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The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe marries WWII handling with 50 mpg efficiency

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It is not a hard-and-fast rule, but most cars would be better with the addition of some electric motors. There are always exceptions—heavy batteries and an electric motor would ruin a Caterham 7, for instance—but it holds true for most cars. Consider the Jeep Wrangler 4xe, the new plug-in hybrid variant of the nation’s favorite rock-crawler.

For non-car people, Wrangler might as well be synonymous with Jeep. The current-generation Wrangler only dates back to 2017, but it still carries plenty of styling cues that hark straight back to the original World War II Jeep. Big wheels project out from the body, protected in plastic arch extensions that house the LED daylight running lights up front.

But it’s not a particularly big SUV by the standards of 2021, at 188.4 inches (4,786 mm) long (including the rear-mounted spare tire). The doors signal to you that they’re removable by way of large external hinges. The only real clues that this is a plug-in hybrid are some electric blue bits here and there (like the tow hooks) plus the charging port that lives just below the A pillar on the driver’s side.

To enter, pull on that rugged door handle, then hop up into the cabin via the running board and a grab handle mounted right on the A pillar. The 1940s design cues continue on the inside, with the most vertical dashboard I’ve encountered in many years. That does mean the UConnect touchscreen is within easy reach, at least.

Under the distinctive hood you’ll find a 2.0 L turbocharged four-cylinder direct-injection gasoline engine that generates 270 hp (200 kW) and 295 lb-ft (400 Nm). There’s also a 134 hp (100 kW), 181 lb-ft (245 Nm) electric traction motor mounted to the front of the eight-speed automatic transmission—in this case the ever-excellent ZF 8HP.

There’s also a two-speed transfer case with both 4-high and 4-low four-wheel drive modes as well as two-wheel drive for on-road activities. Our test Wrangler 4xe was the Sahara model, which features open Dana 44 front and rear differentials, although a limited-slip rear is available as an option. More hardcore off-roaders will want the Rubicon, which upgrades the diffs with Tru-Lok lockers.

In total, the hybrid powertrain is rated at 375 hp (280 kW) and 470 lb-ft (637 Nm), which makes this the most powerful Wrangler on sale after the one with a V8 hemi. (It has an identical torque output, which is probably more important in day-to-day driving as well as off-roading.) The engine and motor are connected by a clutch that can disconnect the internal combustion engine when the Wrangler 4xe is in electric mode.

The lithium-ion traction battery is located underneath the rear seat. Total capacity is 17.3 kWh, and about 15 kWh of that is usable by the driver. It can charge at up to 7.2 kW when connected to a level 2 (240 V, AC) charger, which will take just under three hours to bring the battery pack back to 100 percent.

In electric mode, a fully charged battery is good for 22 miles of electric-only range, according to Jeep and the Environmental Protection Agency. You select the drive mode via a button on the dash, and there’s another button to engage maximum regenerative braking in this mode, which in effect enables one-pedal driving.

The other drive modes are hybrid, which is the default mode and which blends the electric motor and gasoline engine; and e-save, which tells the Wrangler 4xe to just use the internal combustion engine, saving the battery for later. As long as you’ve got charge in the battery, hybrid mode should return 49 mpg (4.8 l/100 km). But when the battery is empty, efficiency plummets to a combined 20 mpg (11.8 L/100km).

Honestly, not great to drive on the road

On the road, the Wrangler 4xe encourages a relaxed driving style that should help you get close to the EPA numbers. I won’t mince words: the Wrangler has the worst road manners of any new vehicle I’ve driven in a while, though. Between the knobbly off-road tires and the solid front and rear axles, the Jeep follows every camber and bump in the road, wiggling this way and that with little yaw movements as you ostensibly drive in a straight line. It will cruise at highway speeds, but it’s not a particularly fun experience.

Around town, with some charge in the battery and speeds under 25 mph (40 km/h), it works fine as a runabout—that hunting and moving around excepted. It doesn’t feel entirely Greatest Generation, however. The Wrangler 4xe’s damping over potholes and the like was extremely good, quelling sharp rebound movements effectively.

That suggests the Wrangler 4xe would be highly competent off-road, something we weren’t able to test. Not getting to that is a shame really, because that’s the main reason this Jeep exists, and I’m pretty sure that electric off-roading in near silence is even better than normal off-roading accompanied by engine noises. (Jeep has even built out some trailhead charging stations at Moab, Utah, as well as the Big Bear and the Rubicon Trail in California.)

Regardless of which trim you pick, in our opinion the Wrangler 4xe is the definite pick of the range, if for no other reason than at least some of your driving can be emissions-free. With an MSRP that starts at $51,025, it’s definitely not the cheapest Wrangler in the lineup, although it does qualify for the full $7,500 IRS plug-in vehicle tax credit. That hasn’t stopped Jeep from shifting a lot of Wrangler 4xes, in part thanks to some aggressive lease deals.

For on-road driving, you’ll find the Ford Bronco or Land Rover Defender far more civilized, and both should be equally as capable on the trail. But we’re still waiting for the plug-in Defender to come to the US and for Ford to announce an electrified version of the Bronco. As such, I’m prepared to forgive the Wrangler’s idiosyncratic handling for now. But you probably shouldn’t buy one if you don’t plan to get it muddy.

Listing image by Jeep

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