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Clawing through the narrow channel, a vehicle-sized trench gouged into the top of a hill, I'm reminded just how capable the Jeep Wrangler is. Like a layer cake of gravel and sand, the surrounding soil's strata are clearly visible, towering above the roof of my high-riding steed and coming within inches of the outside mirrors. Stick a hand out the window and you can practically touch the walls, this pathway is so claustrophobic. But the 2021 Wrangler 4xe (it's pronounced "four-by-E") plug-in hybrid handles this challenge with ease, as other Trail Rated Jeeps certainly could. Unlike its siblings, however, this one can tackle Mother Nature's toughest terrain without making a peep.
This symphony of silence is enabled by a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. The Wrangler 4xe provides an estimated 21 miles of electric-only range, courtesy of a 17-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery mounted in a weathertight location underneath the backseat. Take it easy, and that pack provides hours of stealthy off-road fun. Of course, if you venture too far down the trail and deplete the 4xe's electron reserves, you still have an internal combustion engine to get you home. In this case, a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that's smooth running, free revving and paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Altogether, this drivetrain dream-team provides 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque.
The 4xe's powertrain features two electric dynamos, one engine-mounted, liquid-cooled motor-generator that replaces both an alternator and conventional starter, plus another mounted at the front of the transmission, which takes the place of a torque converter and drives through two clutches (a binary clutch connects the engine and motor, a variable clutch manages the engagement of the motor and transmission). All this sounds pretty complicated and it is, but as a driver all you really need to know is that the 4xe's drivetrain works well. Aside from the occasional and barely noticeable judder as it blends electric motivation with internal combustion, the setup is totally transparent, delivering excellent performance, impeccable refinement and stellar fuel economy. This Wrangler stickers at 20 mpg combined when running as a hybrid and 49 mpge when operated solely on electricity. In mixed use (including off-roading) taking full advantage of the all-electric range, I'm averaging 24 mpg, a surprising figure for such a boxy, bulky vehicle.
Bolstering the economy is a Max Regen feature, which you can easily enable or disable via a hardware button on the dashboard. This comes close to providing a one-pedal driving experience by cranking up the regenerative braking, enabling you to put as much juice back into the battery pack as possible. Once enabled, Max Regen even remains on after the vehicle is restarted.
The Wrangler 4xe offers three driving modes, all of which are available while out on the trail, even with the transfer case in four-wheel-drive low. Hybrid is the default, taking advantage of the powertrain's two electric motors and gas engine to deliver strong efficiency and performance. eSave allows you to maintain the battery's juice for later (or recharge it while driving), rather than using it all up just getting to your off-roading destination. Finally, there's Electric, which is where the magic happens. This setting allows the Wrangler to smoothly and silently glide along either city streets or unmarked trails, burning no gasoline in the process. However, the engine will kick on in this setting if you get overzealous with the throttle, but avoid going past about three-quarters and this should never happen. In Electric mode there's ample torque, especially at low speeds, which gives this Wrangler solid scoot.
That grunt is doubly helpful while off-roading, where low-end oomph is paramount for clambering over rocks and scampering up sandy outwashes. The Trail Rated 4xe can surmount many an obstacle without straining, aided by its aggressive BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A tires surrounding two-tone 17-inch wheels. If your off-road escapades include a bit of moisture, there's no need to worry. The Jeep Wrangler 4xe can drive through up to 30 inches of water. The hybrid system's wiring is specially sealed to prevent any electrical shorts.
Indeed, the 4xe is a Wrangler first and a hybrid second. Despite the space-aged electrified powertrain, this vehicle is still a benchmark-caliber off-roader. Hard-core Rubicon models come standard with a Rock-Trac four-wheel-drive system and a two-speed transfer case with 4:1 low-range gearing. Rugged Dana 44 axles support both ends of the vehicle and are fitted with electrically locking differentials for added traction in gnarly conditions. Enhancing suspension articulation, the front sway bar can be disconnected at the push of a button.
The 4xe Rubicon's approach angle is 43.8 degrees and its departure measurement clocks in at 35.6. The breakover angle is 22.5 degrees. Ground clearance checks out at an impressive 10.8 inches. Along with skid plates, Rubicons also feature rock rails to protect their lower bodies from damage. Additionally, this particular example is dressed up with the $1,745 steel bumper options group, which upgrades the vehicle with rugged metal bash bars at both ends.
Aside from its ability to run silently on electric power, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4xe behaves pretty much like any other Wrangler on pavement. This means it's simultaneously astonishing and appalling. Overall, the 4xe drives remarkably well for something with live axles at both ends and Jeep engineers should be applauded for making such a single-purpose vehicle so civilized. But still, it does not handle like something with four-wheel independent suspension, not even close. The steering is loose, the ride quivers like a Jell-O Jiggler and crosswinds cause the Wrangler to practically change lanes of its own volition. If a TJ is the last Wrangler you drove, this JL model will be an absolute revelation; if you're coming out of a unibody crossover it will feel like a vintage tractor with worn-out tie rods.
Visually, not much separates the 4xe from less-electrified Wranglers and that's great news. I mean, why tamper with such an iconic design? The tow hooks, Jeep badges and interior stitching are all rendered in a radiant color called Electric Blue. Other than that, these suckers look basically like any other Wrangler.
The 4xe's interior is the same as well, complete with its friendly and familiar Uconnect infotainment system splashed across an 8.4-inch screen. There are plenty of soft plastics, contrast stitching livens things up and most of the knobs and buttons operate with well-lubricated slickness. Even with a battery underneath the lower cushion, this Wrangler's backseat is comfortable and accommodating, though the front buckets could certainly be improved. They're too flat for my taste and don't offer enough adjustment range.
Making it easier to bask in Mother Nature's glory, the 4xe's doors are removable and its windshield can be folded. This example is also fitted with Jeep's Sky One-Touch Power-Top, a fabric roof that slickly retracts at the push of a button, though you pay through the nose for this privilege. That power top is the most expensive option fitted to my review unit, checking out for $4,095.
This hybridized Jeep Wrangler is available in just one flavor, as a four-door Unlimited model, though it is offered in three different trims: Sahara 4xe, Rubicon 4xe and High Altitude 4xe. The base price for a Sahara including $1,495 in destination fees is $51,000 and change, which makes it nearly 11 grand more expensive than an entry-level Wrangler Sahara. This means the plug-in hybrid model is even richer than opting for the available diesel engine, which costs $6,000 ($4,500 for the engine and $1,500 for the mandatory automatic transmission).
The Rubicon model you see here blows past those figures, checking out for a wince-inducing $65,890, just $585 less than the Defender 90 I recently reviewed, which was built by Land Rover, a luxury brand. Of course, a handful options inflate that figure, things like the $995 cold-weather package, upgraded steel bumpers, $995 for parking sensors and of course that folding fabric roof.
The 2021 Jeep Wrangler 4xe is a cutting-edge anachronism, like a Conestoga wagon with Wi-Fi, an Intel-powered abacus or papyrus scrolls with QR codes. It melds the go-anywhere capability of a Wrangler with a futuristic and efficient powertrain, one that works as well on the trail as it does on the street. If you're shopping for one of these iconic off-roaders, absolutely consider the 4xe if you can swing the monthly payment. It may have the best overall powertrain of any Wrangler available today.