The Wrangler's new plug-in hybrid powertrain doesn't compromise traditional Jeep ruggedness.
Emme HallFormer editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
The Jeep Wrangler 4xe is one of the most exciting plug-in hybrids to go on sale in a long time. It has a 2.0-liter turbo I4 engine, two electric motors and a 17-kilowatt-hour battery, producing a total output of 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. It'll go 21 miles on electric power alone and can be charged in two hours from a Level 2 charger. And it's a plug-in, but it's still a Jeep: It'll go just about anywhere.
For this test, I have the Rubicon 4xe, which has the same ground clearance, approach angle and locking differentials as the gas-powered Rubi. Even with its plug-in powertrain, the Rubicon 4xe can still ford 30 inches of water, clamber over rocks and scuttle up dunes.
2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe: The desert-running PHEV
My off-road workout comes in the form of a pre-run for my first off-road race since COVID-19 hit. It's 42 miles of grueling terrain through Johnson Valley, California, home of the infamous King of the Hammers race. Rocks, silt, whoops and sand are all par for the course here. Pre-running gives me a chance to see the course ahead of time and make notes on where I'll be able to go fast and -- more importantly -- where to expect trouble.
But first, I have to get to the starting line. An overnight charge on my piddly 120-volt home outlet gives me an indicated 24 miles of electric range, 3 more than the EPA's official rating. Setting off, I set the 4xe to eSave mode to conserve my range for later and head out on the 50-mile pavement drive to the race course. An hour later the gauge cluster says I've used 5% of my battery and I'm sitting at 20 miles of range, despite the eSave mode. Weird.
It turns out that the 4xe will automatically engage the electric motors to make a bit of room in the battery for any electrons gained through brake regeneration. Once there is a bit of wiggle room in the battery, eSave mode is locked in until the driver changes it. The upshot is that the only way you'll get to use all the range at once is to charge and immediately go into EV-only mode.
There is a Max Regen button that is really good at pushing power back into the battery when driving around town. It almost allows for one-pedal driving, but it will only bring the Jeep down to 5 mph, not a full stop. However, Max Regen doesn't really help me since my time is spent on the highway without any stop-and-go traffic.
Regardless, once I get to the starting line, I engage four-wheel drive with 20 miles of silent electric driving ready to go. Remember, the 4xe has 470 pound-feet of torque when both the gas engine and electric motors are working together. In EV mode I've got less, but I do have a 77.2:1 crawl ratio and I get full torque instantly. So while the powertrain's output is less in EV mode, there is still plenty for this race course. A steep uphill climb poses no problem whatsoever, and the 4xe makes short work of a few silt beds. The advantage here is control; I don't have to get the engine revving to access the powertrain's full torque. The 4xe is still not the fastest thing in the whoops -- after all this is a solid-axle vehicle -- but running in EV mode poses no threats to the rig's off-road prowess.
Of course, dirt, silt and rocks can eat up range, and I'm making it worse with the air conditioning on full-blast and my tires aired down to 26 psi. I'm able to run 11 miles of the race course in full EV mode before the engine kicks on. By the time I cross the finish line I've gained 6% of my battery back -- in four-wheel drive I get regen from all four wheels -- and I have a host of notes to remember for the next day's race.
It's worth noting that Jeep has plans to install Level 2 chargers on 56 off-road trails in the next year or so. The first three will be in major off-roading hot spots: Moab, Utah; Big Bear, California; and of course the Rubicon Trail.
The next morning, I Ioad up the 4xe, hook up my race car's open trailer and head out for the race. The 4xe Rubicon can tow 3,500 pounds, same as the gas-powered variant, and the PHEV does nicely while dragging my 2,500-pounds rig. It pulls cleanly up a 8% grade hill and accelerates just fine to 55 mph on the highway. The 4xe is rated by the EPA for 20 mpg combined, but I only see a 1-mpg dip while towing, which is pretty good.
One caveat: Depending on your trailer, you might need a drop hitch. The rear-mounted spare tire competes for space with my standard hitch, and I have to take the tire off and throw it into the cargo space. This isn't the kind of extra work I need at 5 a.m. on race day.
Once all is said and done, I've driven 148.1 miles on battery power and 686.9 miles on gasoline for an average of 21.6 mpg. A non-4xe Rubicon gets an EPA fuel rating of 19 mpg combined, so the plug-in advantage is pretty good, considering my tougher testing.
Oh, and as for the race, I was running second in my class until a rollover resulted in a leaky transmission. Bummer.
The 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe starts at an even $55,000 including $1,495 for destination. That's a staggering $10,100 premium over a standard Rubicon. My tester ups the cost significantly with the $750 trailering package, $1,695 leather seats, $2,495 hardtop and a few other bibs and bobs, for a grand total of $66,690 including destination. Of course, you might also be eligible for federal, state and local tax incentives to help lessen that blow.
Frankly, I'm not sure the small gain in fuel economy justifies the 4xe's price, but the electrified Jeep is nevertheless a cool piece of tech. Plus, there's something really awesome about wheeling in perfect silence and with no loss in off-road prowess, the 4xe could make a lot of sense for eco-minded enthusiasts who want to get way off the grid.