AUTO REVIEW: Family-Friendly Jeep Wagoneer L Explores America’s Frontier
By Henry Payne
BRIDGER, Montana (The Detroit News/TNS) — Out here in big sky country, the only things larger than the bison are pickup trucks and three-row SUVs. I pulled my 6,326-pound, 6-foot-6-inch Jeep Wagoner L off Route 86 next to a herd of bison grazing on the golden landscape behind a wire fence.
American bison, meet American SUV icon. The bison didn’t flinch. A rancher drove up next to my 2023 Jeep Wagoneer in his pickup.
“Howdy,” I replied. “I stopped to take some pictures. We don’t see many bison in Detroit.”
“No problem. Just stay this side of the fence … and the middle wire is hot.”
Good to know. I’ve been to the corner of Montana/Wyoming many times, but my family visit to this stunning landscape in 2001 will always be the most memorable. We saw bison, elk, grizzlies, bald eagles, you name it. But we didn’t see any Wagoneers.
Jeep’s famed SUV brand had been extinct since 1991, only to return last year — remade and ready for battle against the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition. For its encore in 2023, Jeep has introduced the long-wheelbase version to compete against the Chevy Suburban and Expedition L.
As with bison and cattle, America’s vast interior are mega-SUVs’ natural habitat — the breed’s roomy seats, cargo space, high-tech interior and high seating perfect for long family road trips. At a whopping $87,000, my Wagoneer L is a lot more expensive than our ‘01 Hertz sedan family rental. But like a cruise ship to Alaska, it’s a first-class way to see Montana.
Since the original Wagoneer went away, the class has been dominated by GM’s quadfecta of Chevy Tahoe/Chevy Suburban/GMC Yukon/GMC Yukon XL. Both GM and Ford have evolved their mega-utes with mega-tech features. Crucially, both automakers have evolved these family vehicles beyond their pickup siblings with third-row seating plus independent rear suspensions to enhance ride quality.
A formidable class to break into, no? Wagoneer was born for this.
Along with its rich heritage (the Jeep brand is a global icon, which Wagoneer embraces with American flags tattooed on its flanks), Wagoneer is based on the Ram 1500, already acclaimed as the best-riding pickup in class, courtesy of its independent rear suspension.
The Wagoneer embraces this advantage by carving out a substantial third-row bench seat. I’m a 6-foot-5-inch ex-college basketball player and could sit behind myself in the second row. Easy headroom, easy legroom.
Pack up your family of four rugrats for a cross-country drive to Yellowstone and they’ll have plenty of real estate in back. You’ll have to set some rules so the kids can rotate seats. The second-row thrones offer Amazon Fire screens.
The third row lacks screens but it’s hardly the basement. Each seat get its own USB port, a cubby that can hold small computer devices and (I love this) its own sunroof. So when the parents decide to close the panoramic roof, third-row coach-class passengers can still sunbathe if they choose.
With this airline cabin of space, the cargo space in the standard Wagoneer could get tight. Thus the 2023 Wagoneer L. L for loooooong.
My tester added 7 inches of wheelbase and a foot of length to claim best-in-class, 44-cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row (up 16 cubic feet from the standard SUV). Like Suburban and Expedition MAX, Wagoneer L provides plenty of room for a family of six (and the rear two rows flatten, offering generous space when you need to move lots of cargo.
Wagoneer L is supersized — but with its coveted seven-slot grille, sculpted bod and new, black-trimmed Carbide model, it has instant cred.
That cred attracts both mainstream and luxury buyers alike. For the lux buyer, Jeep offers the Grand Wagoneer.
Wagoneer swaggers into the mainstream class with standard leather seats. With up to three all-digital dash screens, head-up display, best-in-class Uconnect 5 infotainment, wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, handsome switchgear (including jewel-like rotary shifter and push-button starter) and optional air suspension, the Jeep is a joy to captain.
For all its upscale tech, however, the Wagoneer Loooong can come up short.
Automakers like GM (Super Cruise) and Ford (Blue Cruise) these days are making long-distance driving easier with semi-autonomous systems. Once the domain of lux chariots like the Cadillac Escalade, they are now available in Suburban and Expedition models. I even drove a Kia Sportage — at $38K, half the cost of these mega-ute behemoths — hands-free from Gaylord to Detroit recently.
My $87K Wagoneer sported no such tech, its average, adaptive-cruise system offering only forward detection for a long highway journey.
Though when you get to your hotel, Wagoneer offers parallel-and perpendicular self-park — one of my favorite features for big utes where the rear C-pillar is in another ZIP code. Modern applications — such as the system in say, the Ford Explorer I recently drove — are fully autonomous, meticulously braking and steering backwards into your designated parking space.
Wagoneer bought the bargain system off the shelf. Parallel parking in Bozeman, the steering wheel spun around in front of me, but I had to closely monitor the rear-view camera while braking into the parking spot lest I run over the VW Jetta behind me like a buffalo flattening a squirrel.
Wagoneer L makes a bigger investment in its all-new, twin-turbo, 3.0-liter, inline-6 Hurricane engine that boasts 420 horses and swallowed slower two-lane traffic on rural roads like a whale ingesting krill. Hurricane complements off-road capability that is the brand’s signature. Determined to play with its Wrangler and Trailhawk kin, L comes with multiple drive modes like ROCK and a transfer case so you can shift into four-low, hike the floor to 10 inches off the ground, and keep going when the asphalt ends.
In the Rockies’ Crazy Mountain range, my crazy Wagoneer dodged cattle on dusty trials. Tell the kids to take a break from the Amazon Fire and enjoy it.
They’ll also enjoy the ATVs you bring along — courtesy of the L’s 10,000 pound towing capacity — when you bring them back to Montana as teenagers. Just outside Yellowstone in Big Sky, you’ll find the formidable Buck Ridge trail that winds 15 miles to 9,000 feet for a breathtaking view of the mountains.
Park the Wagoneer, then charge up Buck Ridge’s scenic trails. And there’s no need to worry about crossing fences — or hot middle wires.
2023 Jeep Wagoneer L
Vehicle type: Front engine, rear and all-wheel-drive, six-or-seven-passenger SUV
Price: $67,495, including $2,000 destination fee ($81,455 Series II and $87,000 Carbide AWD models as tested)
Powerplant: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo, inline-6 cylinder
Power: 420 horsepower, 468 pound-feet torque
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; towing, 9,850 lbs.
Weight: 6,326 pounds (as tested)
Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 17 city/24 highway/20 combined (RWD); 16 city/23 highway/19 combined (AWD)
Highs: Living room on wheels; healthy towing and AWD capability
Lows: Average self-park feature; no self-drive feature
Overall: 4 stars
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