The Jeep brand has had its share of ups and downs through a more-than-70-year history, and not all of those have been on or off road. Owner after owner, Jeep has somehow managed to survive and prosper, legend intact.
Is there something in the water of Toledo's Maumee River? We saddled up a new Wrangler Rubicon to find out.
What is it?
A four-passenger SUV (well, at least that's where we would slot it, seeing there is not pure category for off roaders) the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is an example of old school flair - and flares - coupled with modern-day technology. For 10 years now, the Wrangler Rubicon has remained the most stout off roader of any the Jeep family. The Wrangler's overall design dates back to this generation's introduction in 2007, but you may as well trace its seven-slot grille to day one in 1941.
Comprised of body on ladder frame chassis, its power comes from the Chrysler brand's Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 engine with sequential multiport fuel injection. Rated at 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, it delivers the power to the ground through a five-speed automatic transmission complete with a Rubicon-exclusive Rock-Trac transfer case with extra low off road gears. As an added nicety, the transfer case and fuel tank are both protected by skid plate shields.
The suspension is as old school as they come, with live Dana Tru-Lok axles, front and rear, surrounded by link coils, high pressure gas-charged shocks, and an electronic front sway-bar disconnect system for extreme articulation. It's gobbledygook to most, but in a phrase, it says this Jeep has the goods - and more.
The Wrangler Rubicon is the king of the Jeep hill that includes Sport and Sahara trims, plus a multitude of special editions. Wrangler is also available in a four-door model known as the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. And for those with the propensity for shift-it-yourself driving, the entire Wrangler line can be had with a buyer's choice of six-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmissions. An eight-speed automatic gearbox is bound to arrive in the Wrangler soon.
Our example also included Chrysler's Uconnect package for Bluetooth and SiriusXM Satellite radio connectivity, and a "sunrider" soft top that's better insulated and less challenging to put down that before - but it's hardly a "push a button and watch" affair. For those who pursue stump pulling (or vehicle retrieval) as a hobby, the Wrangler is equipped with a pair of hooks on the front bumper as well as a single hook located under the rear for a retraction after some intense mud bogging.
What's it up against?
There are many capable vehicles that could be considered competitors to the Jeep, but none can really go head-to-head with it in terms of offering top-down go anywhere fun. The Toyota FJ Cruiser is a capable crawler on its own, but the only way to enjoy the elements in one involves a Sawzall.
If space is a priority, the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Xterra are fair enough rivals to the Wrangler Unlimited.
How does it look?
If you liked the Jeep in 1941, you'll love it in 2013 since the latest model looks something like an oversized version of its predecessor. Conceptually, not much has changed here, save for an increased use of high impact plastics throughout.
Solid doors shut with a resounding clunk, and our Gecko pearl coat was the talk of the town, or at least our neighborhood. A no-frills latching system keeps the hood in place. Basically there is no internal latch within the cabin. Instead, engine access is easily accomplished by just unclipping the two latches on either side of the greener than green hood. The sunrider roof managed to keep road noise to a minimum and it did not puff out or deform while at speed. A worthwhile upgrade for 2013.
In an effort to maximize interior space for passengers and cargo, the full-sized spare tire mounts outside on the Wrangler's swing gate.
And on the inside?
For what it is, the Rubicon uses good materials, from the fabric seats to the soft touch dashboard material. We are not sure if you would hose down the cloth areas, but everything else seemed easily accessible for cleaning after a day out in the dust and dirt.
At the end of the day, we remember the Jeep is set up for utility. As a result, comfort sometimes plays second fiddle. On the plus side, controls were located in very close proximity to the driver. The foot box is cramped, owing to the transfer case and other items located near the transmission bell housing. The same with the rear seat, which accommodates two - but little else. There is also a smallish cargo area behind the rear seat with 12.8 cubic feet of capacity with the seat in the upright position. That climbs to 55 cubic feet when the rear seat is folded down.
There are many compromises inside, but clearly, you can't argue with success as the Wrangler has had many fans, for many years.
One upgrade we're hoping to see soon is the arrival of Chrysler's 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen system, which will be a vast improvement over the dated navigation and audio system currently in place. The current system is effective enough, but its rudimentary menus and displays look positively 2005 in this fast-changing world. Then again, the Wrangler is something of a throwback to a bygone era on its own.
But does it go?
Power from the new-for-2012 V6 is excellent, even with our tester's none-too-fancy five-speed automatic. Moreover, this V6 emits a refined growl that makes it feel more like a luxury car motor than that in an off roader.
Officially, the Wrangler is rated at 17/21 mpg. We averaged a decent 18.9 mpg, which is impressive given the Wrangler's boxy shape and its off road-oriented gearing.
The handling, which could be termed as skittish, is the result of the Wrangler's short wheelbase and knobby tires. It bounces around on pavement, and since there is so much shock travel, a panic stop results in the car teetering around like a bowl full of Jell-O, before it comes to a full stop.
On the highway, the BFGoodrich tires did manage to kick up a bit of a drone, which was easily overcome by increasing the volume of the audio system and its high-end audio kit.
But putting it on a gravel trail off-road resulted in a ride that felt as though it was a zooted-out luxo-cruiser. All of a sudden the bounciness was gone. In its place was a feeling of a confident chassis doing its job and making for a very stable ride. Go further into the boonies and you'll find excellent approach, departure and breakover angles, plus stellar axle articulation. Traction, as you might imagine, is rarely a challenge thanks to the Wrangler's lockable differentials and a better-than-expected traction control system.
Leftlane's bottom line
The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is the brand's most capable on-and off road example of what we would call a standard Jeep.
Not for everyone, it still manages to garner raves from fans. Not surprisingly, it's consistently a strong seller for Jeep. Otherwise, why would it have lasted all these years? Perhaps the phrase on the front passenger handgrip should be modified to read "Legendary... since 1941."
2013 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon base price $30,595. As tested, $36,310.
(ustomer Preferred Package, $495; Power Convenience Group, $795; Slush mats, $75; Automatic transmission, $1,125; Tinted windows, $300; Premium Sunrider top, $400; Uconnect/navigation; $1035. Remote start, $495; Destination, $995.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.