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The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Remember the TV ads for the original Ford Escape Hybrid back in the mid-’00s? The spot showed the SUV creeping silently through the forest on electric power, no critters disturbed by its intrusion into their ‘hood. As if! In reality, tires crunching gravel and crushing undergrowth would be far louder than any engine ticking over at crawl speed.

For the record, Jeep’s new electrified Wrangler is a plug-in hybrid, and can drive vastly further on electric power than Ford’s early-technology Escape Hybrid – all the more so at the creep speeds typical of off-roading. But we’re going to take the Wrangler’s unimpeachable off-roading credentials as a given here – and largely irrelevant.

The vast majority of Wranglers spend their lives tooling around the suburbs and the downtowns of large Canadian cities, so that’s how we spent our allotted week with the 4xe. After all, millions of vehicles doing the same thing every day spew far more carbon than a handful of occasional off-roaders. Reducing everyday emissions is what the Wrangler 4xe is all about.

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Considering its build and mass, any current-generation Wrangler is less thirsty than you’d think. My last V6 gas tester averaged (in summer) 12.0 L/100 km; the diesel, in January, 9.8. But the addition of a 17.3-kWh lithium-ion battery pack and a 100-kW electric motor create the potential for whole new levels of energy efficiency.

I averaged 7.8 L/100 km in the 4xe over a late-April week of driving split almost exactly 50/50 between electric and gasoline propulsion.

In the 4xe, the electrification is in combination with the available 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder engine, which itself is a little more frugal than the alternative 3.6-litre V6. Even in stock form, both gas engines are already mildly electrified with Jeep’s eTorque starter-generator-motor technology; the 4xe adds the electric motor, sandwiched between the engine and the eight-speed automatic transmission, and a lithium-ion battery pack beneath the rear seat. The charge port is placed high out of mud’s way, just forward of the driver’s door.

Combined, the three power units generate 375 horsepower (vs 270 for the 2.0 L gas engine alone) and 470 lb-ft of torque (295 for just the gas engine). Despite a substantial weight gain, this should be the quickest Wrangler, bar the new 392 hp V8 – Jeep claims 0-96 km/h in 6.0 seconds – as well as the stingiest on fuel.

As is so often the way, the fuel-saving technology is only available on the spendiest trim grades – in this case, the four-door Unlimited in Sahara, Sahara High Altitude and Rubicon guises. The Sahara starts at $54,995 (so, no federal EV incentive), and the other two each ask $59,995.

According to government ratings, the 4xe has an all-electric range of 35 km. Three switches down by your left knee let you choose between Hybrid mode (the default), EV (the gas engine only comes on if you mat the throttle) and e-Save (to reserve the battery charge for later use).

The Wrangler 4xe's charge port is located just ahead of the driver's door.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

It wasn’t hard to match or beat the claimed range, albeit in mild late-April weather that let the HVAC stay off. On one trip pootling around the ‘burbs, the 4xe went 41 km before the internal-combustion engine put its shoulder to the wheel for the first time.

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An out-of-town expedition, including about nine kilometres of freeway, netted 38 km – though the engine did intervene briefly on the freeway. Over a total 165 kilometres of driving that day, we averaged 9 L/100 km. Even when the initial charge is used up, the 4xe still operates as a hybrid. Our various trips in Hybrid mode used electric power for about 10 per cent of the distance driven.

A regular Sahara with automatic transmission starts at $51,060, so the premium for the electrification doesn’t seem excessive, per se – it’s just a shame the starting point is already so high up the range. And it can go even higher; our Rubicon test sampled the hardest-core off-roader of all Wranglers – optioned up to $73,690, not including destination charge and taxes.

Still, nobody spends this kind of coin just to spend less money on gasoline. The 4xe blends intriguing technology and the opportunity to drive a hardcore off-roader with less environmental guilt. I’m not sure how many Wrangler devotees are looking for that, but if they are, the 4xe delivers.

Looks

Blue badging and tow hooks are the only significant visual differences from the standard Wrangler.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

It looks like a Wrangler should look, but with the addition of electric-blue badge outlines and matching tow hooks.

Interior

The 4xe has a similar cockpit to other Wranglers – narrow, with a flat windshield above a vertical dashboard.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

In essence, you get the same rather narrow cockpit as in any Wrangler, facing a flat, upright windshield over a vertical, wall-like dashboard. The centre dash features an integrated 8.4-inch display screen; there’s plenty of physical switchgear, too, but no more than six-way-plus-lumbar manual seat adjustment, even on the top trims. Rear-seat space is useable but with less sprawl space to spare than in comparably sized crossovers.

The 4xe adds three switches for selecting drive modes, plus appropriate additional information in the trip computer at the centre of the gauge cluster. The seven-inch display also houses a digital speedometer, as the right-hand binnacle now houses a large electric power/charge display.

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Performance

Maximum-effort performance feels very linear – no turbo lag on launch but no massive off-the-line shove either. Rolling acceleration, such as for passing manoeuvres, feels relatively more impressive. Transitions in and out of gasoline power are seamless, ditto the idle stop/start system, but we were surprised the 4xe wasn’t quieter in EV mode; sundry meshing sounds intrude even at school-zone speeds. That all becomes moot at higher speeds, when the unholy harmony of howling tires and drumming canvas (gnarly off-road tires and a soft-top are standard on the Rubicon) dominate.

While paved-road chassis dynamics are hardly a priority, the 4xe is probably as good as they get in a Wrangler. The extra mass likely benefits ride comfort (stiff, but cushioned and controlled) and it also evens up the front/rear weight distribution; once you get past the vague steering, cornering is pleasingly balanced, within the Rubicon’s admittedly low limits.

Technology

The centre screen displays info on gas and electricity consumption.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Despite its back-country persona, the Wrangler offers (depending on the trim level or option package) most infotainment, connectivity and assisted-drive mod cons, including 4G wireless hot-spot, wireless charging, rear cross-traffic detection, automatic forward emergency braking and adaptive cruise control with stop; it does not, however, offer active lane-keeping assist.

Cargo

A right-hinged lower tailgate and/or flip-up rear window provide access to a cargo area that’s smaller than in like-sized crossovers and SUVs. The 3,500-lb tow rating – modest for an SUV – is the same as regular four-door Wranglers.

Tech specs

2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe

The Wrangler 4xe is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine augmented by a 100-W electric motor.

Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

  • Price, base/as tested: Base 4xe, $54,995; Base Rubicon 4xe, $59,995; Rubicon 4xe as tested, $73,690 plus $1,895 destination charge
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder/100-kW electric motor/30-kW eTorque motor-generator
  • Transmission/drive: 8-speed automatic/dual-range 4x4
  • Fuel consumption: Combined 4.8 Le/100 km; gasoline 11.6 city/11.9 hwy L/100 km
  • Alternative PHEV SUVs: Audi Q5 55e, BMW X3 30e/45e, Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid, Lincoln Corsair Grand Touring, MINI Cooper SE Countryman, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, Porsche Cayenne E-Hybrid, Subaru Crosstrek, Toyota RAV4 Prime, Volvo XC60 T8

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