The strong, silent type
THE GOOD
  • Unique driving experience
  • Familiar capability
  • Relatively efficient
THE BAD
  • Expensive w/options
  • Wanders on highway
  • Unrefined engine sound

For all the reasons you can imagine, and a few you can’t, the 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe is among the most uniquely charming vehicles on the market.

Beyond the obvious – it’s a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), after all – there’s something fascinating about an off-roader that’s simultaneously so capable and yet so quiet. Start it up on a hot summer day and the battery cooling system sounds as if there’s a passenger jet nearby preparing for takeoff. Every tread block squishes audibly as the meaty tires roll away from a stop, while the steering pump can be heard hissing and wheezing as the wheel is turned from lock to lock. These are just a few of this gas-electric Wrangler’s unique traits.

But most distinctive of all is the way it performs once the pavement ends. Make no mistake, this is a range-topping Rubi through and through, and the electrical components do nothing to take away from the baked-in capability. In fact, they just might add to it.

Styling: 10/10

Aesthetically speaking, there’s nothing quite like the Jeep Wrangler – or at least there wasn’t until the Ford Bronco made its triumphant return. Even so, this brand-defining SUV’s popularity as a commuter, a rock-crawler, and everything in between means it’s the subtleties of this PHEV version that stand out.

Blue recovery hooks front and rear, as well as blue highlights on the hood graphics and fender badges, and a discrete badge on the back are the only indicators that this runs on a combination of gasoline and electrons. Well, those and the charge port just ahead of the driver’s door. Otherwise, it’s a rugged Wrangler Rubicon inside and out, with styling cues to match.

Power: 9/10

What’s truly special about this 4xe – it’s pronounced “four-by-ee,” by the way – is what you can’t see from the outside. It starts with a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine that makes 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque on its own. From there, it gets a boost from a pair of electric motors: one that replaces the alternator, and another that’s integrated into the eight-speed automatic transmission.

Net system output stands at 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque, but it’s the instant nature of the electric torque – a combined 220 lb-ft – that makes the biggest difference both around town and out on the trail, with smooth and immediate throttle response. Out on the highway, the all-important 80-to-120 km/h passing manoeuvre is executed in a hurry, while pulses of electrons make for velvety gear changes.

Comfort: 6/10

The Jeep Wrangler isn’t known for its serenity of sound, which makes the silent operation of this PHEV version under electric propulsion among its most outstanding attributes. Unfortunately, that peacefulness is shattered when the turbo motor kicks in, with an unrefined quality that only gets worse on the trail with the four-wheel drive system in its low-range setting. The 2.0L sounds strained and far from satisfactory when contending with the mechanical drag of the 4.0:1 ratio of the transfer case and the 4.10 axles – especially with the differentials locked.

The same is true of the wind noise on the highway, with the Wrangler’s aerodynamic principles (or lack thereof) making it difficult to have a conversation inside regardless of what’s powering it. Its shape also means the Wrangler is prone to being pushed around like a wimpy kid on windy days. The Rubicon version’s ride quality, however, is top-notch, with its beefy suspension and squishy tires absorbing any and all road imperfections.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Excessive fuel consumption has long been a foregone conclusion that comes with the Wrangler ownership experience. This PHEV powertrain changes that in a big way – at least under electric propulsion. With a 17.3-kWh battery pack under the back seat, charging overnight (or in about two hours with a Level 2 charger) results in a claimed all-electric range of 35 km or so that can either be used all at once or parsed out in hybrid mode.

With the so-called e-save mode engaged to keep the battery charged up for later use and the brakes set to maximum regeneration, a highway-heavy evaluation drive spanning some 220 km saw the Wrangler Rubicon 4xe complete nearly 10 per cent of those under nothing but electric power and burn a combined 10.4 L/100 km, while the battery returned with the same 95 per cent charge it left with. Meanwhile, the full week of testing, including a day of serious four-wheeling, finished with a combined consumption rate of 11.9 L/100 km over 830 km. That’s not especially impressive, but in the land of the Wrangler it’s about as good as it gets this side of the diesel.

Driving Feel: 8/10

The weight of the battery pack down low in the body – at 2,368 kg (5,222 lb), the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe weighs 337 kg (743 lb) more than the same vehicle powered by the 2.0L engine alone – lends to a little more controllability than the average Wrangler possesses. Make no mistake, it still wanders like a senile old man at anything more than city speeds; and there’s a serious lack of steering feel. But it’s impressively mild-mannered compared to the typical Wrangler Rubicon experience.

This PHEV version is also just as unstoppable on the trail as a gas-only Rubicon. With the help of the Central Ontario Off Road Jeep Club (COORJC), a day of rock-crawling and water crossings tested the mettle of the Wrangler Rubicon 4xe and it passed with flying colours. There’s simply no questioning the out-of-the-box capability it offers.

Practicality: 10/10

Meeting at Minden Off-Road Park about 200 km northeast of Toronto, no less than 12 club members and seven Jeeps turned out for a day of testing that proved to be as challenging as it was rewarding. Crawling up and across masses of Canadian Shield rock, gently navigating long water crossings that were bumper-deep, and weaving along tight tracks through dense forest, the Wrangler Rubicon 4xe was rarely outmatched and also had adequate instant torque on tap to overcome obstacles.

