2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe first drive review: Not a great hybrid, but an awesome Jeep – Roadshow

The new Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid is the brand’s biggest step yet into the realm of electrified driving, offering up to 21 miles of electric range per charge. No, a big battery hasn’t magically transformed the Jeep into a smarm-powered eco-car; the improvements aren’t even that great when you look at the numbers. But electrification also hasn’t cost the 4xe seemingly any of the off-road capability or performance that we’ve come to expect from the Wrangler and it’s Trail Rated badge. If anything, it’s better than ever.

Electric Blue tow hooks at the front and rear visually differentiate the 4xe from more conventional Wranglers, perhaps more so than the subtle charging port mounted high on the front driver’s side fender. The blue theme also extends to the Trail Rated badges and other graphics across the boxy body. To the casual observer, the 4xe doesn’t look very different, especially when bathed in a healthy coat of mud. But of course, there are bigger changes hidden beneath the surface. 

The 4xe is powered by Jeep’s 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, aided by a small starter/generator motor. It is similar in design and function to the eTorque mild-hybrid motor, though this one operates at 400 volts rather than 48.

Sandwiched between the gasoline engine and the standard eight-speed automatic transmission — replacing the torque converter — is the larger, main electric drive motor. A pair of clutches tie it to the gearbox and the gasoline powerplant, allowing the combustion engine to be completely decoupled from the wheels for full-electric driving. Downstream, you’ll find the same four-wheel-drive system, two-speed transfer case and locking differentials as the non-hybrid Wrangler, with a 2.72:1 final drive axle for the base 4xe Sahara or 4.0:1 for the more off-road capable 4xe Rubicon.

All together, you’re looking at 375 horsepower and a very generous 470 pound-feet of torque. The Hemi-powered Rubicon 392 has the same peak torque and more power, but the precise control and instant torque of the electric motor combined with the 4×4 system’s low-speed crawling hardware makes the 4xe the more capable Wrangler over extremely technical terrain, according to Jeep.

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The 4xe’s 6-second 0-to-60-mph time is slower than the 392’s 4.5, but electrification has other advantages.


Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

There are three E Selec modes that allow the driver to choose how to use the 17-kilowatt-hour battery’s juice. Electric mode uses battery power only for up to 21 miles of mostly silent driving at an EPA-estimated 49 mpge. The default Hybrid mode blends in gasoline power once the battery is depleted, while eSave prioritizes the combustion engine to preserve or generate charge for the battery, which is useful for saving a bit of low-speed EV range for the end of a highway stretch. The EPA reckons your economy will drop to around 20 mpg once the battery is depleted, which is surprisingly 2 mpg worse than the non-hybrid Wrangler with the same engine. Boosted by the initial electric range, I finished a day of testing at 24 mpg combined.

There’s also a Max Regen setting that can be applied to all three modes. It’s close to a one-pedal driving mode, giving a full 0.25 Gs of regenerative braking on lift, but still creeps forward at very low speeds. Jeep’s engineers have done a good job tuning the feel of this mode; the amount of regen or engine braking feels consistent regardless of the battery’s state and/or the chosen E Selec mode.

Most of my testing involved keeping the Max Regen mode on, and to give the 4xe the best shot at reaching its estimated range, the 4×4 system is best used in 2-High rear-drive setting. Like this, I was able to put 23.8 miles of mostly silent city driving behind me before the gas engine kicked on, which is slightly more than Jeep’s estimate. There’s still quite a bit of road, wind and, occasionally, drivetrain noise, and my example rolls on the standard road-friendly 20-inch wheels with all-season tires. Expect less range from the Rubicon’s 33-inch tall knobbies and shorter final-drive, and significantly less at highway speeds. Hybrid or not, the Wrangler still has the aerodynamic profile of a palette of bricks and overall efficiency tanks above 50-60 mph.

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Plugging in adds up to 21 electric miles per 2.5 hour charge.


Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Plugging into a 240-volt Level 2 charging station — like the Jeep 4xe Charging Network trailhead chargers — juices the Wrangler’s battery pack in around 2.5 hours. At a regular 110-volt home wall outlet, that stretches to just over 12 hours from flat.

Of course, the most important thing about the 4xe is that it’s still a Wrangler; it still must deliver on the go-anywhere capability that name commands. To test this, I swapped into a more rugged Rubicon model with its 33-inch tires, dropped into 4-Low, locked the diffs and engaged full-electric mode to tackle an off-road course.

The journey started by fording water 30 inches deep without electrocuting anyone involved. The entire high-voltage electrical system is sealed and waterproof, plus the battery pack is actually tucked in the cabin, beneath the rear seats, where it is climate controlled and protected from bumps, punctures and scrapes.

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The high-voltage powertrain and battery are waterproof and protected from the elements.


Jeep

With its impressive 77.2:1 crawl ratio and gobs of electric torque on tap, the Rubicon 4xe made easy work of some pretty severe climbs up solid, smooth rock faces. And while the 4xe’s PHEV hardware adds quite a bit of weight to the Wrangler’s package — about 770 pounds more than a comparably equipped Rubicon V6 — the battery’s position actually improves weight distribution, shifting quite close to a 50:50 split depending on trim, and lowering the center of mass slightly, for a more planted feel even at severe angles. Creeping along was made easier with the latest generation Selec-Speed Control smoothing out hill ascents and descents, but the throttle was remarkably sensitive and easy to modulate even without it. 

Perhaps the most enjoyably odd part of the 4xe off-road experience was just how absolutely and strangely silent the powertrain was even when hauling itself out of the mud and up ridiculously steep climbs. As much as I love the sound of a powerful ICE, hearing the scrub of the tires over the terrain added an unexpected dimension to the crawling experience, and I particularly enjoyed being able to more easily hear my spotters’ commands and the nature surrounding the trail. Of course, that meant the occasional thunks or scrapes from the undercarriage when exploring the limits of the 4xe’s 10.8-inch ground clearance and 22.5-degree breakover angle were also much more pronounced.

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Street-bound improvements are minimal, but at least the Wrangler makes no discernable sacrifices off-road.


Jeep

The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe starts at $49,490 for the base Sahara, including a $1,495 destination charge. That’s about $8,825 more than a similarly spec’d Sahara V6, but up to $7,500 in plug-in tax rebates and any state specific-incentives should ease the sticker shock. The more rugged Rubicon and feature-laden High Altitude modes I tested start at $53,190 or $55,074, respectively.

The Jeep Wrangler 4xe is just an OK plug-in hybrid. Its range and fuel economy are pretty weak but, with frequent charging and shorter trips, there’s still plenty of potential to bend the rules of “your mileage may vary” to your benefit. However, the 4xe is truly the most capable, technically advanced and eco-friendly Wrangler ever and its ability to quietly and confidently tackle the great outdoors with a nod to environmental responsibility is currently unmatched. At least, until the electric trucks arrive.

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