DETROIT - Jeep just sucker punched Ford's heavily promoted new Bronco off-roader. Fiat Chrysler's revelation of the Jeep Wrangler 4xe plug-in hybrid included impressive promises of electric power for greater capability and silent off-roading that doesn't disturb the wilderness - a technology the Bronco can't match, despite offering other innovations.
Jeep, king of the off-road brands, is pulling out all the stops to break the upcoming Ford Bronco's momentum, with Wrangler 4xe sales beginning early next year, probably months ahead of the Bronco.
"4xe," by the way, is said "four by E," as 4x4 is "four by four." It'll become a common badge as Jeep electrifies its whole model line over the next few years.
The Wrangler 4xe is the first off-road-centric SUV to claim electric power will make it more capable off-road. That's a big ask, since fossil-fuel powered Wranglers already seem to defy the laws of physics regularly.
As if that weren't enough, it's an open secret Jeep is preparing a Wrangler powered by FCA's iconic Hemi V8, a one-two punch to counter the newer Bronco's promises.
Ford created a media firestorm and threw maximum shade Wrangler's way when the Bronco SUV debuted last month. It's all just talk till the rubber hits the rocks, but since then Ford videos regularly portray Bronco features like torquey EcoBoost engines and a disconnecting front stabilizer bar as potential Wrangler beaters.
Silent off-road operation
"Electrify this," Jeep retorts, unveiling 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque from the Wrangler 4xe - 65 hp and 70 pound-feet more than the top Bronco's 3.0L V6 engine. The 4xe has a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine, electric motor built into its eight-speed automatic transmission and a 17-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery.
Jeep owners can use pure EV mode - when the gasoline engine is shut off - either for a promised 25 miles of emission-free driving on the highway or in the wilderness, where the electric motor's instant torque and near-silent electric operation should transform off-roading from noisy intrusion to quiet communion with nature.
The computer controlled electric mode will deliver torque faster and more precisely than any gasoline engine can, Mike Wiacek, Jeep chief engineer for electrified vehicles, said. Despite the high-voltage battery pack under the rear seat and cargo floor, the 4xe can ford 30 inches of water, the same as conventionally powered Jeeps.
Ground clearance for the Rubicon off-road specialist is unchanged, while the Sahara model is lowered slightly to 10 inches. The 4xe's approach, breakover and departure angles, the dimensions that allow it to go up, down and crest steep hills without scraping undercarriage or bumpers, are unchanged.
On the road, the 4xe also accelerates to 60 mph in an un-Wrangler-like 6 seconds.
All Wrangler 4xes will have four-wheel drive. Prices will be announced closer to when sales begin in early 2021.
Questions for Wrangler and Bronco
With all that, what could go wrong? For starters, the Wrangler 4xe Rubicon outweighs its gasoline-powered counterpart. The Sahara 4xe is about 700 pounds heavier than its equivalent.
That's a massive gain, and weight is the nemesis of off-road capability. It increases the likelihood you'll bog down in sand or mud and makes it harder to scale boulders and rock fields. Jeep's fabled off-road engineering has never faced a tougher challenge than making a half-ton heavier Wrangler out-climb the conventional model.
Expect Ford to strike back, unveiling bragging points for the new Bronco regularly between now and when sales begin next spring.
A more powerful Bronco desert-racing model is all but certain, but not immediately. By the time it arrives, the Hemi V8 Wrangler concept Jeep recently teased us with will probably be on sale.
To take the crown, ya gotta knock the champ out. Jeep intends to make this fight go the distance.
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