MOAB, Utah – “Which Way Should I Go?” I’m asking Jim Morrison, head of the Jeep brand for North America, as we leave our base camp for the Jeep Safari Easter outside Moab, Utah, for a little up and down excursion for some gnarled rocks.
He looks at me for a moment, then looks at the windshield and makes a broad gesture towards the landscape. “It does not matter. A 40-year-old Wrangler can go anywhere.”
While that may be true, it’s not a generic Wrangler I’m piloting. It’s Magneto 2.0, which is Jeep’s second crack at an all-electric 4×4 concept. Magneto itself is not strictly new, but it has come a long way in a year. Version 1.0 boasted 285 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque; for 2.0 it is now 625 horses and 850 lb-ft. A Wrangler in his 40s may be able to go anywhere, but we do not have room to see how fast.
You might be surprised to know that Jeep did not actually upgrade Magneto’s engines to achieve that effect; they were able to deliver it all the time. The new ratings are a combination of new software parameters for the driveline and an upgraded transmission that could handle the power. A manual gearbox, that is – taken from a Hellcat and called “Tranzilla”, it is further strengthened in addition to Hellcat’s duty to handle Magneto’s monster torque.
An electric car with a manual gearbox is a new concept for a reason. Strictly speaking, it is unnecessary. Transmissions are available to help cars take advantage of the relatively narrow band where internal combustion engines produce useful power and torque. That concept is foreign to EV design, at least for most scenarios, as electric motors generate torque from zero up to many, many thousands of revolutions per minute before their efficiency drops. If internal combustion engines have a power belt, electric motors have a power wedge, and it is a very large one.
The cool thing is that this makes Magneto’s manual the easiest on the planet to use. Since there is no engine idling to maintain, it can not be stopped. The clutch is only available to disconnect the transmission from the driveline to be able to shift, which you really never have to do (again, virtually infinite power band). On paper, this should be the most engaging electric car on earth. In practice, the gearbox is a red herring; you simply select the gear you want and press the throttle.
So why even bother putting a transmission in this prototype? Well, mostly because it’s not really a prototype at all, but rather an exercise for Jeep engineers when planning the future of electrified off-road driving. Just ploping in electric motors and batteries instead of Wrangler’s existing Pentastar V6 and fuel tank was cheap, easy and fast (relatively speaking of course) and gives Jeep a test bed for more focused development. In other words, it was already there and it did the job.
Knowing that does not make it any less strange. Muscle memory starts every time Magneto feels like it can push downhill or when it crawls over an obstacle. Neurons in some dark corner of my brain have fibers in my left leg in high readiness, foresight to drag and any stop that never comes.
This is the long way to go to tell you that Jeep does not intend to build an electric Wrangler with a six-speed gearbox, although I think it would be quite fun to play with. But in a jeep, there is more to shifting than just getting the right speed on the road for a given engine speed. Technical off-road driving (rock crawling, etc.) requires high torque at low speeds, which is why anyone planning to drive any serious driving will turn their nose towards a vehicle without a low gearbox.
This, says Morrison, is really where manual gear control would prove useful. In fact, there are electric cars out there with a two-speed gearbox. Specifically, the Porsche Taycan and its cousin the Audi E-Tron GT. They have two gears, where the “high” gear is standard for most rides and a lower (numerically larger) gear in sportier driving modes to enable faster acceleration before the transition to high gear somewhere over 80 km / h.
While the mechanical layout is different, Porsche’s implementation works almost identically to a Jeep’s two-speed gearbox. By further reducing the operating speed range and using an even shorter “low” gear, a hypothetical Magneto production was able to put 840 pounds to the ground from zero revolutions per minute with a “red line” still limiting it to single- or low-double-digit speeds. . If you have never ridden terrain, this view may sound absurd to you, but it’s the kind of rock crawler with fine control dreams of.
So, Magneto is a showcase – a fascinating and freaky showcase, but still a showcase. Neither this nor anything with this driveline comes close to production. But it is an important sign that Jeep’s engineers take electrification seriously and (keep their fingers crossed) as a sign of what Jeep can accomplish in the electrification space.
Next time, maybe they’ll show us how ridiculous it feels to do 0-60 in a Wrangler in less than 3.0 seconds. What do you say, Jim? Can I get my lawyers to call your lawyers?