WHAT IS IT?
A new generation of Jeep’s most focused, accomplished off-road model, now with much-improved on-road dynamics.
WHY WE’RE DRIVING IT
Jeep offered us V6 petrol-powered Rubicon models (both two- and four-door body styles) to drive on – appropriately enough – the iconic Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada region of California. Also included was a brief on-road stage on smooth roads around Lake Tahoe.
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PLUS: Much-improved on-road dynamics; remarkable off-road ability; V6 powertrain and eight-speed auto; interior functionality and presentation
MINUS: V6 can be thirsty; no turbo-petrol four for Australia; luggage space not huge; bumpy-road dynamics untested
THE WHEELS VERDICT
The Wrangler Rubicon is quite astonishing in its ability to fulfil the primary part of its intended function: that is, to be near-unstoppable off-road. Straight off the showroom floor, it’s capable of crawling through seemingly impenetrable terrain, thanks to a combination of ultra-low gearing, outstanding traction, class-leading approach and departure angles, huge wheel travel, and extensive underbody protection.
It’s also vastly improved over its predecessor on road. The steering is no longer sloppy and vague, the separate-chassis construction is much better engineered, and the interior is nicely presented, ultra-functional, and fitted with excellent multimedia. But to buy this as alternative to an SUV is misguided. It sets out to be acceptable on-road and brilliant off it, and nails that target superbly.
THE WHEELS REVIEW
IF YOU were to assemble a money-no-object garage of say, 10 road-registered cars, with the aim of creating a real Swiss-army-knife collection – that is, a vehicle for every purpose and condition – what would be the extremes to bookend this line-up?
At one end it may be a McLaren Senna, or perhaps a Bugatti Chiron. But what about at the other end? As weird as it sounds, you’d have to consider this: a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, purely because it’s one of the world’s most off-road-capable vehicles you can drive out of the showroom.
The only flaw in this fanciful plan is the fact the outgoing JK Wrangler, set to be replaced in the first quarter of next year, is a bit rubbish on-road. Its steering is a mess of slop and vagueness, the separate-chassis construction contributes to spooky-feeling shimmies and wobbles on bumpy backroads, the auto is an ancient five-speeder, and the interior is a plasticky mess.
It seems none of this was missed by the team responsible for the new JL model. All these key deficits have been addressed, while at the same time adding even more ability to take you into terrain where Mother Nature is clearly trying to say “keep the hell out.”
Before we cover what makes the Rubicon model the true rock-hopper of the range, let’s cover the key changes that differentiate the new Wrangler from the outgoing JK. Apart from the 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine, which carries over with a few tweaks that improve efficiency and torque by tiny amounts (up 6Nm to 353) pretty much everything is new.
Of course the fundamentals remain – separate-chassis design, live axles at each end, the choice of two doors or four on two different wheelbases, and an exterior that doesn’t deviate too far from the boxy, iconic lines that owners love. But the wheelbase has been stretched by 61mm on the four-door, (36mm on the two-door) and packaging improvements bring a small but noticeable gain in rear seat room.
Steering, which we’ll get to, is massively improved with the shift to a revised rack and electro-hydraulic assistance. Weight has taken a slight trim with the use of aluminium for doors, bonnet, guards, 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 percent over the JK.
As for what sets the Rubicon apart from the Sport and Overland models; most notable are driveline changes aimed at toughness and crawling ability. Its axles are Dana 44s (30 and 35 on the other two models) and its low-range transfer case provides a shorter ratio, while its final-drive ratio is also shorter. Rubicon also gets Tru-Lock electronic locking differentials to help it find traction in really extreme conditions, and runs mono-tube dampers, along with a slightly higher ride height for better ground clearance.
Okay, great, but off-road ability has never been the Wrangler Rubicon’s shortfall. It was the bit of actually getting to the trail that wasn’t especially pleasant, and that’s what owners of the new JL will notice first. If they care. (Do they care?)
On smooth roads it now actually feels semi-civilised for a body-on-frame behemoth 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 way better than the lumbering, sloppy, remote-feeling JK.
The steering is less slow-geared (now 3.2 turns lock-to-lock on the four-door; 3.6 on the shortie) and actually feels connected to the front wheels when lock is first applied. You feel the squirm of the tread blocks on the Rubicon, but we suspect this will be noticeably reduced in the Sport and Overland models on their more dual-purpose rubber. Bottom line is there’s now a far more planted sense of stability to 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 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. It seems a shame Australia won’t get the torquey 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four offered in other markets, but it does seem likely we’ll get the 2.2-litre Multijet II turbo-diesel four available in Europe, replacing the current 2.8-litre four.
Then there’s the hugely improved interior. The JK had a cabin that felt as if it was hastily thrown together by the chassis team after someone yelled tools down. The JK flips that by delivering an interior that manages to feel both well-crafted and ultra-functional, like a cross between a Leatherman multi-tool and a premium ski boot. The seat feels good the moment you slide in; the wheel adjusts for both rake and reach, the pedals are positioned where your feet naturally fall. 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 anodised in red aluminium. The fourth-gen Uconnect touchscreen infotainment system is excellent – fast, intuitive, and capable of displaying pages of vehicle off-road info.
But you can’t fully appreciate the virtues of a Wrangler Rubicon until you’ve pointed it at terrain that looks like a wrecking yard for boulders. The Rubicon Trail is a 35km stretch in the Sierra-Nevada region of California, with the Eastern entrance not far from the shimmering, deep blue water of Lake Tahoe. It was here we had a chance to stick the meaty-feeling lever of the transfer case into 4x4 Low, and hit the button that disconnects the front anti-roll bar for maximum axle articulation (another feature specific to the Rubicon model). As mentioned, there are switchable diff locks, but that’s it. No modes for Rock, Snow or Sand or any of that stuff. Tell this thing you’re heading off-road and, as we quickly learned, it cares little for the details; it just gets on with getting you through.
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Only a few hundred metres in, the rocks quickly become the size of microwave ovens and the gradient suddenly ramps up to around 10 percent. That revised gearing means this thing is built to crawl. Purely out of curiosity, I flicked the lever over to the manual gate, only to see we were in second of the new auto’s eight ratios. The manual shift pattern (there are no paddles) is correctly orientated, meaning a push forward to downshift, but you’d only select first if you found yourself staring at a cliff face. As it was, the Wrangler managed to crawl its way over brutal rock falls which had the rational part of my brain saying “no chance”.
The throttle tip-in for the crisply responsive 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 rock rails protecting the underbody.
Fact is, that’s where the real satisfaction lies in the driving over terrain like this: get the line exactly right, maintain precise control of crawl speed and weight transfer, and you’re rewarded by (hopefully) avoiding a noise that’s the off-roading equivalent of fingernails down a blackboard.
By the time we finally rolled into our campsite, I found it impossible not to be won over by the new Wrangler. Of the six vehicles in our convoy, not one had become stuck, had a mechanical issue (not even a puncture) and, despite the hostility of the terrain, we’d had no call to even engage the diff locks. If you have the urge to head into back country where the SUV crowd fears to tread, Wrangler has the answers. And a deserving claim on a spot in that Ultimate 10.
Model: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon four-door
Engine: 3604cc V6 (60°), dohc, 24v
Max power: 209kW @ 6400rpm
Max torque: 353Nm @ 4800rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Kerb weight: 2021kg
0-100km/h: 8.5sec (estimated)
Price: $55,000 (estimated)
On sale: Q1 2019