There’s hardly a vehicle in the world that can match the iconic status of the Jeep Wrangler. The off-roader is famous all around the world for its undeniable prowess at crossing hill, dale, mud pit or rock outcropping. So it’s with good reason that the automaker — or rather all of the automakers who have taken ownership of the Chrysler/Dodge/Ram and Jeep brands over the years — hasn’t messed with success.
But the time has come for Jeep to do the unthinkable: reengineer a new Wrangler for the future. And it needs to go electric. Now, before all you Jeep fanatics call down fire and brimstone upon this writer’s head, you need to put your pitchforks down and realize that I’m one of you.
I’m not just an ex-Wrangler owner, though I am that, too. I grew up in a Jeep family. Many of my close family members worked or still work at the factory in Toledo. My family and I quite literally grew up in and around the off-road world that Jeep is so proud to boast has been ruling the Rubicon since 1941.
So when I say that Jeep needs to get serious about electrification, know that I do so as a fan and enthusiast. And as a writer who follows the entire industry, I can say that Jeep has fallen too far behind the times. In fact, if there’s one automotive brand with zealots that can rival those of Jeep’s, it’s Tesla. And while Jeep is in zero danger of losing marketshare to that American builder of EVs, the reality is that Tesla has proven batteries and electric motors are now and will continue to be a huge part of the automotive landscape. Jeep needs to dive in, for both environmental and performance reasons.
In reality, Jeep knows it needs to adopt electrification. It’s created a whole microsite for a program it calls “The Road Ahead.” The site leads off with a patriotic freedom-focused video before a section called “Leading the Way” that displays the latest Grand Cherokee and reborn Wagoneer, and then finally an “American Adventure Electrified” section.
The first product highlighted under Jeep’s electrification effort is the brand’s 2021 Wrangler 4xe. It couples a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with an electric motor and 17-kilowatt-hour battery pack to produce 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. It’ll do 0-60 in 6 seconds and go around 21 miles on electric power alone. That’s a great first step, but one that should have been taken several years ago.
Jeep’s latest — let’s be honest, only — foray into Wrangler electrification is the Magneto concept, which Autoblog recently got the chance to drive in Moab. It’s very odd. Instead of taking a clean-sheet approach to EV design, Jeep’s engineers disassembled a regular gas-powered Wrangler and replaced its V6 with an electric motor that they tuned to behave exactly like the engine they discarded. They hooked the motor to a manual transmission that’s mated to a standard two-speed transfer case that routes power through front and rear driveshaft to standard solid axles front and rear. Four individual battery packs, each custom designed to be wedged into spaces that would otherwise be occupied by gas tanks and exhaust tubes, equal a total 70 kWh of energy storage.
If you or I were to devise the simplest way to make an electric Jeep Wrangler, pulling the engine and replacing it with an electric motor would be the best bet. Find as much space for batteries as possible between the frame rails, bolt on as much underbody protection as possible and see what it’ll do. There’s no way the result would be as polished or work as well as the Magneto, but the basic pattern would be the same.
Jeep says it plans to continue refining the Magneto over the next few years, and while I’ll track their progress with interest, I just can’t comprehend how their engineers are going to gather much useful knowledge. Building an electric vehicle based on the blueprints for one designed to run on gasoline just doesn’t make sense. As a fun engineering project, I applaud the effort. But as a legitimate production vehicle, it’s a dead end. This is a topic I touched on before the Magneto was even unveiled during the recording of Autoblog Podcast 664 when I called it “the same thing that an enthusiast might do in their garage.”
Building an electric vehicle based on the blueprints for one designed to run on gasoline just doesn’t make sense.
I can’t understand how a new platform with an electric motor for each axle would be inferior to running electric ponies through all the legacy hardware needed to convert gas-guzzling horses to forward momentum. If you’ve ever seen a high-spec Tesla at a drag strip, you already know that electric motors make way more torque off the line than gasoline engines, and that’s perfect for an off-roader. There’s certainly no need for a transmission, and probably not for a traditional transfer case — each of those spinning gearsets robs efficiency and power, takes up space, and adds cost, complexity and weight.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that when Jeep does inevitably introduce a proper electric vehicle, it’s highly unlikely that it will use the Magneto’s unconventionally conventional drivetrain layout. Some sort of two-speed transfer case or axle system may or may not be desirable, and I have no doubt Jeep’s excellent designers and engineers can figure that all out.
The Magneto is the kind of project Jeep should have experimented with, oh, about a decade ago after it truly began recovering from its loathsome and best-forgotten private equity cost-cutting years.
By now, Jeep should have a fully electric off-roader awfully close to production. It should be easily identifiable as a Wrangler derivative, with round headlights, removable doors and top, and, yes, a folding windshield. It should boast a reasonable range of 200 miles or more, and it should be legitimately capable of negotiating off-road terrain.
Don’t forget the growing number of buyers who love the outdoors and believe electric vehicles are one increasingly important way to protect it.
This mythical electric Jeep should be sold right alongside the current Wrangler and its many variations, including those powered by turbocharged four-cylinder engines, V6s, plug-in hybrids and, yes, even the 470-horsepower Rubicon 392 with its 6.4-liter V8. It’s not an either/or situation. Give customers what they want and are willing to spend big bucks to buy, but don’t forget the growing number of buyers who love the outdoors and believe electric vehicles are one increasingly important way to protect it.
Some portion of the hardest-of-the-hardcore Jeep abusers would welcome an electrified Wrangler-like vehicle with open arms if it helped them tackle their favorite off-road trails. That same torque that allows Teslas leap off the line would also help creep up and over any number of rocky or tree-lined obstacles. It would also cut down on a lot of unwanted noise and exhaust fumes, though those are surely secondary benefits for enthusiasts.
Now, it’s fair to say that not every Jeep aficionado will be able or even want to use an electric Wrangler in every possible off-roading scenario. Some trails are quite long and take a while to get to. Other owners live well off the beaten path without access to charging stations. For some of those buyers, Jeep has plans to install solar charging stations at certain popular trail locations. For the rest, it already has a highly capable and popular Wrangler platform to continue building and refining.
Put simply, Jeep should be a leader, not a follower.
As it stands today, General Motors’ Hummer, a brand that ceased to exist due in part to its (in my opinion undeserved) reputation as a brand that built nothing but rolling eco disasters, is going to beat Jeep to the punch with a pair of unique electric off-road-capable vehicles. I’m not targeting any dates as I’ve learned to take a cautious stance on as-yet-undelivered electric vehicles, but Tesla, Rivian and Bollinger also look poised to put electrics into customer hands well before Jeep with various trucks and utility vehicles.
I don’t think that should be acceptable to Jeep or its fans. Put simply, Jeep should be a leader, not a follower.