LAKE TAHOE—Enzo Ferrari once called the Willys Jeep “America’s only real sports car.” The comment was meant as a dig at the Chevrolet Corvette, but should not stop Jeep owners from wearing the accolade proudly. Perhaps no other automobile brand on the planet has such a close connection to its owners than the Jeep brand, and it starts and ends with the Wrangler.
In early 2013, Jeep announced an all-time global sales record for 2012, selling 701,626 units. The 19 percent increase over the 2011 model year can be largely attributed to the growth of the Wrangler, which sold 194,142 units in the US alone.
The Wrangler’s charm resides in its adherence to the past. In spite of ever-tightening emissions and safety standards, the Wrangler simply cannot give up ground when it comes to off-road capability. To do so would dilute what it means to be a Wrangler, but the new 2016 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) restrictions are coming. With the next-generation Wrangler estimated for a 2015 model year debut, it is time to face the hard fact—this beloved Jeep will have to make some serious changes to live on in the mpg-stretched decades to come.
In the immediate future, however, Jeep is focused on the crowning achievement of its current generation, the Wrangler Rubicon 10th Anniversary Edition. While every Jeep that wears a “Trail Rated” badge must traverse the challenging Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada, only one Jeep is capable enough to wear that name across the side of its hood. The Rubicon is a 22-mile long gauntlet, rife with challenges that will test the toughest custom off-road rigs, and the most seasoned drivers.
While this trail is almost entirely populated by heavily modified pickups and SUVs, we would be traversing a portion of it in stock Wrangler Rubicons, fresh out of the factory. Though the beefy BF Goodrich Mud-Terrain KM2 tires added a half-inch of ground clearance, and removable front bumper end-caps may be exclusive to the 10th Anniversary Edition, it is not outlandish to suggest these items may appear as standard equipment on the next Wrangler Rubicon. Automakers love outdoing themselves.
Also present were a number of Jeep “Image Vehicles.” Each are one-of-a-kind prototypes and represent the brand’s pseudo-clandestine “skunk works” efforts. But these vehicles are more than just fantasy come to life. They address specific challenges for the brand, and are proof-of-concept for different elements that may be taken up by the next-generation Wrangler. In other words, put it all together, and you start to see the potential future of the Wrangler.
The most telling concept is the Stitch, which puts an emphasis on extreme weight loss. For humans, rapid weight loss is a potential health risk, but for the Wrangler, it is vital for future survival, and this concept takes it to the limit. The Stitch features an aluminum suspension in place of the steel components, a carbon fiber hood that weighs a scant 8 pounds, the replacement of the lead-acid battery with a 4-pound lithium-ion unit, a smaller 10-gallon fuel tank, and replacing the current seats with those of the SRT Viper. The most fascinating feature is the one for which the concept is named. Holes have been cut out of the body in every non-essential spot, and architectural fabric is stretched over all the panels.
In all, the Stitch shed an astounding 1,100 pounds from the Wrangler Sahara upon which it is based. According to Jeep brand designer Bill Zheng, the challenges for the next Wrangler are apparent. “One of the messages is lighter weight and more efficiency,” he explained, standing next to one of his wild creations. “The functional objectives are apparent, but I believe the Wrangler image is more important than anything else.”
Another Image Vehicle present was the Flat Top. The windshield and roof had been lowered by two inches, which may not seem like much, but is an indicator of where the Wrangler is headed. While the four-door Wrangler Unlimited is safe in its current carbon footprint, impending emissions standards mean that the physical footprint of the two-door model does not warrant the amount of greenhouse gasses that it emits. To that end, the next two-door Wrangler could stretch by as much as six inches, with slightly longer doors. The Flat Top may be hinting at the stretched profile of a future Wrangler.
According to Dan Edmunds, senior vehicle test editor for Edmunds.com, more changes may be on the way. “More wheel offset for an increase in track width,” suggests Edmunds, “is the determining width factor of the CAFE footprint.”
Other productions hypothesized by Edmunds include the adoption of the eight-speed automatic from the Grand Cherokee and employing the Rubicon’s transfer case across the lineup. The low ratio would allow the axle ratio to be tailored more to EPA tests.
The capability that Wrangler owners hold so dear is certainly a source of weight, but those owners also hold the key to solving those weight-efficiency issues. “Working on these vehicles, we have to be aware of the latest technology,” explains Zheng, “We can see what people are using and implement them on the Image Vehicles right away.”
Porsche and BMW may go out to a track day to see what kind of brakes and shocks drivers are using, but it is nothing compared to the open lines of communication between Jeep and its owners. Survival of the Rubicon depends on your equipment working—no questions asked. Maintaining that capability against future emission regulations represents a challenge as demanding as the Rubicon Trail itself.George Kennedy is a freelance auto writer. He can be reached at George.Kennedy@Boldride.com. Follow him on twitter @GKenns101.