Things we like
- Off-road capabilities
- Built-for-purpose engineering
Not so much
- On-road aloofness
- Moderate safety credentials
- Compromised practicality
The iconic Jeep nameplate offers various favours to lifestyle-loving city slickers keen to brush, on occasion, with adventure. There’s a toy-like two-door ‘shorty’ Wrangler Sport S ideal for grin-inducing beach hopping, the longer four-door Wrangler Unlimited as the family-friendly multi-surface pragmatist, or perhaps the Swiss Army-flexible Gladiator variants as do-all contingencies for most situations of fancy.
But not the Wrangler Rubicon Recon. Pint-sized for optimum maneuverability and engineered to wrestle Mother Nature head-first into her dirt, just 39 examples (outside of our tester) of the shorty Rubicon formula will be flung from local showrooms into the depths of the Aussie mulga, with sniper-like targeting at die-hard off-road enthusiasts.
Although arguably Jeep’s most specialist tool in the local line-up, the Recon isn't necessarily incapable of fair-weather beachside café hopping or peak-hour grind, even if perhaps ideologically it shouldn’t. Keep it caged, treat it mean, let it loose into the wild on occasion is one pragmatic notion. But regardless of whether urbane folly is simply wasting all that purpose-built potential, it’s tough not to get lured into the Rubicon Recon romance as a daily driven proposition, such is the sheer charisma of the damn thing.
I ponder as much tooling about the burbs, grinding the tread blocks of the Recon’s BFGoodrich Mud Terrains on inner-city Tarmac, chancing across a bloke in a custom black Wrangler, double its weight in dirt-trekking modifications, waving at me with such enthusiasm I suspect my high-riding unicorn might’ve suddenly caught fire or something. I catch myself judging his lightly bush-bashed machine a moment before the dawning embarrassment that my own freshly detailed, tyre-shined steed paints me as the greatest of pretenders, bringing on a sudden and urgent compulsion to get the Wrangler thoroughly dirty. Right about here, the Recon’s seduction begins…
For its $66,950 (before on-roads), the Wrangler shorty with full Rubicon effect packs in a helluva lot of charm. It’s a cocktail of form, functionality and character overly hung on its off-roading potential, regardless of whether you choose to embrace its talent or not, in trade-off or perhaps compensation for the on-road drive or how pleasant or not it is to live with daily. Relishing the package’s purpose is key to what you’re buying into.
Pint-sized for optimum maneuverability and engineered to wrestle Mother Nature head-first into her dirt.
As Jeep’s most focused off-roading tier, the Rubicon application plies high-grade Rock-Trac 4x4 via Tru-Lok 4.1:1 differentials with electronic locking centres, paired with a 4:1 transfer case yielding a selectable 77:1 crawl ratio in low-range 4x4 mode.
The axles are heavier-duty Dana units – M210 up front, M220 at the rear – than those fitted further down the Wrangler range, plus the Recon fits nifty trail-ready gear such as a front swaybar with electronic disconnect functionality, rock sliders and hefty underbody bash plate protection. The meaty LT255/75 R17 mud boots, at 32 inches of rolling diameter, augment the 255mm ground clearance nicely, which is 17mm higher than the Sport S. Approach (42deg), breakover (27deg) and departure (31deg) angles are also superior to lower-grade Wrangler variants.
The JL Recon shoehorns the 3.6-litre naturally aspirated all-alloy Pentastar V6 that’s kicked around in Wranglers since the last JK generation, outputting a workmanlike 209kW at 4100rpm and 347Nm at 4100rpm. It’s essentially off the Chrysler rack gear, unfettled and largely unremarkable, backed by an eight-speed torque converter automatic used up and down the Wrangler range.
An oiler option? Not any more for Wrangler. Jeep dropped it from the Rubicon menu for 2021, so it’s one powertrain spec fits all for Recon, which can also be had in the more popular and longer four-door Unlimited guise, that version ($71,450 list) limited locally to 60 units.
Recon exclusives? Outside, you get two-tone wheels, a glossy blacked-out grille, guard badges, a specific steel front bumper and hoop and tailgate reinforcement addenda, though some of these can be added to the regular Rubicon through the Mopar parts catalogue. Inside, the Recon effect brings black leather trim, seat and steering wheel heating, double red stitching throughout, a high-grade instrument cowl trim and red seatbelts.
