doing real off-road driving, and couldn’t get good video yet. I will be doing this in daylight in the next few days so you can see what it can do straight from the factory.
How Does An EV Work On Challenging Terrain?
There were two big things that made this a better experience than a comparable gas vehicle.
First, you can use regenerative braking to control speed while descending steep hills. You’ll need to use friction brakes on the steepest ones, but it makes for a very smooth experience in most cases.
Second, the smooth application of electric torque was great for climbing big rocks and ledges. Instead of having to load the torque converter and make lots of micro-adjustments with the gas pedal, you can usually just give the 4xe a fairly light but consistent press of the accelerator and just let it climb. Getting that power from zero RPM instead of having to get above idle is a huge, huge help.
Under no circumstances on trail did the engine kick on, even climbing steep, steep hills.
Conclusions So Far
Jeep has a real winner on its hands here. And by winner, I don’t mean “it’ll sell well because it’s cheap” or “it’s what traditional auto buyers want.” It is selling a vehicle that can do things no other mass-produced electrified vehicle can do today.
Before anybody “but Cybertruck!”s me, keep in mind that you can go to a Jeep dealer and pick up a Wrangler 4xe today, not maybe next year EST (Elon Standard Time). The Wrangler is a full 6″ narrower and several feet shorter than the Cybertruck prototype, so it will fit down many challenging trails that a Cybertruck will bash its sides up on or simply get stuck in. Weight-wise, it’s incomparably lighter. It uses proven off-road parts that you can readily replace or upgrade in the event you do break something (assuming you don’t pre-emptively upgrade it for extreme duty).
Like other upcoming options, this will majorly cut emissions. While you may need to use gas with this 4xe to get to the trailhead (and Jeep is putting in charging stations at popular trailheads), between the electric power and the gearing options, you can take on the trail without burning a drop of gas, and get through it easier than you would with gas anyway. In town, most owners will cut their gas-burning ways by 90%, and do that without losing any of what makes the Jeep a Jeep. This means people will actually consider buying it if they want or need a Jeep.
I’m looking forward to full-EV options in the future (including some Jeep is working on), but this is the best you can get today and gives us a sneak peek at what we can expect from future off-road EVs.