THE Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is the latest and ultimate embodiment of the go-anywhere spirit and core mechanical design of the original and iconic World War II Jeep, created not by Ford or Willys alone, but by a large number of military and civilian engineers, the most influential of whom worked for the Bantam car company.
It was truly a design by committee, but one that worked brilliantly. And so much so it changed history. The Toyota LandCruiser, the Nissan Patrol and Land Rover all owe their existence in one way or another to the original WW2 Jeep.
The latest iteration of the Rubicon – the JL – brings a new 2.2-litre diesel, the first diesel to ever power the ‘hero’ model Wrangler. Ironically, the Rubicon is also now the only model in the wider Wrangler JL range to have a diesel engine! There’s also a new ZF eight-speed automatic, the only gearbox offered locally.
The Rubicon is only available as a four-door – no short wheelbase Rubicon unfortunately – and is distinguished from ‘lesser’ Wrangler models by its impressive off-road arsenal that runs to front and rear lockers, a bespoke transfer case with deep low-range gearing, lower axle ratios, a front swaybar disconnect, and mud-terrain tyres.
The Rubicon’s diesel engine offers strong off-idle response with decent power at high engine speeds. On the road it provides fuss-free and relatively spritely performance despite the Rubicon’s garden-shed aerodynamics and reasonably hefty (over 2200kg unladen) weight. This new engine is also notably quiet and smooth and is backed by a world’s best-practice eight-speed ZF automatic.
The chassis is only so-so in terms of on-road dynamic sharpness, especially on bumpy roads, but this comes as no surprise given it has live axles at both ends and the steering is no doubt deliberately made vague on centre to mask the bump steer.
Still, all is not lost. The full-time 4x4 mode gives security of power delivery on slippery roads plus the convenience of a set-and-forget drive mode when road conditions alternate back and forth between sealed and gravel and/or wet and dry. And while bumpy-road dynamics aren’t all that flash, the Rubicon still settles and corners well enough on smooth roads, even on its stock muddies.
You’ll love the Rubicon once you hit the trails. Here the long-travel live-axle suspension works a treat keeping the wheels on the ground, and providing a soft and comforting ride. And if you want it softer and more comfortable again you can decouple the front sway bar via a dashboard switch. There’s no need to use the lockers unless it gets very gnarly as the off-road tuned electronic traction control does such a good job. In low range, leave the ZF auto in Drive for perfectly timed auto backshifts on descent without resorting to the paddle-shift manual mode.
It’s comforting too knowing that the BF Goodrich Mud-Terrains not only provide grip but their light-truck construction and low speed-rating means they are less likely to be damaged off-road.
Set-Piece Hill Climb
The Rubicon scaled the set-piece hill climb without lockers engaged or front swaybar decoupled thanks to the generous wheel travel and the electronic traction control. With lockers in and front swaybar decoupled, it proved totally effortless. Engine braking in descents is superb but ramp-over clearance could be better, due in part to the long wheelbase.
Cabin, Equipment and Safety
The Rubicon’s cabin has a premium feel even if all the leather, as well as the heated seats and steering wheel, are part of an options pack that adds $4325. We nicknamed the Rubicon the “Reverse Tardis” as it feels small on the inside, and is, but more noticeably in the rear seat and luggage area rather than up front where the driver’s cramped footwell is the only annoyance.
Tilt and reach steering adjustment and comfortable front seats are positives, as is the radar cruise control that can be readily switched to manual mode, the big touchscreen, and embedded satnav with its notably good off-road mapping.
The Rubicon also comes with plenty of high-end safety kit including automatic emergency braking, blindspot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, but rates three out of five stars under the new and tougher ANCAP safety test protocols.
The Rubicon can’t tow or carry big loads like other 4x4 wagons but it does have a unique side of its personality that other 4x4s can’t match. You can take the roof off and the Rubicon becomes an instant ‘beach buggy’, or even an on-road convertible, if you wish to think of it in that way. And while removing the whole roof takes a bit of effort and a couple of people, the two large roof panels above the driver and passenger can be easily removed to create a part open-air driving experience.
It should also be noted that Australian Rubicons come with smaller tyres than US-model Rubicons (255/75R17 versus 285/70R17) due to the full-time 4x4 drive system using lighter duty axles than the US model’s part-time 4x4 system, which may compromise fitting a larger wheel/tyre package.
You would expect nothing less but the Rubicon comes with solid front and rear recoveries while the air-intake is mounted high, up against the underside of the bonnet.
The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is still the ultimate showroom stock 4x4 when it comes to getting seriously dirty, but it’s now more endearing and liveable thanks to its new diesel engine and full-time 4x4 system.
JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON SPECS:
Engine: 2.2-litre 4-cyl turbo diesel
Max Power: 147kW at 3500rpm
Max Torque: 450Nm at 2000rpm
Gearbox: 8-speed automatic
4x4 System: Dual-range full-time (+ 2wd)
Kerb Weight: 2221kg
Towing Capacity: 2495kg
Fuel Tank Capacity: 81 litres
ADR Fuel Claim: 7.5L/100km
Test Fuel Use: 12.2L/100km
Effective Range: 658km
Base Price: $68,950 (plus ORC)
As-Tested: $73,275 (plus ORC)
4X4 of the Year Verdict - WINNER
It’s more than fitting that the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon climbs to the top level of the podium here and not just for what it does. It’s what the Rubicon represents in terms of 4x4 history and its impeccable bloodline back to where the 4x4 world as we know it today all begun. Hats off to Jeep for sticking to the basic 4x4 design principles of a separate chassis and front and rear live-axle suspension when other 4x4 manufacturers have turned their back on this old-school approach, which is still the best way to build a serious 4x4.
2020 4X4 of the Year Judges' Scoring
1st - Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: 246
2nd - Suzuki Jimny: 244
3rd - Land Rover Discovery Sd6: 238
4th - Nissan Navara N-Trek Warrior: 232
5th - SsangYong Musso XLV: 225
6th - Mitsubishi Triton: 224
7th - Mercedes-Benz X350d: 211
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