The six-grand walk up for a Recon over the regular four-door Unlimited Rubicon looks about on the money for its bespoke extras and limited 60-unit availability. But the shorty version ups the exclusivity stakes as for MY21, as the 40 Recons slated for Oz are the only two-door Rubicon-spec Wranglers reasonable money or otherwise can buy.
In itself, the lifted, steel and aluminium-on-frame form, topped with a removable fibreglass lid, baits the adventurous urbanite towards a bit of extracurricular motoring activity. The Toledo, USA built wagon’s industrial vibe is hewn with an innate sense of go-anywhere toughness, even despite small missteps in the odd flimsy plastic piece or sagging rear glass hatch.
The clanky door action, oversized latches, the conspicuous Torx screw heads conspire a toy truck ambience shared with the disparate likes of Suzuki Jimny or Mercedes-Benz G-Class, but it’s only really the Jeep that can be stripped to its metallic underwear with relatively little effort, the doors and entire fibreglass-based glasshouse, including windscreen, are easily removable by design as a core party trick.
The cabin is an odd blend of bombproof utilitarianism and the odd flourish of upmarket friendliness that’s strangely cohesive and compelling. The bluff dash fascia, exposed roll-cage, painted surfaces and chunky grab handles feel ready for a riot but it’s details such as the neat central window switches, pliant door top and dash trim and smattering of leather and anodised aluminium highlights that underpin a sense of richness in finish and execution.
The seat, mechanical with a fabric pull for recline adjustment, are leisurely shaped and impressively comfy, the seat and wheel heating perhaps less luxurious frivolity than thermal necessity when caught in a storm if you’ve left half of the Jeep’s bodywork back at base camp. Or so one’s imagination concocts.
Despite the crafted façade, Wrangler is no ‘roughing it’ experience bar, perhaps, the tiny driver’s footwell and the awkward clamber into and out of the row two seating. There are five USB ports of mixed type, rear air vents, dual wine bottle-sized holders and a 150w three-pin power outlet in the plus-two rear seating, making for a genuine four-adult prospect.
Rear occupancy is comfy and roomy, while the removable rear split bench flips forward allowing enough room to stow my son’s mountain bike. Cleverly, the rear seatbelt guide mounts into the rollover bar. The subwoofer in the boot floor, contributing nightclub levels of low notes to audio quality, seems a bit ill-conceived for a serious mud-chucker that comes with a massive wet bag to stow body and glass panels or whatever soggy oddment you like.
At just 4332mm of vehicle length, interior real estate is understandably at a premium. Packaging is, within its modest form, pretty decent. What’s overly abundant, though, is the cabin space’s underlying and carefully manicured celebration of off-roading vibe that’s integral to the Wrangler Rubicon seduction.
The same can said for on-road character. In short, if you’re after a pleasant SUV-like sheep in billy goat clothing, you’ve come to the wrong end of the wrong nameplate.
Its steering, as a seemingly strange an entry point for on-road assessment, almost defines the Wrangler Rubicon character. Underpinnings of a recirculating ball rack, live axles, Panhard rods and balloon mud tyres conspire to a numb off-centre vagueness demanding a good 15 degrees of tiller correction either side of dead centre to prompt any front-end response whatsoever.
In effect, you don’t so much steer the Recon as roughly guide its bluff nose in general directions, sawing away at the tiller to avoid kerbs or oncoming traffic. One driver’s titillated amusement will be another’s nail-bitten frustration, but steer alone will weed out the vaguely interested Jeep prospectors.
The two-door Recon bobbles about in forward motion, never really planted nor transmitting much information up through its industrial-grade hardware, so much of it in fact that the small-stature Rubicon’s weighbridge ticket nudges two tonnes. It’s an animated bugger, its scant wheelbase and high ride conspiring to an inordinate amount of pitch under braking and never really drumming up much sense of stability.
