By Derek Price
When testing a Jeep Wrangler on a short off-road course in the Texas hill country, nearly everything felt familiar.
The classic Jeep shape, ease of climbing up steep grades and open-air feeling of being one with nature have all been a part of the Wrangler experience for decades.
One thing, though, was totally different this time: the way it sounds.
That’s because the Wrangler I tested is capable of running on electric power, something that seems bizarre at first blush but makes more sense when you actually drive one in complete silence while scrambling for traction over limestone rocks and loose, powdery dirt.
Called the 4xe, this new Wrangler is a plug-in hybrid that combines a gasoline engine with a big battery bank to help it travel on electric power for 21 miles when fully charged.
If you use it for commuting, that’s enough for many drivers to do all their daily errands without burning a drop of gas. When you need to go on longer trips, the gasoline engine means you can fill up with gas just like “regular” cars to avoid the range anxiety and slow charing that can afflict some pure electric vehicles on road trips.
Like many people, my tendency is to think of hybrid electric vehicles as small, lightweight, golf-cart-like contraptions designed for efficiency above all else. The brawny Wrangler is just the opposite, a heavy gas guzzler with the aerodynamics of a Kleenex box.
This hefty Jeep’s appeal, though, is mainly about enjoying Mother Nature. It can take you places few other vehicles on the planet can go.
If you want to keep those places clean and pristine, why not consider an electric Wrangler that’s ostensibly better for the environment?
Aside from the goody-goody appeal of helping the planet, the Wrangler 4xe delivers an otherworldly experience when driving off-road.
Before driving the 4xe, my only experience traveling off-road was with gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles in which aural sensations were always present. I never gave a second thought to the rumbling vibrations of firing pistons and the roar of an engine revving when climbing over obstacles.
In the 4xe, the experience is so different, it’s almost disorienting. And it makes the loud racket of gas-powered off-roading seem so unpleasant in comparison.
When there’s no engine noise to interfere, you appreciate all the natural sounds that otherwise get drowned out by the din of combustion. You hear birds chirping, wind rustling through the trees and water flowing through creeks.
Off-roading also benefits from one inherent upside in electric motors: instant torque. From the moment you press the accelerator, you can feel the Wrangler 4xe lunge forward. Engineers did a good job mapping the pedal to the motor’s output so it’s easy and natural to modulate when climbing hills or crawling over rocks and ruts.
If you run out of battery power, the 4xe becomes a gas-powered hybrid. The noise of the engine is noticeable, but that’s the only big difference.
It’s rated for the equivalent of 49 mpg in government tests. Like all plug-in hybrids, though, the actual mileage will vary greatly depending on how you charge and drive it. Without the electric power to help, the gas engine is rated for a less impressive 20 mpg in combined city and highway driving.
Other than the exotic powertrain, the 4xe is very similar to the four-door Wrangler Unlimited on which it’s based. It has a modern cabin layout, including lots of tech features, and a highway ride that’s quiet and comfortable enough to make older Wranglers feel downright brutish in comparison.
Pricing starts at $51,225 for the Sahara 4xe and tops out at $57,045 for the High Altitude. The extreme-off-road-focused Rubicon is priced in the middle at $54,925.
All those prices are before applying a $7,500 federal tax credit for buyers who qualify.
At A Glance
What was tested? 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe ($54,925). Options: Safety Group ($995), leather-trimmed bucket seats ($1,725). Price as tested (including $1,595 destination charge): $59,240
Wheelbase: 118.4 in.
Length: 188.4 in.
Width: 73.8 in.
Height: 73.5 in.
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder plus electric motors (375 total system horsepower)
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 50 mpg equivalent
Why buy it?
Electric range of 21 miles means many families can use it on daily errands without burning any gas at all. It also has a gasoline engine for extended range and feels sublime driving through the wilderness on silent electric power.