2020 Jeep Wrangler changes likely to take a backseat to Gladiator pickup while new rivals Bronco and Defender loom

2020 Jeep Wrangler

2020 Jeep Wrangler

What changes will make the 2020 Jeep Wrangler different?

Jeep is adding a Wrangler-based pickup truck for 2020, called the Gladiator. But the traditional lineup of Wrangler two- and four-door compact SUVs should carry over for ’20 with little more than fresh paint shades and perhaps a new special-edition trim level. We would, however, urge Jeep to introduce some of today’s key safety features, particularly autonomous emergency braking, to expand this SUV’s relatively thin selection of driver assists.

Wrangler has remained true to its go-anywhere character even as it’s become more civilized with each redesign. The latest, for model-year 2018, created the most luxurious Wrangler yet and at the same time, the most off-road-capable. Long a rather cramped two-door SUV, Wrangler truly entered the mainstream with the model-year 2004 introduction of the roomier four-door Unlimited model. Initial demand was so strong buyers frequently paid above list price.

Trading on remarkable appeal to true off-roaders and pavement-bound image-polishers alike, today’s Wrangler remains among the most sought after and expensive compact SUVs. Sales were up a healthy 25 percent through November 2018 and sticker prices on well-equipped examples top $50,000, which shoppers are evidently happy to pay.

Should I wait for the 2020 model or buy the 2019?

Wait if you’re interested in the Gladiator pickup. It takes the Wrangler Unlimited and stretches its underbody frame more than 30 inches and wheelbase (distance between the front and rear axles) nearly 20 inches. The result is a crew-cab pickup with a 5-foot bed capable of hauling 1,600 pounds or towing 7,650 pounds. These numbers easily surpass comparably sized rivals such as the Chevrolet Colorado and Ford Ranger. Including four-wheel drive (4WD) as standard, Gladiator copies several Wrangler design cues, including removable doors, a fold-flat windshield, and a choice of removable soft or hard cab tops.

Wait also if you’re tuned into reports that Jeep will begin offering the Wrangler with a diesel engine option. Jeep has confirmed that a diesel V-6, rated at 442 pound-feet of torque, will become available in the Gladiator during calendar 2020. As of November 2018, industry scuttlebutt suggested Wrangler would also be available with a turbodiesel engine for the first time in North America; Europe and other worldwide markets already offer one. If that comes to fruition, it could be added to the model-year 2019 lineup or reserved for introduction on the 2020 Wrangler.

Beyond the diesel possibility, the 2020 Wrangler will almost certainly be a near-repeat of the 2019. The current-generation, codenamed “JL,” went on sale for the 2018 model year. While its iconic styling and legendary off-road capability changed little, the JL introduced significant underskin and interior revisions that make it the most commuter-worthy and family-friendly Wrangler yet – without compromising its off-road ability.

The 2020 Wrangler lineup should carryover, with base Sport, mainstream Sport S, and off-road-flagship Rubicon trim levels for both the two-door and Unlimited four-door body styles. The Unlimited should also return a luxury-themed Sahara model slotted just below the Rubicon.

For 2019, Jeep also offered the Wrangler Moab. Though priced as a separate model, the Moab was essentially an option package for the Rubicon that brought specific styling elements and upgraded convenience features. It’s possible this version will return for 2020, or it might be accompanied by a new special edition.

Regardless of trim level, every 2020 Wrangler will come with 4WD and retain old-school-SUV body-on-frame construction with solid front and rear axles. By contrast, virtually every rival is a car-type crossover, blending body and frame into a single unibody design with independent front and rear suspension.

The ’20 Wrangler’s base engine will remain a gas V-6. A turbocharged four-cylinder will again be optional. The standard 4WD system would again be a part-time setup not designed to be left engaged on dry pavement. The Sahara – and potentially some new upscale trim level — would again offer an optional full-time 4WD system that can remain engaged on any surface. Both systems would have low-range gearing for severe off-road driving.

Will the styling be different?

Not unless Jeep introduces a new special-edition model to supplement or replace the Moab. It’d likely have unique paint and interior trim, possibly exclusive wheels, but wouldn’t bring significant changes to performance or new features. Indeed, Jeep doesn’t mess with Wrangler’s core elements, even between design generations. Styling hallmarks are the seven-bar grille, round headlights, exposed door hinges, prominent wheel arches, and a square roof with a spare tire attached to the tailgate.

