Mountain Wheels: Plug-in electric hybrid Jeep Wrangler 4xe explores new territory

Still offering all the off-road capability of a standard Rubicon, the hybrid 4xe version of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited offers loads of extra power.
Andy Stonehouse/Courtesy photo

While it looked like the collective Jeep/Ram/Dodge family was more concerned about end-of-era horsepower than any of that newfangled electric stuff the kids are all talking about — things have finally changed.

And when even the most rugged and off-road-oriented vehicle of the bunch, the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, can be integrated with plug-in electric hybrid technology, that’s a nice first step.

I finally got an extended drive with the new 4xe version of the four-door Wrangler, and had a largely pleasant and productive experience with the $51,695 vehicle — but stickered at $61,265, which included optional leather seats, steel bumpers and even a towing package.

That last part might seem antithetical to any vehicle even mildly electric, but here it’s the real deal, as the hybrid setup featured in the Wrangler (and, soon, in a hybrid Grand Cherokee) is robust enough to create 375 overall horsepower and a very impressive 470 pound-feet of torque — and tow up to 3,500 pounds.

This is accomplished through a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, two electric motors and a 400-volt battery pack, itself inconspicuously parked under the rear seats. The plug-in aspect is pretty simple: if you want to use it, there’s a charging lid located on the upper left side of the hood, high above its 30-inch water-fording depth. The 4xe’s 21 miles of all-electric range are available through either 2 1/2 hours of 240-volt charging or a 16-hour overnight charge at a household plug.

I will not bore you with details of the four consecutive ChargePoint stations in Frisco, Avon and Westminster, which were broken or offline, located on private property or already occupied by other slow-charging EVs — so I cannot speak to the vehicle’s pure electric mode. I am sure you will have better luck, or just plug it in in your garage. Or just simply drive it, as I did.

In a week of trips in town and over the passes to the World Cup races in Beaver Creek, the hidden electrified juice still shows up, and the hybridized system often got me an appealing 23.5 mph — not bad for a pretty heavy, four-door Wrangler still riding on quite aggressive off-road tires. As usual, the vehicle felt most comfortable at or below 65 mph.

Most curiously, the vehicle’s electrified range actually increased as I was driving quickly up steep highway inclines, as the system more aggressively recharges the battery.

It’s not exactly the most subtle hybrid experience around, but the fuel savings and all of that extra torque largely make up for it. Like hybrids about a decade ago, there are lots of loud and peculiar noises in non-highway situations — even backing up produced a loud electric motor whine, as did using the heater at a standstill.

But on the road, you’ll often find the revs at zero, even at highway speed, as the engine takes a breather and the electric system does all the work. You have the option of conserving your electric energy, going all-electric (when charged) or simply leaving it in hybrid mode.

On top of this, of course, is the fact that the entire ahead-of-the-curve powertrain is attached to an absolutely off-road-capable Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, which means all the trail and rock-crawling capability of a standard (or even Hemi) engine model.

There’s not much to demarcate it from other Rubicons, other than some distinctive blue towing hooks and markings. And it’s absolutely ready for a summertime open-air experience, as the Sunrider soft top flips up above the cabin, the doors can be removed and even the front windshield lowered.

All of Rubicon’s sophisticated off-road tech is also intact, including electronically detachable sway bars for enhanced articulation, a Rock-Trac 4×4 system with Dana 44 axles, electric Tru-Lok front and rear axle locks and an on-the-floor 4×4 lever with a super-aggressive 4:1 low-range gear ratio. Sahara and High Altitude builds of the 4xe include slightly milder gearing setups.

I headed up Tiger Road last weekend and found a few dry dips and ditches to try out the feel. It’s all still there and I’m sure would be quite eco-exciting in purely electric mode.

Rubicon’s ultra-chunky, industrial-strength but passenger-friendly interior is also consistent, with gigantic grab bars, oversized fan and radio controls and center-stack-mounted window controls, plus lots of auxiliary switches for lightbars and winches.

It’s tall enough to be a little awkward on entries, but that’s the Jeep thing, you know.

In Europe, the partially electrified options are moving even faster: The plug-in Wrangler will be the only model sold there, and drivers also get access to 1.3-liter hybrid versions of the Jeep Renegade and the Jeep Compass.

Andy Stonehouse

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