The Jeep Wrangler Can Rock Crawl, but Can It Rally?

While the Jeep Wrangler’s off-road design does compromise somewhat on safety, it’s also what makes the SUV so popular. While the Gladiator pickup truck may provide more utility and on-road refinement, the Wrangler is still the one to get when it comes to rock-crawling and other technical kinds of off-roading. But is the Wrangler good at every kind of off-roading activity? Or does its design hold it back in some ways? Fresh from testing the Toyota Tacoma, the Team O’Neil Rally School wanted to see if the Jeep Wrangler could rally.

Is a Jeep Wrangler set up for rally races?

2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon at Team O'Neil Rally School
2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon at Team O’Neil Rally School | Team O’Neil via YouTube

While Jeep vehicles have competed at off-road races like King of the Hammers, as Ken Block has demonstrated, rallying is a slightly different beast. And just because the Jeep Wrangler has four-wheel drive doesn’t mean it will conquer a rally course. But as host Wyatt Knox explained, the 2018 JL-gen Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon being tested does have several useful features beyond 4WD.

Jeep Wrangler
Jeep Wrangler | Jeep

The Rubicon trim comes with an electronic locking front and rear differentials, Dayna 44 axles which allow owners to fit bigger tires and wheels, an electronically disconnecting sway bar, and BFGoodrich KO2 off-road tires. The specific Wrangler Rubicon being tested also came with skid plates and an upgraded bumper with a winch. The Wrangler also comes with a manual transfer case, which allows drivers to smoothly shift from 2Hi for rear-wheel drive, to 4Hi for 4WD. 4Lo is meant for low-speed off-roading and wasn’t used in testing.

2020 Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel | FCA
2020 Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel | FCA

However, the Wrangler does have some things that hold it back. Although it comes with a 3.6-liter V6 making 285 hp and 260 lb-ft, with the skid plates and winch, the Wrangler weighs over 4,700 lbs. The SUV isn’t particularly fast as a result—and the weight, as you’ll soon see, causes other issues. In addition, although the Wrangler’s KO2 tires are excellent for off-roading, they don’t have the level of grip as proper snow tires.

In addition, unlike the Tacoma Team O’Neil tested before, this JL Wrangler has electronic controls that go beyond ABS. The Wrangler has traction control and electronic stability control, which cut power and limit Knox’s ability to slide the SUV around.

What Team O’Neil tested and how

In order to get the Jeep Wrangler ready to rally, Knox pulled the ESC fuse and disconnected the ABS motor. Doing this, and setting the SUV in 4Hi, let the SUV rotate with throttle and braking in a controlled slide. Knox noted that the off-road Fox suspension was soft, but that this was actually a good thing for the snow.

Once the SUV was ready, and Knox acquainted with its behavior, the Jeep Wrangler was ready for the forest rally course.

How did the Jeep Wrangler do on the rally course?

Conditions were extremely snowy, but the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon set a time of 2:53.68 around the rally course. The Toyota Tacoma went around in 2:02.94, but that was on a dry, sunny day.

Team O’Neil did run a Ford Expedition in the winter—it needed 2:43.47 to get around the course.

Can the Wrangler rally?

So, what held the Jeep Wrangler back?

2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon drifting on Team O'Neil rally course
2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon drifting on Team O’Neil rally course | Team O’Neil via YouTube

The most immediate issues Knox discusses are weight and tires. At almost 5000 lbs fully-loaded, the Wrangler was at times difficult to control, requiring Knox to focus on smooth transitions. At times, it seemed nerve-wracking. The tires, while they were grooved, were too soft and lacked a real snow tire’s tread. Installing dedicated winter tires and removing unnecessary weight would be the first things to do before taking a Wrangler rallying.

2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon drifting through forest
2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon drifting through forest | Team O’Neil via YouTube

Except, there’s an even bigger issue. Part of what makes the Jeep Wrangler so good on technical rock-crawling trails are its solid axles. These axles also severely held the SUV back on the rally course.

Jeep Gladiator King of the Hammers Racer
Jeep Gladiator King of the Hammers Racer | Jeep

At race speeds, the solid axles were clattering and throwing the Wrangler off-balance in the corners. The same happened during straight-line acceleration: even in 4Hi, flooring the gas caused the axle to “hop”. Both the clattering and hopping, if not properly controlled, could severely damage the axles. In these kinds of scenarios, you really need independent suspension, like on the new Chevy Tahoe Z71.

However, Knox couldn’t actually tell how fast he was going. Yanking the ESC fuse and disconnecting the ABS caused the Wrangler’s speedometer and parts of its center display to stop working. That’s in addition to the constellation of warning and error lights. Which isn’t necessarily a Wrangler-specific problem. Modern vehicle systems are kind of like a house of cards: pull one card out, and much of the house falls down.

In short, the things that make the Jeep Wrangler an excellent technical off-roader are what keep it from being good at rally racing.