On the Road Review: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Chrysler’s Jeep Division is a huge portion of the company’s current revival. With only five models — all crossovers/SUVs — this truck focused lineup has recorded 30 percent sales growth this year alone, over 160,000 units of additional production. That level of growth exceeds the total combined sales of Infiniti and Lincoln.

The Jeep brand is hot right now. Even the Wrangler — the oldest offering in the lineup — shows excellent sales growth. Through the end of September, Jeep dealers had sold over 134,000 new Wranglers this year, placing the venerable truck second on the brand’s sales chart, barely behind the Grand Cherokee. The Toledo, Ohio, assembly plant has been working overtime all year to meet sales demands.

Conventional wisdom deems that the unconventional Wrangler should not enjoy such success. With its roots stretched back to 1941 in both design and mechanical emphasis, small SUV/crossover buyers are not comparing the Rogue and the Wrangler and then all of a sudden deciding they want the Wrangler. The Wrangler is succeeding because a growing segment of the car-buying public likes the individual nature or persona of this Jeep, its rugged, self-reliant character as well as the “freedom” expressed in a truck that embraces the go-anywhere, anytime philosophy not found in other mass-market vehicles.

The top Rubicon trim perfectly represents this image. Most Wranglers sold are Sport or Sahara-trimmed models, either in two-door or Unlimited four-door bodies, yet the Rubicon package, and all of its derivatives, signifies all that is good about Wrangler and carries a certain panache that the other Wranglers strive for — Moab trail conquering without compromises.

In addition, Rubicon components certainly promise this kind of off-road prowess. Rubicon trim gets Wrangler buyers the rugged, heavy-lug B.F. Goodrich off-road tires that let you feel the tire pattern at low speeds, knobbing over the road in search of dirt. There are the Heavy-Duty Dana 44 solid axles at each end of the Jeep, with a Tru-Lok locking differential inside each, as well as an electronic switch that lets the driver disconnect the sway bar up front for better off-road articulation and rock climbing. Rock-Trac 4.1 4WD is included with a floor-mounted shift lever, while skid plates protect the basic mechanicals below and rock rails the vehicle’s entrance points. Electronic stability control, traction control, Hill Start Assist and Electronic Roll Mitigation are concessions to the Wrangler’s on-road performance.

Add a small, tight low-speed turning radius and the Rubicon demonstrates that its priority is off-road performance, nimbly negotiating narrow trails, climbing over obstructions, and otherwise taking you places that your conventional crossover chooses to ignore.

These dynamic characteristics create some unusual nuances in the Wrangler’s on-road behavior. Damping motions supply some body movement in order to absorb on-road imperfections, so the Wrangler tends to move about as you ply undulating tarmac surfaces. Throw in some imperfect pavement — not much of that around these parts, eh — and the Wrangler is a decidedly two-hand driving machine all of the time. Credit the short wheelbase, narrow track chassis that works so well when the pavement ends for some of this attention-grabbing performance.

Despite several years of notable, commendable upgrades in the Wrangler’s interior — new soft-touch surfaces, better switches and controls and greater creature features — the Wrangler remains relatively crude in some respects, as well as quite loud at highway speeds, especially with the standard soft top. In loaded Rubicon, $38,480 as shown, $22,400 base, the vehicle lacked power seats and a back-up camera. The passenger seat — the preferred portal for rear seat access — requires both hands to move to and fro and never “remembers” its previous setting. Cargo space remains constricted too; an upgrade to the four-door model is necessary to gain a workable amount of storage room.

However, I doubt that true Wrangler fans will balk at all at these perceived shortcomings. Additions such as Chrysler’s U-Connect system with upgraded audio systems and navigation improve the overall driving experience, while power controls for mirrors, windows and locks may be taken for granted in other vehicles, but were rare features in previous Jeeps. Heated leather seating in the Rubicon, plus the inclusion of the numerous Wrangler emblems throughout the cabin and the truck’s exterior design, illustrate that this Jeep has not only history, but also a future.

Power is ample. The corporate 3.6-liter 285-hp V-6 engine makes previous Jeep engines seem like geezers. Teamed with a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, the fuel economy, however, illustrates some of the drawbacks to the Wrangler’s design — the truck is too heavy, not very aerodynamic and just not well poised to meet pending fuel economy standards. EPA ratings are 17/21/18-mpg combined, about what we realized in the combination of dirt road exploring and highway traveling that we subjected the Rubicon to.

Passing power, in-town acceleration spurts and highway cruising are all stress-free maneuvers, yet the truck’s gear ratios mean the Rubicon is spinning its engine at more revolutions on the tachometer than more conventional new features indicate. The next generation Wrangler, already in the works for a 2017 debut, will need a new multi-speed transmission — like the eight-speed available in Chrysler cars using this same engine. Jeep must also lower the Wrangler’s girth; at over two tons, this vehicle is too heavy, so look for more aluminum and high-strength steel in the next Wrangler. Maybe we can hope for one of those turbo-diesel engines that Chrysler/Fiat is installing in the Grand Cherokee and Ram pickups, maybe a nice, torquey turbo-four cylinder that gets 28 mpg instead of 18 mpg.

While it may be easy to draw comparisons between the Wrangler and other SUV/crossovers, the Wrangler plays in an entirely different sandbox. Jeep drivers wave to each other, they play in the dirt together, go on camping trips and off-road rallies together. RAV4 owners don’t do that.

During the Rubicon’s visit, it was difficult to pry my partner out of the Jeep; when I was not driving it, she was. At 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds soaking wet, she loved the Jeep’s size and compact dimensions, and loved the whole driving experience as well as Jeep’s persona. She liked how the soft top furls open at the front for a semi-convertible driving experience, she liked the thick-rim steering wheel and the perfectly placed controls (Chrysler now owns this interface and is clubbing other automakers) and she loved how the Wrangler just seemed to fit wherever she wanted to go.

Not all of us lust for a Porsche or a Corvette. Many buyers apparently do lust for a Wrangler. The Rubicon is the pinnacle of that experience.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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