Test Drive Review – 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Test Drive Review – 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The Jeep Wrangler story

While the Jeep Wrangler is iconic for tracing its blood line right back to the US Army Jeep that won World War 2, in India is it more (in)famous for the price tag that it was launched at. Maybe it was a calculated ploy for it set everybody’s expectations sky high for the Compass and the eventual, and unexpectedly sensible pricing, put it on track for huge success. 

“There are more creature comforts like a gazillion USB and HDMI ports (what devices are Americans using?)”

The pricing story won’t change much for this new Wrangler when it comes to India early next year. Like the Porsche 911 is only made in Germany the Jeep Wrangler will only ever be made in America, in fact the American flag is stamped into the chassis plate, so don’t expect it to come in at under Rs 50 lakh.

Iconic Jeep Wrangler design cues  

You know what the new Wrangler does not have? A single Jeep badge on the nose! The shape is so iconic it doesn’t need a badge; all those visual cues that originated on the fifties civilian Jeeps are all present and accounted for. Seven-slot grille? Check. Round headlamps? Check. Trapezoidal wheel arches that you can stand your drink on? Check, check and check. Even the exposed door hinges are carried forward. And you know what, it all looks super-cool. The DRL ‘halo’ graphic on the LED headlamps inspired by Luke Skywalker’s helmet (really, I’m not kidding) adds a touch of modernity. The grille slats are raked back, as is the windscreen, to improve aerodynamics – by nine per cent if you’re interested. It’s kind of like the Porsche 911 design philosophy except here there’s even more form-follows-function. The wheelarches can take in oversize tyres and lift-kits without any meddling. The exposed door hinges have T50 Torx bolts integrated in it so you can use the tool kit under your armrest to get the doors off in a jiffy. That same kit has the tools to undo the four bolts to drop the windscreen (the predecessor had 30 bolts). And if you’re wondering, no, there’s no rational reason to drop the windscreen apart from it being an essential part of Jeep’s history: the drop-down windscreen allowed the US Army to crate off Jeeps in wooden boxes to combat zones. 

Longer wheelbase for Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

The 2-door Wrangler gets 35.5mm more in the wheelbase while the 4-door Wrangler Unlimited gets 61 additional mm making for a surprisingly nice and spacious rear seat; more comfortable too now that the back rest is nicely reclined. The tracks are wider but not by much, 63.5mm leading to an overall width increase of just 5mm, after all it has to fit on the Rubicon’s trails. Overall weight is down by 90 kilos thanks to aluminium doors and hood along with the magnesium tailgate. The 4-door’s hardtop now takes only minutes to unbolt and leave behind. There are more creature comforts like a gazillion USB and HDMI ports (what devices are Americans using?) along with a really nicely designed dash whose flat horizontal panels are another throwback to the past. The quality though is very much in this decade, the air-con and volume knobs have this tough-feeling rubberised finish and the giant touch screen passes the misting test meaning you can drive it open top through the rains and it won’t mist up. Plus, like always, there are drain plugs in the footwell so you can hose down the interior after two days on the Rubicon Trail. 

The manoeuvrability is astonishing, the 152mm turning circle is as tight as an Alto’s and it’s obvious why the width has only increased by 5mm – the trail is no wider than the old Wrangler.”

On the road with the Jeep Wrangler

As we drive down the interstate highway skirting Lake Tahoe it is immediately obvious the new Wrangler, code-named JL, is miles better than the old JK. And that’s despite continuing with live axles. There’s less jiggery-pokery to the ride, there’s a wee bit more feel through the new electro-hydraulic steering, there’s less play around the straight ahead and the refinement of the 4-cylinder turbo-petrol is very good. 

Of course there’s also the V6, the uprated Pentastar 3.6 but the 266bhp turbo-4 actually costs more money than the V6, being more sophisticated, more refined, more torquey (400Nm) and mated to a new 8-speed tranny. When the Wrangler comes to India it will get the diesel engine.

The turbo-4 is as refined as you’d expect of a modern engine while delivering enthusiastic enough performance for the on-road capabilities of the live axles. There is also surprisingly little road noise from the massive 33-inch rubber, or maybe the wind road drowned it all out, but there is no doubting the horrendous on-road dynamics of the JK are a thing of the past. 

