The plug-in hybrid version of the Jeep Wrangler is currently the best-selling PHEV in the US, but it isn't coming to Ireland. And that, my friends, is a crying shame. Hybrid power works well in the chunky Wrangler, and it remains close to unbeatable off-road. For best effect, leave the doors and roof at home...
In the metal
There are Ferraris, it's true. There are certainly Porsches. There are Lamborghinis and Bugattis and Jaguars and all sorts. I don't know about you, though, but I'd walk right past each and every one of those if someone passed me the keys to a Jeep Wrangler, especially if the weather were to be sunny and warm, and the car's roof and doors had been removed and left to one side.
There is just no car I find more appealing than a fully-open off-roader (note, not an SUV - whatever the Wrangler is, it sure isn't an SUV) and on a hot, clear day in southern Spain, that's just what I'm looking at.
Inside, the dashboard has all the curves and delicate upholstery of a concrete block. To call the dash cliff-faced is to underestimate its verticality. There are old-fashioned, but highly legible, analogue and digital instruments behind the chunky three-spoke steering wheel, and in the centre of the dash is a large, square touchscreen set into a waterproof and dust-proof housing. It's surrounded by a phalanx of physical buttons that control various vehicle settings, all of which we're going to ignore because they're so covered in dust from repeated runs over this dry, rocky trail that it's impossible to read them, and almost impossible to read the touchscreen. All we'll need today are the steering wheel, the pedals and the chunky, hefty levers that shift the eight-speed automatic gearbox, along with the 2WD, 4WD, high-and-low ratio transfer box.
The Wrangler shape is all-but immutable, still drawing direct inspiration from that far-off original Willys Jeep of 1941. Sure, it's now bigger, chunkier, taller, longer, comes with four doors and seats for three in the back. The grille is now angled slightly back, rather than upright and there's a massive, jutting bumper at the front that is so big, Jeep will sell you an optional folding seat so you can use it as a comfortable camping perch.
Well, I say Jeep will sell you one - actually Jeep Ireland won't, or can't, sell you a Wrangler at all at the moment. The car's return to our shores is still possible in the coming years, but it's not a front-burner thing, and whatever happens, this plug-in hybrid Wrangler 4xe definitely won't be coming at all. To get a Wrangler on Irish plates, we'll probably have to wait a few years for the next-generation, all-electric model.
Still, I have the keys, there's dusty, undulating forest track waiting and it would seem rude, churlish even, to not have a taste of the current best-selling plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in the USA.
There will be no on-road driving here. The Wrangler is wearing outrageously chunky off-road tyres that would, frankly, be a nightmare of noise and variable grip if you took them out on tarmac, so we'll be sticking to the dirt. The doors and roof are off, so stepping into the cabin is effectively still being outside. The driver's seat is comfortable and supportive, but the driving position feels a little upright and hemmed-in, even with everything opened up. Roof on and doors on and it would probably feel a little too tight for some. I seem to fit fine, though.
Pull the hefty drive selector back into D, and shunt the big transfer box lever into 4WD-Auto for maximum traction (you can also choose 2WD for on-road driving, 4WD in high ratio, or 4WD low ratio for the ultimate in off-roading prowess). The 4xe plug-in hybrid will power the entire four-wheel-drive transmission even with the engine off, and the electric motor has 136hp and 245Nm of torque, so for the first part of our test - a technical and demanding off-road course - we go electric only.
Did I say demanding? Not a bit - the Wrangler cruises over the axle-torturing lumps and humps, climbs steep sandy slopes and descends vertiginous drops, and even drives a semi-circle canted over to one side at what feels like 45 degrees, with only the seatbelt keeping me in the car.
The electrical system is not what you'd call blissfully silent - it squeaks and whirrs as you demand power or braking, and again, roof on it would probably be rather ear-bashing, but out here the sound is soon largely lost to the breeze, so you can get on with enjoying yourself. There's more than sufficient power to deal with even the toughest slopes, so the dream of environmentally-friendly ways of disappearing into the boondocks has come true.
Technical section done, we head out onto a longer gravel-and-dirt trail that winds between trees and up and down large hills. Now we're in hybrid mode, and the Wrangler feels very lively indeed. Torque is limited in low gears, to the benefit of control when you're tackling tricky sections, but if you can find enough room to get it into third, the Wrangler 4xe rockets forward - it's almost viciously quick at times, a sensation enhanced by the fact that you're unencumbered by bodywork. That Jurassic Park T-Rex wouldn't have got near this Wrangler...
Off-roading is, generally speaking, supposed to be carried out at a leisurely pace, one where you take your time, read the road ahead and tread carefully. The Wrangler throws that all in the bin. Approach anything other than a near-vertical slope and it just kind of shrugs, and says 'go for it, mate.' So you do, and the Wrangler just flies along, kicking up a vast rooster tail of dirt, much of which swirls around and in the open cabin. It's not long before every fold of my clothes and every pore of my skin is thoroughly clogged with dust.
This is the best kind of motoring, as far as I'm concerned. No speed limits, no traffic, no one to worry about. Just head off into the wilds and keep an eye out for deer wandering across your path. We often giggle when Jeep comes over all-American and starts talking, in its marketing material, about 'freedom' but here it is, in four-wheeled form. It's amazingly liberating to cruise along, your left foot perched half out of the car resting on the door hinge, the trees and track in front and the endless blue sky above. It's way better than any supercar on any racetrack.
Electric range? 'Over 50 kilometres' is what's quoted. Real-world fuel consumption? Probably not worth considering, about 12 litres/100km if you're lucky. Refinement with the roof and doors in place? Likely awful, but that's the Wrangler way. It's a car built entirely around its off-roading prowess, with few concessions to comfort or refinement. Forget the Ineos Grenadier - this is the true inheritor of the old Land Rover Defender's crown.
What you get for your money
Well, you can't buy a Wrangler in Ireland today and even if you could it would be wildly expensive - at least €70,000 at a guess - and so this is entirely a moot point. The Wrangler 4xe gets a touchscreen, part-digital instruments, air conditioning, a 7.4kW charging socket mounted on the windscreen pillar and leather upholstery, but none of that really matters. This car is far more about its accessory list - chunkier tyres, more hardcore axles, winches - than it is its standard equipment. Also, this kind of driving experience is close to priceless. After all, how can you put a price on freedom?
It is a shame that the Wrangler 4xe won't make it to Ireland, but also - let's be honest - possibly for the best. After all, we have neither the weather nor the wide-open spaces available to exploit the Wrangler in its best, roofless and doorless, form. The plug-in hybrid system might arguably make the car a little more relevant for Irish buyers than previous Wrangler models, but with limited electric-only range and poor long-range fuel economy, it would still be something of a fool's errand. Still, get it in the right set of circumstances, and the Wrangler 4xe is more fun and more exhilarating than any sports car.