THE ANCESTORS of the Native Americans were a deeply resourceful, passionately territorial and highly intelligent bunch, especially in their ability to live and thrive in harmony with the environment. But here’s a little-known fact: they were rubbish at road-building.
I figure this because I’m staring through the screen of the new JL Wrangler at a collection of boulders the size of garbage cans blocking our passage just a few kilometres along the eastern entry to the Rubicon Trail.
I’m told it was first cleared by the Paiute and Mono tribes as a means to access the fertile hunting and fishing grounds of the Eldorado forest in California’s Sierra high country. This lot clearly didn’t care about making life easy; or perhaps impersonating a mountain goat was considered a tribal rite of passage, because the terrain here is brutal.
That’s the whole point of this trip: very few showroom-stock vehicles have the off-road chops to make the full 35km distance from McKinney Rubicon Springs, near Lake Tahoe, out to Wentworth Springs in the west. The Jeep Wrangler is one of them, but the model you really want is the one that takes its name from the trail.
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The Wrangler Rubicon is the true rock-hopper of the range, but before we get to that we need to cover what differentiates the new JL Wrangler from the outgoing JK. Apart from the 3.6-litre petrol V6, which carries over with a few tweaks that improve torque and efficiency by tiny amounts, pretty much everything is new.
Of course, the fundamentals remain – body-on-frame design, live axles at each end, the choice of two doors or four, and an exterior design that doesn’t deviate too far from the boxy, iconic lines owners love – but the four-door’s wheelbase has been stretched by 61mm (35mm for the two-door), and packaging improvements bring a small but noticeable gain in rear-seat room.
An eight-speed auto replaces the five-speeder. Weight has taken a slight trim with the use of aluminium for doors, bonnet, ’guards and windscreen frame, and magnesium for the tailgate. All the crucial off-roading parameters – approach angle (44 degrees), ramp-over (28 degrees) and departure angle (37 degrees) – are improvements by a few per cent over the JK.
To reach the eastern trail-head, we have to drive around the glassy-smooth roads that fringe Lake Tahoe. Wake boats and flash jetskis bob alongside private wharfs, as the lubricated laughter of the seriously cashed-up bounces off the azure water.
This brief on-road transport stage provides a chance to feel how the JL moves the game on from the lumbering, remote-feeling JK. Mercifully, it’s significant.
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On smooth roads the JL now feels semi-civilised for a vehicle with a live front axle. Drive it like the rest of the law-abiding public and it doesn’t feel a whole lot less composed than most of the 4x4 utes that dominate the Aussie sales charts.
Sure, the Rubicon’s off-road-biased tyres let you know you’re not in SUV-land, and bumps send a few discombobulating shimmies through the bits where body meets chassis. But it’s vastly improved.
The steering is less slow-geared (now 3.2 turns lock-to-lock on the four-door; 3.6 on the shortie) and feels connected to the front wheels when lock is first applied. There are nautical levels of roll if you get ambitious, but the bottom line is there’s now a far more planted sense of stability to the Wrangler’s on-road manners, along with reduced wind and road noise.
The Pentastar V6 is not the most charismatic lump, but it does feel willing and energetic given the weight it shoulders, and it doesn’t become stressed when asked to rev. Adding three extra transmission ratios and much-improved shift quality also contributes to the sense of new-found powertrain polish.
Then there’s the interior, which, on the JK, felt as if it was hastily thrown together after someone yelled tools down. The JL flips that by delivering a cabin that manages to feel both well-crafted and ultra-functional.
The seat feels good the moment you slide in, the wheel adjusts for both rake and reach, and the pedals are positioned where your feet naturally fall. The fourth-gen Uconnect infotainment system is fast and intuitive. Glance down at the centre stack and you notice how key fascia components are secured with Allen head bolts; while the bits that control the off-road functions are in red anodised aluminium.
THE trail entrance is a chance to stick the transfer case’s meaty-feeling lever into 4x4 Low and hit the button that disconnects the front anti-roll bar for maximum axle articulation. There are switchable diff locks, but that’s it. No modes for Rock, Snow, Sand, or any of that frippery.
Tell this thing you’re heading off-road and it cares little for the details, it just gets on with getting you through.
Only a few hundred metres in, we spot a Subaru Forester parked off to the side of the trail. He knows his limitations; from here it’s clearly an SUV-free zone, as the rocks quickly become the size of microwave ovens and the gradient ramps up to around 10 per cent.
The Jeep Rubicon’s revised gearing sees a 4:1 low-range deliver a shorter 77:1 overall ratio, meaning this thing is built to crawl. Out of curiosity, I flick the lever over to the manual gate, only to see we’re in second of the new auto’s eight ratios.
We crawl past Lily Lake, its mirror surface broken only briefly as Canada geese scramble for take-off. The trail is so relentlessly rough that continual head-toss is a non-negotiable reality and your mid-section is subject to infomercial-levels of ‘core engagement’, but it can’t distract from the natural beauty of the place.
Vast stands of ponderosa and sugar pines stretch up to a crystal-blue sky, clustered so tightly in places that they force the sunlight into diffused shards that barely make it to the mossy forest floor. I put the window down and breathe deeply. The place smells like a Norsca commercial.
Later, the constant tumble of rocks gives way to a brief respite of loose loam, and a chance to boot it. The auto quickly flicks through about five ratios as our trail speed soars from around 5km/h to a heady 17. Woo-hoo! The thrill of ‘high’ speed lasts all of a couple of hundred metres, as another rock garden forces us back down to a crawl. It’s true you could walk the trail faster than you can drive it.