Nearly half of the six hours spent on the trail was done under nothing but electric power, the Wrangler PHEV quietly making its way along without much fuss. Only once did the gas engine kick in with electric mode engaged, with your humble author getting unnecessarily overzealous during a short hill climb early on. Otherwise, it remained on standby until the battery was depleted, at which point it kicked in with quite the ruckus. There’s also the issue of the extra mass here, which isn’t exactly a hindrance but is noticeable nonetheless. It’s more apparent when dropping off obstacles than climbing up them, but you can certainly feel the extra weight that’s being carried around.

Features: 8/10

This being the Wrangler Rubicon 4xe, much of what’s included in the asking price – as well as what’s offered on the options list – is focused on enhancing this Jeep’s capabilities. While every version employs robust solid axles front and rear, for example, the Rubicon adds electronic locking differentials. It also features a disconnecting front sway bar for improved suspension articulation, unique shocks at all four corners, and meaty all-terrain tires for improved off-road performance. There’s also all manner of skid plates underneath and steel rocker guards, while optional steel bumpers front and rear ($1,295) were added to this tester for more trail protection.

Run through an 8.4-inch touch display, the infotainment system also provides access to handy off-road extras like pitch and roll angle, drivetrain stats, and various gauges. Because it’s a PHEV, the touch display also provides access to pertinent information like scheduled charging and energy use. That’s in addition to the more typical stuff you might expect like built-in navigation and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone connections.

User Friendliness: 9/10

Simplicity is paramount to the Wrangler experience, and that remains the case here despite the complex powertrain. Three clearly labelled buttons allow you to choose between hybrid, electric, and e-save modes; charging is as simple as plugging into the port on the fender; and driving is really no different than with any other Wrangler.

The rest of the cabin is packed with big, basic switchgear, with buttons and knobs adorning the dash for HVAC and audio that are complemented by one of the most straightforward infotainment interfaces around. There’s a smartphone-like structure to the operation, with tile icons for the various functions, including a customizable shortcut toolbar at the bottom of the screen where your favourites can be kept at the ready.

All the off-road equipment is equally as easy to understand and use. An old-fashioned lever is used to engage four-wheel drive – there’s an automatic setting for inclement weather – while the differentials can be locked and the front sway bar disconnected via buttons on the centre stack. There’s even a quartet of auxiliary buttons that can be used to run accessories like off-road lights.

Safety: 5/10

Safety items have also been kept simple: if you want any, expect to pay. Parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert costs a combined $945, while forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, automatic high-beam headlights, and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic is another $1,450. Even then, there’s no lane-keep assist – unsurprising given the way the Wrangler wanders on the road.

Value: 6/10

Those after the Jeep Wrangler’s looks and lifestyle would be advised to skip the Rubicon version – though it’s the one that makes the most financial sense in gas-electric guise. The Wrangler Rubicon 4xe starts at $61,890 before tax but including a non-negotiable freight charge of $1,895, while the cheapest gas-only four-door comes in at $55,310. However, swap in an automatic transmission and that price jumps to $57,305, while the diesel costs a whopping $64,500.

The bigger issue with the Wrangler regardless of what’s under the hood is how quickly the selling price climbs with extras, some of which should be included. Beyond those safety features, the leather upholstery seen here is a $1,095 upgrade, which wouldn’t be so bad except it takes another $995 to add heat to the front seats and steering wheel (as well as a remote starter).

Add it all up and this tester has a pre-tax price of $74,585. And since the starting price of this PHEV is too expensive, it doesn’t qualify for Canada’s federal tax rebate. Residents in British Columbia, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island can take advantage of provincial rebates, however.

The Verdict

There’s no doubt the extra – and instant – torque of this gas-electric offering is beneficial out on the trail, but it’s truly the intangibles that make the 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe so endearing. Crawling along the trail in mechanical silence totally transforms the off-road experience. And it can do the same to the daily commute.

The asking price of any Wrangler should be carefully considered before jumping in with both feet, but there’s no denying that this plug-in hybrid is a unique take on an already unique vehicle. The Wrangler’s priority has long been placed on capability in the name of efficiency, which remains true with the gas engine working but gets turned on its head with the electric motors running the show.

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe
Engine Cylinders Turbo H4 hybrid   Base Price $59,995
Peak Horsepower 375 hp @ 5,250 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 470 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,895
Fuel Economy 11.6 / 11.9 / 11.7 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb gas only; 4.8 Le/100 km, 35 km range electric only   Price as Tested $74,585
Cargo Space 784 / 1,908 L seats down  
Optional Equipment
$12,595 – One-Touch Power Hardtop, $3,995; Advanced Safety Group, $1,450; $1,295; Steel Bumper Group; Leather Upholstery w/Utility Grid Seatbacks, $1,095; Cold Weather Group, $995; Safety Group, $945; Trailer Tow & HD Electrical Group, $895; Integrated Off-Road Camera, $595; Remote Proximity Keyless Entry, $495; Boldly-Colour Fenders, $295; Billet Silver Metallic Paint, $245; Cargo Management Group w/Trail Rail System, $195; All-Weather Floor Mats, $100