How the Jeep Wrangler went from rock crawler to luxury SUV

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(NEW YORK) — The Jeep Wrangler can ford rivers, crawl over boulders, traverse deserts and blaze through uncharted territory. Fierce yet affordable, the humble 4X4 has long been the go-to vehicle for outdoor enthusiasts.

These days, however, the rugged sport utility vehicle may seem more like a luxury ute than off-roading warrior.

Last month, Jeep executives introduced the redesigned 2024 Wrangler, replete with all the modern necessities: 12-way power adjustable front seats, a 12.3-inch touchscreen, advanced safety features, contrast accent stitching and acoustic front glass and thicker carpeting for a quieter ride.

These updates took a lot of engineering prowess to get right, according to Jim Morrison, senior vice president and head of Jeep North America.

“Drivers can now have water up to their knees and still have a power seat,” he told ABC News.

Morrison, a veteran Jeep executive, knew that to keep Jeep owners happy — and bring in new customers — the Wrangler had to be as good on road as it is off-road.

“The new inclusion of power seats truly speaks to who Jeep’s real customer base is: affluent people,” Ed Kim, president of consulting firm AutoPacific, told ABC News. “These customers want the image and style of a Wrangler. For affluent customers, there has been this long and growing desire for real, rugged off-road vehicles.”

Like Jeep, automakers Rivian and Kia saw the sales potential of adventure-type vehicles, said Kim.

“Even the Kia Telluride has more rugged styling than the typical family crossover and it’s been a success,” he noted.

As the Wrangler’s popularity has risen, so has the price. A base 4-door Wrangler Sport starts at $36,990. The Rubicon 392, with a 6.4L V8 SRT Hemi engine, has an MSRP of $82,495.

The Wrangler 4xe, the top-selling plug-in hybrid in the U.S., starts at $54,735 before a $3,750 federal tax credit is applied.

In February, Jeep introduced two 20th anniversary editions: a Wrangler Rubicon 4xe and a Wrangler Rubicon 392. Jeep execs capped production of the two models to 3,000 units, calling them “the most capable Wranglers yet.” They were priced accordingly: $69,585 for the 4xe model and $90,895 for the 392. A Level II upfit by American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) added more than $20,000 to the price.

Consumers did not care; the 20th anniversary Wrangler Rubicon 392 — with a price tag of $113,820 — sold out within an hour. The $90,895 version was gone in less than 24 hours.

“We are seeing more demand for high-priced Wranglers,” said Morrison. “Wrangler has a high residual value.”

Kim said the high prices can be attributed to two factors: the supply crunch and automakers choosing to produce “more lavishly equipped models” to make up for a loss in volume. Jeep has also started to customize Wranglers at its factory in Ohio, allowing customers to spend even more.

“The Wrangler has long been an aftermarket favorite — you buy it and immediately do a lift kit on it, add big wheels and tires. A whole industry was built around the Wrangler,” Kim said. “Jeep saw an opportunity to do customization at the factory. Rubicons now come with the best off-road gear already installed.”

Jeep’s longtime competitors were Chevrolet and Ford, mainstream automotive brands that middle-income Americans could afford. Now, Jeep competes with upscale brands like Infiniti and Acura, said Kim. More than 200,000 Wranglers were sold last year, making it Jeep’s second most popular model after the Grand Cherokee.

“Jeep executives have talked about pushing the brand into a more premium space,” Kim said. “New Wranglers are street vehicles 99% of the time. Very few customers go off-road in them.”

These days corporate executives and wealthy families are buying the Wrangler. Even Porsche 911 owners are trading in their sports cars for one, according to Tyson Jominy, vice president of data and analytics at J.D. Power.

“The 4-door Wrangler is a family vehicle,” he told ABC News. “Adding four doors expanded its user friendliness and moved the Wrangler upmarket. The Wrangler became the halo SUV.”

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Lofty prices and high interest rates haven’t frightened customers from buying a Wrangler yet, said Jominy.

“It remains to be seen if the prices have become too high,” he said. “The Wrangler has few incentives, if any. But there’s no slowing down the Wrangler. There are so few like it. The only competitor is the Ford Bronco.”

Orlando resident Colin Wallace said his Wrangler Rubicon 4xe is the best Jeep he’s owned. He commutes to and from his office on electric power alone, gassing up maybe once a month. Wallace, a former Volkswagen GTI and Porsche Cayman owner, pays nearly $400 a month to lease the plug-in hybrid though he knows of other Rubicon 4xe owners who pay $800 a month. The sticker price of his 4xe is $66,000 — more than a Porsche Macan SUV he had on order.

Wallace touted the Wrangler’s improved highway handling though he cautioned prospective buyers to temper their expectations.

“A lot of people who are drawn to the Wrangler 4xe are expecting a Prius,” he told ABC News. “It’s not one. It lacks the niceties. It’s at a luxury price point but doesn’t have safety features you’d expect for $60,000.”

Jominy said Americans often overlook the Wrangler’s faults — drifting on the highway, poor fuel economy and rough ride — for the benefits of owning one.

“The Wrangler doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not,” he said. “You can take the doors and windshield off. Kids love them. Wranglers are so much fun because they’re so unique from everything else on the road.”

He added, “You know there’s going to be trade-offs, even at the high prices. You forgive it for things that you normally wouldn’t.”

Morrison said the latest version of the Wrangler solves his one complaint with the SUV.

“I can now drive 80 mph and talk to my mom on the phone,” he said.

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