While it meanders about the lane, threatening to slap wing mirrors with neighbouring travellers, the squishy initial ride pummels road joints, Tarmac acne, roundabout lips and perhaps the odd small Japanese hatchback with nary a murmur. But it’s not all smooth sailing around town. Demand suspension stroke over larger obstacles and the ride can get terse, particularly across the rear axle. That’s realistically no foul given the Jeep’s natural off-roading purpose – in fact, it’s downright comfy for what it is and a damn sight better than most big-buck dual-cab utes.
The petrol V6 and eight-speed conventional automatic combination must surely glove-fit Jeep’s MO because it’s adopted so widely by the marque and presumably fan-tested to extremes by brand die-hards. I was expecting neither agricultural infidelity nor polished Euro-like precision and, sure enough, the powertrain sits in a suitably and fittingly workmanlike middle ground.
Like most larger naturally aspirated engines, the Jeep's lump delivers keen response and swelling torque, with ample thrust that tends to hit a wall of enthusiasm in the upper rev range as its modest 347Nm contests with a hefty kerb weight and rising aerodynamic drag approaching that of a small office block with speed.
A pleasant bent-six thrum turns to a racket when you punch it for overtaking and rolling acceleration isn’t its forte, though I imagine the 3.6 Pentastar’s relatively modest genes pay dividends in dependability anywhere you like between Uluru and Death Valley in most temperature extremes. Particularly given it runs happily on 91RON or E10. Jeep claims the shorty Wrangler as a breed will hit 100km/h from a standstill in 7.5 seconds and it just might feel as much with a stiff tailwind.
The auto is less convincing. It’s a little thumpy between the odd shift here or there, complete with a bit of slap coming on and off the throttle. Excessive abuse at the hamfisted hands of journalists? Sorry, if there’s a device you ought to expect bombproof integrity under continual long-burn excess, it’s Jeep’s Rubicon breed. And the single area where our tester, 8000km young, feels tired is its transmission.
That short 4.11 final drive, a low-speed off-roading boon, does peg the engine’s rpm above two grand on the open road, where those mud-kickers really get their roar on and ambient cabin noise becomes borderline oppressive.
Unsurprisingly, the faster you go, the dynamically looser it gets. Dial up a buck-ten on the open road and the Wrangler demands an almost exhausting amount of concentration and correction, though the upshot is it certainly maintains your attention on a long haul, in my case a day-long jaunt from Big Smoke Sydney to Victoria’s Goldfields as the Rubicon baits us towards a familiar beaten path or three.
It’s thirsty. Jeep advertises 7.7L/100km for the highway cycle with a 9.6L combined average for the short-chassis format and after 16 hours and four tankfuls of open road observation I doubt the Recon will ever see single figures. On the Hume it stuck faithfully to low 10s, around town rising into the 12s. The point? Two-door Wranglers fit 66 litre tanks – the four-doors fit 81L – with a maximum range of around 500-ish highway kilometres indicated. If you’re up for a long day of back-country rock crawling, you might want to pack the jerry cans.
My favourite dirt digs are a labyrinth of hilly fire trails in a national park located near family (AKA, help), steeper sections of which have been modified by local off-roaders. No Everest by 4x4 enthusiast measures but a solid challenge for, say, the Ranger Raptor I brought here a while back. It’s the kind of place a city slicker might be enticed to explore by the Rubicon-spec Jeep they stumped up for…
The prevailing terrain is met with a choice of 2 High, 4 High Auto, 4 High Part Time and 4 Low modes, plus the option to lock the rear or both front and rear differentials electronically (in 4 Low) and, independently, uncouple the front sway bar (in any 4x4 mode). Level: expert.
With my doubt-stricken 11-year-old son riding shotgun, I slot the chunky mode lever into 4H Auto, leave everything else alone, point the Jeep’s nose towards the steepest climb in eyeshot and have at it. The Recon romps over the rutted and craggy hill like it’s a Bunnings speed hump, at a pace swift enough to match its undertow of sheer confidence.
We dive back down, about-face and repeat the ascent, this time in low range to hopefully stimulate added drama for the young lad. It climbs slower with more engine rpm and noise, if utterly effortlessly to snub my manufactured theatrics.
