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New Rubicon Unlimited comes to Leisure Wheels

23 March 2012

long-term Update                                                                                             JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON UNLIMITED


“Next week”. That was the answer we kept hearing from Jeep when we asked about our long-term Wrangler test unit. It’s not so much that we were being made to wait – Anzet’s anticipation just made it seem that the company was cruelly and purposefully withholding it from us!


This was no ordinary test car – not as far as I was concerned. The Wrangler had been my favourite car as a kid, but despite having had toy models, being a passenger in one or two and even having it as my transport to the matric dance, I hadn’t driven one until fairly recently. I was like a junkie, newly hooked and desperate for another fix.

Eventually, my colleagues had to tell Jeep that I was carving a Wrangler image into my desk, and that they’d best get it to us soon.

Finally the call came, and we hit the road to fetch the “next week Jeep”. On the way, I reflected on my long-running affair with the Wrangler.

I’d been virtually stalking the Wrangler for years. There were times when my family considered buying one, teasing me with the prospect of being dropped off at school, and me jumping over the door panel (they didn’t open, did they?) with my book bag.

I watched MASH, the old US army TV series, on reruns, and all but drooled over the rough and tough Willys version of my beloved Wrangler. Then, just when I began wondering whether it was healthy for a teeny-bopper to crave such a brutish vehicle, the series, Roswell, came to our screens – showing the independent, super-human and unnaturally good looking American teens, Max and Liz, driving around in an old military Jeep. It was proof enough of just how incredibly cool the Jeep Wrangler was.

Of course, I know a little more now about the Wrangler than it’s prevalence in American pop culture taught me.

To begin with, it wasn’t always called a Wrangler. In fact, the nameplate, “Wrangler”, is exactly as old as I am – it was introduced in the year I was born (a lady never tells!) as an updated version of the Second World War Jeep.

The history of the little four-wheel drive military vehicle has a soap opera element to it. The designs, which came from a company called Bantum, were given to Willys Overland and Ford by the American army to improve on. Bantum, commissioned by the army just before the country’s entry into the war, wasn’t financially stable enough to be trusted with the mass production of what was to become one of the US army’s main tools.

In 1941, a prototype from Willys Overland, based on the Bantum design, with a 45kW, four-cylinder engine, finally got the army’s approval.

By 1945, more than half a million units had been rolled off the production line – and the rest is history (quite literally).

The Willys CJ was the first commercial, or “civilian” version of the army-utility vehicle, which finally (after many years and many ownership changes) evolved into the upmarket but equally capable Wrangler.

As for the “Jeep” name, there are many theories. One is that it evolved phonetically from the “GP” designation – meaning Government or General Purpose. Other theories are that the word “jeep” was a nickname for army recruits, or for new test vehicles received by army mechanics. Some believe the company was named after “Eugene the Jeep”, from the Popeye cartoons – a character that could “go anywhere”. Wherever the name came from, it’s now firmly cemented as a designation for great off-roading capability.

Our Jeep, the Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, is no exception. As it stands in our yard, it sports the new Pentastar 3,6 litre petrol engine – an engine Jeep SA is particularly proud of. It’s going into just about every product they release, and for a good reason – the Pentastar V6 was named one of the “10 best engines” by Ward, a US automotive media outlet.

The all-aluminium engine is a full 40kg lighter than its cast-iron 3,8-litre V6 predecessor, not to mention more powerful. Power output now stands at an impressive 209 kW. But any off-roader knows that what’s more important than power is torque. This is what’s going to get you out of those sticky situations, and without it, all those fancy off-road systems aren’t worth the rands you paid for the key chain.

It makes me happy, then, that this petrol engine produces a full 347 Nm of torque at 4300r/m. It’s no diesel, but it’s a happy number nonetheless. The Rubicon Unlimited weighs 2540kg, and is not as nimble as its three-door sibling.

Being of Rubicon specification, however, our Wrangler features heavy duty Dana 44 front- and rear axles (which improve ground clearance, are strong, and have nice big pinion bearings to handle all that torque), the Rock-Trac two-speed mechanical transfer case with a 4,0:1 low range gear ratio, and electric front and rear locking differentials.

The best trick up the Rubicon’s sleeve by far, however, is the electronically disconnecting front sway bar. At the touch of a button, the articulation of the front axle is improved tenfold – a feature which one really appreciates only once you’ve seen it in action.

Transmission on the new Rubicon has also been greatly improved. The old four-speed auto ’box has been thrown out, and a surprisingly adept five-speed auto put in its place.

Now, five gears may not sound like much in today’s eight-speed auto age, but even on the open road there’s enough overdrive to handle high speeds. Yes, it’s true that the engine is happiest at the top end of the rev counter – as evident from the power, which is only at its full potential at 6350 r/m – but the closer ratios make for much smoother shifting than you’d expect. It is possible to keep the revs down without being frustrated by the power delivery. That said, the Rubicon is anything but frugal. Jeep reckons it can achieve between 11 and 12 litres per 100km on the so-called combined cycle. This is a number which (by the Jeep’s own trip computer’s calculations) I’ve been able to average only on an 800km trip of open road driving. The first test, then, will be a revealing one on fuel consumption.

Until then, the Wrangler lies in wait for some 4×4 action, to prove itself worthy of its off-roading reputation. That doesn’t mean it won’t be driven around town, by a driver with a ridiculous smile on her face, as often as the budget will allow! – Anzet du Plessis