Off-road test: Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon Recon

The shorty Wrangler Rubicon is back, but only for those lucky enough to score one of the limited edition Recon models.

Jeep JL Wrangler Rubicon Recon SWB
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A LOT of Jeepers were left disappointed when Jeep Australia left the short-wheelbase Rubicon variant out of the line-up when it introduced the JL model locally back in 2019.

For many, the soft-top shorty is the true Jeep 4x4 and the one variant that harks back to the original Jeep which is celebrating its 80th birthday in 2021.

The good news is, Jeep saw the error in its ways and reintroduced the shorty Rubicon late in 2020 with the Wrangler Rubicon Recon. The bad news is, it only imported 40 of them and they were all sold by the end of January. We asked Jeep if this apparent desire for the best variant of the JL Wrangler would prompt them to bring it back on a more permanent basis and they said it was up for consideration, but nothing is confirmed as yet.

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There were actually 100 JL Rubicon Recon models brought in to the country, but only 40 of them were SWB. The other 60 were the LWB 4-door Unlimited model, so nothing really special about them. It was the shorty that had us excited and we managed to nab a steer of one before they were all gone.

The Recon part of the name is really just another accessories and dress-up package adding black bits to the exterior and red bits inside. The real stuff comes with it being a Rubicon, so the 4.1:1 geared final drive and low-range gear sets are there, as are the disconnecting front swaybar and locking front and rear differentials. The tyres are BF Goodrich’s excellent KM3 muddies, even if they are a paltry 255/75-17 size and not the 33- and 35-inch rubber that the American Rubicons are available with. This is the one big let down of the Rubicons off-road hardware on the ‘International’ models.

The Rubicon Recon Jeeps were priced at $66,950 for the SWB and $71,450 for the Ultimate, so they weren’t cheap but then, none of them are. A regular Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited starts at $67,450 so you’re forking out $4K for the Recon pack. To look at it another way, a shorty JL Overland starts at $61,450 so $5500 for the Rubicon goodies sounds pretty sweet.

POWERTRAIN & PERFORMANCE

JL Wranglers are only offered in Australia with the one drivetrain, that being the 3.6-litre petrol V6 engine backed by an 8-speed automatic transmission. That mill puts out 209kW of power and 347Nm of grunt which in the shorty feels relatively spritely, putting a pep in the step of the little Jeep.

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This acceleration is in no doubt helped by the lighter weight of the SWB compared to the 4-door and the low 4.11:1 gears in the final drive. The Pentastar V6 loves a rev and again, the low gearing helps get it up in to its happy place and motoring along briskly.

The 8-speed ZF auto offers nothing to complain about other than it would be nice to have a manual gearbox available as well.

ON-ROAD RIDE & HANDLING

AS the ultimate showroom off-roader, the Rubicon’s on-road manners leave a lot to be desired. Soft, long-travel suspension, a high centre of gravity and mud-terrain tyres are all best off the beaten track. All these factors are amplified in the short-wheelbase model as it pitches fore and aft and leans heavily in to corners. The punchy acceleration lifts the nose and steering inputs are direct and sharp.

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The SWB Wrangler is a very engaging vehicle to drive, so much so that it will bite you if you let your guard down so you need to keep your mind on the drive. We’ve said in the past that you need to constantly chase the steering when on the highway in a Rubicon and again, this effect is amplified in the SWB.

If there’s a good thing to be said about the Rubicon’s suspension on the road, it’s that its soft and supple so you get nice ride quality.

OFF-ROAD

ALL the things that mess with the Wrangler’s on-road performance are the same things that make it so good off road. The compliant long-travel suspension offers plenty of articulation, which is improved again by hitting the button to disconnect the front sway bar and really letting the Jeep flex its live axles.

The front and rear factory lockers are fast-acting and work to get you out of most situations, but it is surprising at how quickly the Rubicon grounds out when out on the tracks. Yes, it’s nice that Jeep fits muddies from the factory but the tyres need to be taller to stop the diffs grounding on rutted trails and scraping on rocks.

The location of the steering damper under the front diff is an issue on all JLs and the shorty Rubi is no exception. Thankfully there are aftermarket kits to relocate this up higher out of harm’s way. Likewise, the design of the plastic panel surrounding the rear number plate is poor as it hangs low and is the first thing to scrape on the track and will easily break the plastic parts.

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A steel front bumper is fitted as part of the Recon package so it isn’t as vulnerable, and has built-in recovery points. There are also recovery loops at the back of the car.

The shorty feels like it will pull a U-turn on the spot as it spins around its back axle that is tucked almost under the driver’s seat making it super manoeuvrable on bush tracks. The windows are big and low offering a good view outside, but the pillars are thick and the bonnet high in the driver’s line of sight.

