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A more fuel-efficient Wrangler in the works, Jeep says

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

Jeep plans to develop a much more fuel-efficient version of its popular Wrangler model to meet increasingly stringent federal standards.

Increasingly stringent federal government fuel economy standards will make it harder for automakers to sell vehicles that are a little off the beaten path. Or in the case of Jeep, SUVs that drive off the beaten path.

Not every new car will have to achieve the planned 54.5 mpg average number by 2025, but for every mile per gallon a car registers below that, the manufacturer will have to sell another car that betters that already difficult-to-achieve number.

Does that mean vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler, an off-roader that traces its roots to the original World War II Army Jeep, will turn into a glorified economy car?  No way, says Wrangler chief engineer Tony Petit. 

“We will not water down our icon,” pledged the man who will oversee development of the next generation Wrangler in coming years. So that means it will not be forced into becoming a “Jeep-styled” economy car, but will retain the genuine off-road capability the brand’s enthusiasts expect.

Jeep’s regular benchmark is the vehicle’s ability to traverse The Rubicon Trail near Lake Tahoe, Calif., so if the future greener Wrangler achieves that, fans should be satisfied.

The next Wrangler will be greener, Petit said. “We will do our share,” to help Chrysler meet companywide fuel economy targets.

But given that big, tall, boxy vehicles with large, heavy wheels and tires that are propelled through sturdy four-wheel-drive machinery are inherently inefficient, just how efficient is it even possible for a Wrangler to be? “We have not quantified the maximum possible efficiency,” Petit said.

Using some currently available technologies would be obvious avenues to boosting gas mileage, even in a bulky Wrangler. Diesel engines are a popular solution in Europe, where fuel taxes make that fuel more cost-effective than gasoline.

“I personally own a diesel Grand Cherokee,” said Petit. “I like diesels for their torque and fuel economy.” So diesel is the obvious solution for Wrangler, right?

Wrong. The problem with diesel vehicles in the U.S. is that the fuel is often more expensive than gasoline. Worse yet, stringent U.S. pollution limits make the smog-cleaning hardware on diesels prohibitively expensive. “Each business case has to stand on its own,” Petit said. “The emissions regulations are very challenging. That’s all I can say.”

Alternatively, some gasoline engines are gaining some very diesel-like equipment and characteristics without the added pollution-control costs. Gas engines like Ford’s EcoBoost, which use direct gasoline injection and turbocharging, yield efficiency approaching that of diesels, with superb low-RPM power that is ideal for off-road driving.

Given the cost obstacles for diesel, a gasoline turbo direct-injection engine is a good bet, one that innovation-wary off-roaders will likely embrace when they drive it.

One last thing about future green Jeeps: They will literally be green, like the old olive drab WWII war machines.  The matte green color was great camouflage, but it is tough to use on new production models because of concerns about durability and resistance to fingerprints.

But technology has overcome this problem.  When I suggested a “throwback uniform” style Jeep matte green paint job, maybe garnished with white stars and some stenciled lettering on the sides, head of Jeep design Mark Allen agreed it would look good. Not only that, he said, it is now a practical possibility because Jeep has solved the challenges of using matte paint on production vehicles. “We have finally figured out how to do it,” he said.

One way or the other, upcoming Wranglers will be greener than today’s models.