Jeep has gotten rather self-referential, though, sprinkling about “cookies” to remind you of this vehicle’s heritage. Among other touches, the current Wrangler nods to the original 1940s Willys MB (the Wrangler’s spiritual ancestor) with a tiny decal in the corner of the windshield and an animated graphic that “drives” across the bottom of the instrument panel when you start the engine.

Wrangler is still technically a convertible with a folding (and removable) soft top. But Jeep will continue offering several roof options for 2020. Removing and replacing the standard soft top is a chore, even though it’s easier than ever in the current-generation model. Same goes for the optional hardtop, although it’s the roof we recommend for anti-theft security, noise suppression, and best weather insulation. Returning as optional on the Sahara and the Unlimited Rubicon will be the clever “Sky One-Touch” roof, introduced with the 2018 redesign as the first power soft top ever on a Wrangler. It progressively powers back the horizontal roof section to essentially create a panoramic sunroof.

Don’t expect changes to the ’20 Wrangler’s interior. The uninitiated will need some time to adjust to the bolt-upright driving position and the feeling of sitting very close to the dashboard. The wheel adjusts for rake and reach, and although you can order leather upholstery and heated front seats, the front buckets are not power adjustable.

Befitting Jeep’s high-ground-clearance design, it’s a tall step up into the cabin, and negotiating the vertical door sills makes for somewhat awkward entry and exit. The Unlimited’s rear doors simplify access to the back seat and its 21.6-inch-longer wheelbase helps create a welcome extra 2.6 inches of rear legroom.

Once situated, you’ll find a control layout unique to Wrangler but modern enough to be practical. Infotainment is handled via the latest version of the Uconnect interface also found in other Jeep, Dodge, Chrysler, and Ram truck vehicles from corporate parent Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The available 8.4-inch touchscreen includes imbedded GPS navigation, Apple CarPlay, Google Android Auto, and high-resolution graphics that make the system a pleasure to use.

As for passenger room and comfort, head clearance is decent with the standard soft top in place. The hardtop steals about 2 inches of vertical clearance, so very tall riders might feel a tad cramped. Visibility can be a challenge due to the short windshield, tall rear headrests, and spare tire attached to the tailgate. Thankfully, blind-spot alert and rear cross-traffic detection are available.

Despite the Unlimited’s additional 21 inches of body length, both body styles share the same cargo volume: a generous 31.7 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 72.4 with it folded. A tall deck makes loading bulky items more difficult than in a compact crossover, however, and interior storage isn’t great, hurt by the miniscule glovebox and mesh door pockets that can’t hold much.

Any mechanical changes?

Only if the diesel engine option gets pushed back to model-year ’20 instead of showing up for model-year 2019. Either way, it’ll be a derivative of the 3.0-liter V-6 coming for the Gladiator and already available in Jeep’s midsize Grand Cherokee crossover and in the Ram 1500 full-size pickup truck. In those vehicles, the engine produces 260 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque, though it’d likely make slightly less in the Wrangler. In the Gladiator, the diesel is offered only with an 8-speed automatic transmission.

The 2020 Wrangler should otherwise continue with Chrysler’s 3.6-liter gas V-6 as standard. It’ll again make 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A 6-speed manual transmission would be standard on all but the Unlimited Moab. That grade would come with the 8-speed automatic that’ll remain optional on the other ’20 Wranglers.

You’d again need to order the automatic to also get the optional turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. Introduced late in the 2018 model year, it has 270 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Included with it is FCA’s “eTorque” system, which supplements the gas engine with a small, battery-powered electric motor. It’s designed to improve fuel economy by providing engine idle stop/start capability and to boost power during acceleration. The stop/start function works very smoothly, but this four sounds rather loud and coarse. We’re unconvinced the improvement in fuel economy is worth the tradeoff in cost and refinement over the well-behaved V-6.

Any Wrangler can take you places most every other SUV and pickup fears to tread. Rubicon and Moab models stake a credible claim to the best factory off-road vehicles in the world. They come standard with front and rear locking differentials, electronically controlled front sway-bar disconnect, a heavy-duty front axle, a beefier transfer case with special low-range gearing, off-road tires, specially tuned shock absorbers, and beefy metal lower-body rock rails.

On road, no Wrangler rides or handles particularly well. Big bumps and dips can trigger aquatic body motions. The steering is rubbery. The tall, boxy build is susceptible to gusty crosswinds and promotes noticeable lean in all but gentle cornering. The nose plows in fast turns and the tires are noisy even on seemingly smooth pavement.