Jeep Wrangler Rubicon on the Rubicon Trail

The granddaddy of all off-highway trails is rated category 10 plus for most difficult on a scale of 1 to 10, crawling 7000 feet high over the Sierra Nevada mountains, rambling over large boulders, rocky terrain and enormous granite slabs with steep inclines and sharp drops before ending in South Lake Tahoe, a distance of 35km. The off-road part of the trail is just 19km but takes two days to traverse, three if you’re not in the hands of solid guides. Our overnight camp is just two hours by foot but the drive time is expected to be 9 hours crossing extravagantly named obstacles like Gatekeeper, Granite Bowl, Sluice Box, Arnold’s Rock, Soup Bowl, Cadillac Hill and Thousand Dollar Hill – the latter sometimes called Million Dollar Hill for the average cost of any damage sustained here.

Starting at Loon Lake we’re soon climbing boulders and traversing ditches the size of small cars. Fact is I’m amazed that we’re being allowed to drive here at all. I’m looking at the rock valley of Granite Bowl and wondering how; how in god’s name is the Wrangler going to cross it?

Rubicon is the top-spec Wrangler

The Rubicon is the gnarliest-spec Wrangler and the immediate giveaway are the 33-inch-high BF Goodrich KO2 all-terrain tires on 17-inch wheels. The Rock-Trac 4×4 has a 4.1 axle ratio (non-Rubicons get 3.45) and with the 8-speed automatic the crawl ratio is an amazing 77.2:1, meaning it only needs a nudge of the big toe to creep over big boulders, house-sized boulders and death-defying boulders. Imagine slowness being a virtue but it’s true, the slower the crawl the safer, you don’t want to spin the tyres and slide off the side of the precipice. 

Tru-Lok front and rear locking differentials on Dana 44 axles are accessed via a prominent and unmissably large red panel on the dash. Next to it is the button to disconnect the electronic sway bar, giving that massive wheel articulation while working wonders in eliminating big jostles and head toss on the trail. The manoeuvrability is astonishing, the 152mm turning circle is as tight as an Alto’s and it’s obvious why the width has only increased by 5mm – the trail is no wider than the old Wrangler. The wheel travel is an incredible 200mm allowing individual wheels to climb 4-foot boulders but even more amazing is the way the Rubicon’s beefed up gas-charged moto-tube dampers cushions shocks. Drop a wheel by two feet and you barely feel anything, it’s like a mother putting her child down to sleep. Of course the Rubicon Trail gets so nasty in parts that the 277mm ground clearance and significantly improved approach, breakover and departure angles (44, 27.8 and 37 degrees respectively) are just not enough – for those situations the Rubicon Wrangler gets skids plates and Rock Rails, steel running boards along the sides that takes the impact of hitting and sliding along the rocks without bending the chassis. If you’re asking, the water fording depth is 760mm, and all Trail-rated Jeeps have waterproof electric connectors. And if all that is not enough the official Mopar accessory kits include a 2-inch lift kit with Fox dampers and even bigger 35-inch tyres. 

Day two on the Rubicon Trail

After a night out in the Rubicon Springs campsite we’re off to hit the most difficult part of the trail, Cadillac Hill. It’s the first time we engage the diff-locks as we creep over off-camber boulders along the side of a steep precipice. Let’s keep it real, not long ago there was a fatality here. The difficulty level is absurd. We need a spotter every 100 meters. The sounds of the Wrangler hammering its underside on rocks is sickening. All those things that I grumbled about on the road – the soft suspension, the long travel brakes, the slow steering – it’s all there for a purpose, to make the Wrangler utterly unbelievable off the road. I lost track of the number of times I thought we’d roll over, or break the chassis in half. We even scraped the roll bars on the roof pulling off absurd tilt angles. 

If you’re wondering, no, there’s no rational reason to drop the windscreen apart from it being an essential part of Jeep’s history: the drop-down windscreen allowed the US Army to crate off Jeeps in wooden boxes to combat zones.”

The best Jeep ever made

The Rubicon Trail is the world’s most demanding, technical and dangerous trail and for a production-4×4 to complete it without any modifications and in the hands of a relative off-road newbie speaks volumes for its capability. Jeep claims it is the most capable off-roader they’ve ever made and I have absolutely no reason to doubt that claim. Heck, the Wrangler Rubicon is limited only by its driver’s bravery. Without the Jeep Jamboree guys spotting us and nudging us forward I would have chickened and helicoptered out long ago. I still can’t believe anything, let alone the Wrangler, could tackle those impossible obstacles. And the best part is that the crushing off-road ability is now mated to a genuinely civilised on-road character.

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