The rollercoaster, surrogate mountain biking tracks around these parts hardly flex Recon’s ultimate potential but it’s still a hoot. At a velocity that once had Raptor lifting its occupants from their seats, the Jeep just powers along, pummeling the course and its abrupt yumps and dips into submission, flattening the landscape with breathtaking poise and wondrous compliance. Wow.
Juiced up for further adventure, we find another track up into the thick bush that soon becomes a narrow walking track threading rock and tree clearances barely the width of the Jeep’s wing mirrors, with no sign of a U-turn clearing. We eventually find one, on the far side of a gully past a tight 90-degree turn and around a tree stump that would’ve surely wedged a 4.9-metre four-door Wrangler Unlimited.
The two door’s scant 10.5m turning circle is a godsend, the Jeep pivoting and dropping into the gully with a soft wobble on its suspension at the bottom, before firing up into the clearing.
Returning is tougher: gully, 40-degree climb into the tight, inclined right-hand turn between rock and stump. So off we go, low-range engaged but no other function fiddling, the Recon steadily clambering up through the needle-threading manoeuvre with consummate precision and control.
It’s then that I realise the short wheelbase Wrangler Rubicon Recon wasn’t merely the best vehicle for the situation we’d gotten ourselves into, it could well be the only vehicle to see us through. The short-form Sport S or Overland as an alternative? Different 4x4 system, different tyres, taller final drive…possibly. “Don’t tell your mum,” I plead to Junior.
Some conventional safety measure might concern some (mud) tyre-kickers. This JL Wrangler generation’s 2019 introduction was met with a lowly one-star ANCAP rating, amended to three stars later that year with the introduction of all-speed autonomous emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring across the range. Rear cross-traffic alert is also standard.
Where does safety fall short? There’s no pedestrian or cyclist detection, no lane-keeping assistance (steering is an electro-hydraulic design), and its four-airbag fit-out doesn’t include any coverage for second-row passengers. Structurally, the four-door Wrangler used for the Euro NCAP-based assessment scored a zero for pole oblique impact testing.
Jeep's warranty is five years and extends through to 100,000 kilometres. Capped-priced servicing comes in at $399 for each of the first five visits on 12-month/12,000km intervals, with the continuation of roadside assistance thrown in if your Recon is serviced through Jeep’s dealer network.
Such a focused off-roader deserves a focused off-road assessment that stretches the breadths of its potential harder. Particularly when Jeep is offering so few examples for the die-hard enthusiast and where the larger four-door Unlimited body style has proven popular enough to put the regular two-door Rubicon into its current hiatus.
Jeep Australia should bring the shorty Rubicon back into local showrooms and not merely for some injustice or guilt in having non-enthusiast owners using Recons as city runabouts while leaving dirt-loving aficionados without. It’s because, in some perversely ironic manner, that Wrangler variant tailor-made for 4x4 die-hards has an uncanny ability to lure hot-mix dwellers into semi-serious off-roading engagement out of sheer charisma alone.
Not to detract from the rest of the Jeep breed, but the Rubicon Recon being so capable once it lures you off road – and it will – makes it the ideal tool for that job to begin with.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon Specifications
Body: 2-door, 4-seat sedan
Drive: On-demand all-wheel drive
Engine: 3604cc V6, DOHC, 24v
Bore/stroke: 96.0 x 83.0mm
Power: 209kW @ 6400rpm
Torque: 347Nm @ 4100rpm
0-100km/h: 7.5sec (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 9.6L/100km (combined/claimed)
Weight: 1917kg (tare)
Transmission: Eight-speed torque converter automatic
Suspension: Solid axles, coil springs, Panhard rod, switchable anti-roll bar (f); solid axles, trailing arms, coil springs, Panhard rod, anti-roll bar (r)
Steering: electro-hydraulic assisted recirculating ball
Brakes: 330mm ventilated discs, twin-piston calipers (r); 342mm solid discs, single-piston calipers (r)
Wheels: 17 x 7.5-inch (f & r)
Tyres: 255/75 R17 (f & r) BFGoodrich Mud Terrain KM2
Things we like
- Off-road capabilities
- Built-for-purpose engineering
Not so much
- On-road aloofness
- Moderate safety credentials
- Compromised practicality
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