Will fuel economy improve?

Only if and when the turbodiesel V-6 arrives. Expect EPA ratings around 20/26/23 mpg city/highway/combined with either manual or automatic transmission.

EPA ratings for gas-engine 2020 Wranglers are likely to mirror those of the 2019s. They’re better than you might imagine for such an un-aerodynamic-looking vehicle. With the gas V-6 engine and manual transmission, two-door Wranglers should again rate 17/25/20 mpg city/highway/combined, four-doors 17/23/19. With the V-6 and automatic transmission, look for both the two- and four-door to again rate 18/23/20 mpg.

Selecting the eTorque four-cylinder engine, with its mandatory automatic transmission, should again net ratings of 23/25/24 mpg for the two-door and 22/24/22 for the four-door Unlimited.

Finally, expect Jeep to continue to recommend regular-grade 87-octane fuel with the gas V-6 and premium-grade 91-octane with the turbocharged four-cylinder.

Will there be new features?

Don’t count on it, unless Jeep decides to add more standard equipment to enhance the base Sport trim. Purists will recognize the Sport as a Wrangler throwback, but for 2019, it had fewer amenities than most subcompact cars. Air conditioning was an option. The locks were manual, and power windows were unavailable. The only audio system was a basic AM/FM radio with a 5-inch display screen.

Of most concern, Wrangler’s utilitarian aesthetic means you’ll likely have to compromise on getting the latest driver-assistance features. Don’t count on key safety features such as autonomous emergency braking and lane-departure warning becoming available any time soon. By contrast, these and other modern driver assists are widely available as standard or optional features on every other crossover and SUV, regardless of size or price.

The 2020 Wrangler Sport grade should continue with no advanced safety tech, other than front airbags and front-seat-mounted side airbags.

Blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection and rear-obstacle sensors should remain standard on the Moab and an option ($995 for 2019) on the Sport S, Sahara, and Rubicon.

Newly available for 2019 was adaptive radar cruise control and forward-collision warning. It was included in a $795 package for Sahara, Rubicon, and Moab grades. We’d urge Jeep to make these features standard or more widely available for 2020.

Most 2020 Wrangler shoppers will continue to start at the Sport S grade. That model should return with standard air conditioning, power windows and locks, and pushbutton engine start. Via options, you’ll again be able to equip it with features such as blind-spot alert, rear cross-traffic detection, rear-obstacle detection, automatic climate control, CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, heated front seats, and a heated steering wheel — none of which were offered on the 2019 Sport.

The 2020 Wrangler Sahara would continue to build on the Sport S with standard dual-zone automatic climate control, LED ambient lighting, upgraded upholstery, extra 12-volt power and USB charging ports, and specific exterior trim and wheels. Rubicon grades would again add heavy duty off-road hardware that includes beefed up underbody skid plates, locking front and rear differentials, and the ability to electronically disconnect the front suspension sway bar.

If the Moab returns, it would include the all-weather hardtop that’s optional on other Wrangler models, LED exterior lighting, and imbedded navigation.

Will 2020 prices be different?

They’ll almost certainly rise thanks to continued strong demand, although arrival of new competitors such as the Ford Bronco and Land Rover Defender could temper the increase. Base-price estimates here include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $1,495 on the 2019 Wrangler.

Expect the 2020 Wrangler Sport to start at $30,000 in two-door form and $33,500 in Unlimited guise. Estimated base prices for the ’20 Sport S are $33,000 and $36,500, respectively. Look for base prices of $40,000 for the two-door and $43,500 for the four-door Rubicon, with the Moab trim pushing the starting price to around $50,000 and $53,000, respectively.

To those estimated base prices, expect to add $2,000 to replace the 6-speed manual transmission with the 8-speed automatic. Add another $1,000 for the turbo four-cylinder engine. The ’20 Wrangler Sahara will again come only as an Unlimited with the automatic at an estimated base price of $42,500 with the V-6 and $43,500 with the turbo four.

Most shoppers will choose the four-door Sport S or Sahara and will likely spend at least $45,000. Discounts aren’t likely to be much of a factor, but Wrangler has a good record of reliability and an outstanding one for resale value, with some of the highest residuals in the entire industry.

When does it come out?

Expect a fall 2019 release date for the 2020 Jeep Wrangler.

Best competitors

Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma, Ford Bronco and Ranger, Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, GMC Canyon All Terrain, Land Rover Defender

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About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]