It’s easy to make an argument that the Jeep Wrangler is the most recognizable vehicle on the planet. Sold in more than 150 countries worldwide, the Wrangler is known for its legendary off-road capability and unmistakable design.

So, when Jeep designers and engineers were given their marching orders three years ago for the 2018 Wrangler, they were told to improve the vehicle’s off-road performance, to modernize the Wrangler’s design and to improve its on-road performance and comfort as well. But they weren’t to mess with traditional Jeep design, and for good measure, they really needed to improve fuel economy as well.

No pressure at all, right?

When Jeep was ready to pull the wraps off the 2018 Wrangler last week, the company invited automotive journalists to the high desert outside of Tucson, Ariz., to get a first look. After a full day of driving the 2018 Jeep Wrangler – on the highway and in the desert – it was apparent to me that the Wrangler designers and engineers were paying attention.

Improved off-road performance, check.

More modern design, check.

Improved on-road performance and comfort, yep.

And does it still look like an iconic Jeep Wrangler? Absolutely.

The Jeep design team gave the Wrangler’s seven-slot grille an updated look that now has both outer grille slats intersecting with the headlights, paying homage to the Jeep CJ. Dozens of different door, top and windshield combinations allow for lots of different configurations (a new half-door design will be available starting in 2019).

The 2018 Wrangler is about 200 pounds lighter than the outgoing model, which helps with fuel economy. The Wrangler’s fuel economy still isn’t that great, but aerodynamics has never favored the Jeep’s iconic design. The hood, windshield and doors are aluminum, and weight savings were also achieved through the use of lightweight, high-strength steel in the frame.

The result is a Wrangler that performs better and has a more comfortable ride on the road. Several months ago, I drove a 2017 Wrangler from Baton Rouge to Dallas, and I can tell you the 2018 model has a vastly improved ride. The Wrangler no longer feels top heavy, and it can dive into highway corners and turns without a lot of fuss.

An all-new 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder joins the Wrangler engine lineup for 2018, while the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is upgraded for 2018. A 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 will be available later.

I drove the new Wrangler on the highways northwest of Tucson, then turned off-road into the rocky hills in the desert. My driving partner and I pulled our bright red wrangler up to a steep hill of boulders and rocks, put it in 4Low manual, and eased it slowly to the top of the hill. Skid plates below the Wrangler absorbed the hits as the Jeep bounced up the hill, unscathed and ready for more.

The Wrangler can ford up to 30 inches of water, and has excellent ground clearance and approach, breakover and departure angles.

Designers paid attention to detail in the new Jeep, listening when owners said they didn’t like the pushbutton door handles. The new Wrangler has door handles that pull to open, but don’t look much different from the pushbutton handles. There’s also an available power soft top that opens with the push of a button. A push-button start button is also new for 2018.

Wrangler Sahara and Rubicon models share a body-color hardtop option that offers a unique, premium appearance, while a black three-piece hardtop, available on all models, offers more options for open-air driving. Lighter panels and improved latches enable easier removal and installation of the hardtop.

Inside the cabin, the new Wrangler has a 7.0-inch or an available 8.4-inch touchscreen with the most advanced Uconnect system display ever offered on Wrangler. It operates the fourth-generation Uconnect system and now sits prominently atop the center stack.

2018 Jeep Wrangler

Engine:

2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, 3.6-liter V6, 3.0-liter EcoDiesel (2019)

Horsepower/Torque:

270/295 lb.-ft., 285/260 lb.-ft., 260/442 lb.-ft.

Transmission:

8-speed automatic or 6-speed manual

Two-door pricing:

$26,995 (Sport), $36,995 (Rubicon)

Four-door pricing:

$30,495 (Sport), $37,345 (Sahara), $40,495 (Rubicon)

EPA mileage rating:

17 mpg city/21 mpg highway/18 mpg combined

Estimated highway range:

389 miles