The Wrangler Rubicon remains the best vehicle for off-road use directly off the showroom floor and the shorter wheelbase improves the ramp-over angle and manoeuvrability to make the shorty the better of the two models. Drop the tyre pressures, lock the diffs, disconnect the sway bar, pick a line, and this is the little Jeep that could!

CABIN & ACCOMMODATION

TO anyone not familiar with Jeeps who normally drives a more conventional 4x4 vehicle, the cabin of a Wrangler will feel pretty weird. The upright seating, massive pillars, lack of space in the driver’s footwell and relatively cramped feeling are not really welcoming. But spend some time behind the wheel and it all falls in to place and you soon realise that it’s all very functional, practical and not all that cramped – except for the footwell.

The vertical dash places the gauges, AV screen and all the controls within easy sight and reach and with familiarity, it soon all makes sense. A small complaint is that the buttons for the lockers and sway bar are still located on the left side of the console as they are in the USA, so you have to reach over and down for them.

The upright windscreen (which can be folded down on to the bonnet for that open-vehicle feel unique to Wrangler) gives a great view out over the bonnet but the large pillars (needed as the roof is removable) do restrict vision to the back and sides.

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The rear seat in the shorty is really a stupid idea. It offers very little space, is difficult to access and leaves little room behind it for gear. A smarter option would be to do away with the back seat and give yourself some usable cargo carrying capacity. You want more space – buy the 4-door Unlimited.

The interior is well-equipped with heated leather seats as part of the Recon package, while the standard dual-zone climate control, large U-Connect AV screen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are well appreciated.

The Rubicon Recon comes with the removable hardtop, and removing completely is a big, two- or three-person job but thankfully, the two panels over the front seats are easily removed and stowed to let the sun and wind it. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

We need to mention the Wrangler’s 3-star safety rating which is pretty poor by anyone’s standards and should be considered if you’re thinking of driving a Wrangler. Sure, safety might not be a priority for the off-road vehicle buyer and there are plenty of unique reasons to consider the Jeep, including its capability and the ability to remove the roof, doors and fold the screen down.

PRACTICALITIES

A SHORT wheelbase Wrangler might be a lot of fun but practical it isn’t; especially with the rear seat in place. It makes more sense as a 2-seat weekend off-roader. Short wheelbases don’t make for good towing vehicles and the little Rubi is only rated to haul 900kg, while payload is around 500kg.

With its low gearing, petrol engine, mud terrain tyres and the aerodynamics of a Besser block, the Wrangler can slurp through its 66-litre fuel tank pretty quickly, which further limits its usability as a touring 4-wheel drive.

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The off-road usability makes more sense with water fording at 750mm, solid underbody protection, class-leading capability, front and rear recovery points, practical 17-inch wheels offering plenty of choices for tyre sizes and more aftermarket accessories available than any other 4x4 on the planet. The sky really is the limit when it comes to modifying your Wrangler, even though it is a pretty good package right out of the box.

SUMMARY

SO the shorty Rubicon might not be the vehicle to take the family on a trip around Australia in, but it remains the most capable and fun vehicle for day trips and weekend off-roading. Rear cargo solutions and roof racks might give you more capacity but this isn’t a vehicle to load up.

It’s a pure off roader in every sense, from its unrivalled capability to its top off and windscreen down open-air feeling. On the beach or in the bush, the little Jeep is a lot of fun.

One thing is for sure; if you manage to snare yourself one of the 40 SWB JL Rubicon Recons in Australia, you’ll have yourself a rare vehicle here.

JEEP JL WRANGLER RUBICON RECON SWB SPECS

ENGINE: Pentastar 3.6-litre V6
MAX POWER: 209kW at 6400rpm
MAX TORQUE: 347Nm at 4100rpm
TRANSMISSION: 8-speed automatic
TRANSFER CASE: Rock-Trac with full-time and part-time 4x4 and low range
CRAWL RATIO: 77.24:1
STEERING: Electro-hydraulic
SUSPENSION: Live axles on links, coil springs, stabiliser bars (F/R)
TYRES: 255/75-R17
BASE WEIGHT: 1887kg
PAYLOAD: 500kg
TOWING CAPACITY: 900kg
GVM: 2427kg
GCM: 3636kg
TEST FUEL USE: 16.2L/100km
FUEL TANK: 66L
DEPARTURE ANGLE: 25.1°
RAMPOVER ANGLE: 18.4°
APPROACH ANGLE: 40.7°
WADING DEPTH: 750mm
GROUND CLEARANCE: 249mm

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