A helicopter has delivered our lunches to Observation Point, about 11km in, which, according to the guides, is the point “where shit gets way more serious.” Observation Point is hemmed in by vast granite cliffs, the base of which form a repository for the huge pinnacles that have fractured and sheared off over millennia.
It’s also the stepping-off point, if that’s not a poorly chosen expression, for the crazy plunge of Cadillac Hill. The steepest part of the trail is named after the ’30s Cadillac that went over edge and lies wedged below as a rusty reminder of how poor line choice can really spoil your day.
The descent down Cadillac Hill is like trying to enter Mother Nature’s war zone, and she’s determined to repel you. My air-drumming driving partner cranks up The Cult’s Fire Woman on the very punchy-sounding standard-fit audio as I stare wide-eyed at the vast granite outcrops, and wonder if one of the 22 songs by AC/DC with ‘rock’ in the title would’ve been a better choice.
It’s wickedly steep, and littered with near-impasses with names like the Notch, the Steps and V-Rock. It kinks left then right in the space of the Wrangler four-door’s wheelbase; the two-door shortie definitely has an advantage in this terrain.
But it’s the granite boulders the size of wheelie bins – some embedded deep in the ground, some unstable, but all knitted together like the mad teeth of a vehicle-eating predator – that really make you focus. Not for the first time, the rational part of my brain will be in conflict with the part that processes risk versus reward.
We have trail guides outside the car assisting with crucial line choice and steering angle; without them, and their assurance that death (or worse, humiliation) is unlikely, I would have admitted defeat and nursed my shrinking testicles out of there.
The fact is, if you can follow hand signals and suppress mechanical sympathy, the Wrangler does reduce the highly technical and occasionally unnerving to the quite doable. The throttle tip-in for the V6 is near-perfect, as is the weighting and travel of the brake pedal, allowing you to ‘walk’ the thing up and over outcrops that make you wince as they extract an ugly graunch from the underbody protection.
That’s where the real satisfaction lies in driving over terrain like this: get the line exactly right, maintain ultra-precise control of vehicle speed and weight transfer, and you’re rewarded by avoiding a noise that’s the off-roading equivalent of fingernails down a blackboard.
Several times we crack up laughing at the slightly absurd angles into which the Wrangler ahead is forced, with maximum wheel articulation folding it into some freaky kind of mechanical contortionist.
It is late afternoon by the time we crawl into Rubicon Springs, the sun starting to nudge the soaring escarpment that overlooks the lush camping ground. Every convenience an outdoorsy type could require appears present, along with a few from the obscure options list. Like Michael, the leathery, grinning piano player, who welcomes us in with a rousing version of Waltzing Matilda.
The first frosty Sierra Nevada pale ale cuts through the dust caked on the back of my throat; a swim in the tranquil waterhole next to our tents takes care of the rest.
The solitude is broken by the arrival into the water of Sacramento couple Tim and Amanda, who are on their third visit here in their modified JK Wrangler four-door. Tim wants to know about the new JL; I want to know why they keep coming back. Tim gives that open-palmed thing as he glances around, an unspoken “have a look at the place”.
“But it’s also the trail itself,” he tells me, “the way it changes each year. It’s almost an organic thing; the spring thaw throws up new obstacles and washes away others; it’s never exactly the same thing twice.”
Tim confesses he has a tattoo of the Jeep seven-slot grille. I decline the offer to view it, but clearly I’m talking to a man of the faith. He explains what they love about their Wrangler; that thing common to anyone who owns a 4x4 and uses it in the way its maker intended:
“It’s our escape pod from the city,” he says. “It’s that freedom to be self-sufficient; away from crowds and traffic, to get back to an environment we feel we actually belong in.”
The more rugged the environment, the stronger the bond that forms between man and machine. “For sure,” he says. “Out here, where it’s remote, virtually impossible to be towed out, no cell phones; your rig is also your life raft. Man, when it keeps delivering epic experiences, you can’t help but love it.”
I grasp his point. I may be floating in a pristine forest spring, but it’s also possible I’m starting to drink the Wrangler bathwater.
MORE THAN JUST NAMING RIGHTS
WHAT sets the Wrangler Rubicon apart from the Sport and Overland models? Most notable are driveline changes aimed at toughness and crawling ability. Its axles are beefier Dana 44s and its low-range transfer case (called Rock-Trac) provides a shorter ratio at 4:1, while its final-drive ratio is also shorter (4.10 versus 3.45).
Rubicon also gets Tru-Lock electronic locking differentials to help it find traction in really extreme conditions, and it runs mono-tube dampers, along with a slightly higher ride height for better ground clearance. Finally, it gets an electronic disconnect for the front anti-roll bar to increase axle articulation, allowing it to find traction where lesser rigs would be hopelessly spinning a hung wheel.
GIVE IT A CRACK
FANCY a bit of rock-hopping on one of the world’s greatest 4x4 trails? Barlow Guided Tours (barlows.us) run a three-day/two-night trip out of Georgetown CA that provides a kitted-out vehicle, guide and food for two people (max 10 per tour) for $US3950.
Then there’s jeepersjamboree.com, which runs two large guided trips each year, one on the last weekend in July; one on the first weekend in August. They provide food, bar, entertainment, mechanical support and logistics.
Or, for the most affordable way to experience the trail, laketahoeadventures.com offer a six-hour tour to Rubicon Springs on ATVs for $US395 per person, lunch included.
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2019 JEEP JL WRANGLER RUBICON (FOUR-DOOR)
Engine: 3604cc V6 (60°), DOHC, 24v
Max power: 209kW at 6400rpm
Max torque: 353Nm at 4800rpm
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
0-100km/h: 8.5sec (est)
Fuel economy: 11.8L/100km
Price: $55,000 (est)
On sale: Q1, 2019