2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe Review: First Drive

Apparently I can’t just write “a Wrangler with an EV mode” and say this review is done.

That over-simplifies, sure. When it comes to turning Jeep’s icon into a plug-in hybrid for the first time, there’s more to it than just chucking in some batteries and calling it a day.

From behind the wheel however, it’s pretty darned accurate summary. Jeep has spent decades cultivating the Wrangler’s idiosyncratic personality, and I’m happy to report it’s survived the electrification process intact. In fact, passengers would be hard-pressed to tell there’s anything different afoot either, unless they’re up on their Jeep color-coding and clocked the electric blue highlights outside. The 2021 Wrangler 4xe wraps everything the world loves about Jeeps into a package capable of zero-emission city errand runs and silent nature treks.

Does this mean you can both acquire and consume your baked goods? Pretty much, so long as you can swing the added up-front cost.

What makes it a four-by-ee?

(Not, as I’ve been calling it for months, a four-exe-ee.)

The Wrangler 4xe starts life as a 2.0-liter, turbocharged model. From there, Jeep engineers fits a 400-volt, 17.0-kWh lithium-ion battery pack just ahead of the rear wheels, in a sealed section underneath the second-row seats. Jeep skipped the usual under-the-floor battery placement because it didn’t want to sacrifice that traditional go-anywhere ability. Thus, the 4xe will still happily ford 30 inches (76 cm) of water. Level 2 fast charging refills the battery in around 2.5 hours.

With two electric motors augmenting the four-pot, combined output is a stout 375 horsepower, with peak torque of 470 lb-ft. For those keeping score at home, that’s more twist than the torquey EcoDiesel spits out, and matches the 392 V8. A TorqueFlite eight-speed automatic transmission handles shifting duties.

Every 4xe model uses the four-door Unlimited shell. Buyers have a choice of three trims at launch: Sahara, High Altitude, and the Rubicon you see here. Each one is subtle about its plug-in nature: a charge port at the base of the A-pillar is the most obvious cue, with a smattering of 4xe badges and electric blue accents for the badges and hood graphics being the only tells.

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Silent in the streets

Pop open the door, pull yourself up to the driver’s seat, and still the 4xe hardly hints at its PHEV nature. The first sign is tucked just to the left of the steering wheel. Three buttons dictate how the drivetrain functions: Hybrid is as you’d expect, and is the default on startup; Electric is self-explanatory too. E-Save prioritizes ICE usage, with the driver choosing between maintaining the current charge or using the engine to increase it via a Uconnect menu. It works seamlessly, though the dash display does show the battery regularly discharging even in maintain mode.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Jeep Gladiator EcoDiesel Review: No Apologies

Another unique button sits below the climate controls. Jab the blue battery icon and the Wrangler 4xe enters max regen mode, with the system scavenging extra energy whenever you’re coasting. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but this quasi-single-pedal mode eases the pain of traffic jams.

Despite its plug-in nature, the Wrangler 4xe is not about maximizing fuel economy. The JL-generation shape slices through the air like a hammer used for heart surgery, and this particular model runs knobbly 33-inch all-terrain tires, which don’t help. In fact, the EPA rates the 4xe very slightly worse than the regular 2.0-liter Wrangler when running in gas-only mode, scoring 20 mpg combined versus 22 mpg (11.7 and 10.8 L/100 km, respectively).

Navigating the city on nothing but electrons suggests Jeep’s EV-only range of 22 miles (35 km) is accurate, though that’s a slight downgrade from the estimated 25 miles (40 km) when the 4xe debuted. If you regularly plug in between these sorts of trips though, the savings will quickly add up, and your mpg-equivalent will drop.

Same great off-roader

Far away from the city, the 4xe makes short work of every off-road trail we tackle together. Rubicon models come with the same Rock-Trac 4×4 system as their gas-only counterparts, with a two-speed transfer case including a 4:1 low range. There are myriad toys to make off-road novices feel like gods, including electronic diff lockers, an electronic front sway bar disconnect, and Selec-Speed Control, which is essentially cruise control for steep hills.

It’s here the EV mode comes into its own. Since electric motors do their best work right at throttle tip-in, it’s easy to smoothly guide the 4xe over every obstacle in its way. Meting out power this precisely also avoids the driveline shock of a typical gas-only setup.

With the optional front-facing camera, it’s a cinch to place the 4xe exactly where I want on a rock-strewn hill climb. It feels utterly secure, scrambling up hills and around ridges at angles that set off alarms on my internal gyroscope. The PHEV model does cede a few degrees to gas models for approach, breakover, and departure angles, however (44, 22.5, and 35.6 degrees, respectively).

SEE ALSO: 2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo Review: Ace of Base

The highways between the city and the off-road playground highlight quirks within the 4xe’s dynamic makeup. There’s gale-force wind noise, and the need for regular steering inputs to keep the Wrangler between the lines. Neither of these facts are news. The 4xe never feels 375-horsepower fast though, likely because it’s hauling around an extra 850 lb over the gas model. At least the extra poundage sits low and back in the chassis, giving the package a more planted—but still squidgy—feel.

It’ll cost ya

in America, getting into a Wrangler 4xe essentially begins at $50,000, including destination but not any incentives. Comparing trims like-for-like, the PHEV upgrade costs over $7,500 beyond the sticker for 2.0-liter, automatic-transmission Sahara or Rubicon. That difference is essentially halved for the High Altitude, however.

Canadians get a better deal. At $56,890 CAD, the Sahara is around $4,000 CAD dearer than the gas-only model. $61,890 CAD nets the Rubicon, a difference of around $5,000 CAD. Opt for the High Altitude though, and they’re essentially the same price.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Review

This Can-spec Rubicon tester saw a smattering of options, swelling the sticker to $74,485 CAD (circa $66,845 in the US). That’s a lot of green for any Wrangler, but depending on your state/province, you could potentially pick up a 4xe for less than an ICE-only model after tax credits. 

Verdict: 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe First Drive Review

The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe is the latest proof that electrification won’t ruin the unique character of existing models. It’s not particularly efficient, and it never truly feels at home on a highway, just like the regular Wrangler. The 4xe is capable of the same hill-cresting, water-fording, wild-wheel-articulation fun as the gas model, too. The only difference is it can do all that—as well as boring errand runs—without burning a drop of fuel. It’s as capable as the Wrangler’s ever been, just with the added peace of mind (and literal peace) a plug-in provides.

Turns out “a Wrangler with an EV mode” works after all.

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