The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is arguably the best trail vehicle around. Not only does it have all the off-road bells and whistles one could ask for, but it now sports a robust 3,6-litre powerplant that pushes out 209 kW. What more could you want?
We recently drove a standard Foton Tunland 4×4 up Baboons Pass (you can read about this adventure elsewhere in the magazine). And it wasn’t easy, mainly because the Tunland didn’t have a rear diff lock. On such a treacherous trail, you really want to crawl as slowly as possible, but the Tunland’s lack of a rear locker forced us to use a bit more momentum than we would have liked. Well, this escapade got us thinking: what exactly is the best standard trail 4×4 out there? In short, what vehicle would we want to drive up Lesotho’s most intimidating pass?
The verdict was immediate and unanimous – we agreed that the Wrangler Rubicon is the best out-of-the-box off-roader in the business. With solid axles, lockers at the front and back, good ground clearance and a switch that allows the front sway arm to be disengaged, the Jeep has just about every off- road tool you could ask for. And, of course, it also has a new tool in its arsenal. The Wrangler’s old 3,8-litre engine that generated a rather middling 146 kW of power has been replaced by a new 3,6-litre mill that offers 209 kW of power and 347 Nm of torque.
So how has this new engine improved the Wrangler? Has it transformed the Jeep into the ultimate 4×4, or does this burly engine prove to be mismatched to the chunky Wrangler?
*** Features and equipment
The 3,6-litre V6 engine is the same Pentastar that you will find in the Grand Cherokee. And as in the Grand, it generates a lot of power. It offers 209 kW at 6 350 r/min and 347 Nm of torque at 4 300 r/min. Moreover, this powerplant is terrifically refined. Mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, it provides a relaxed drive on tar. And compared to some of the earlier Wranglers, this latest version is very sophisticated.
In fact, we found the Jeep easy to live with on a daily basis – something we would not have said of earlier models. Thanks to the gutsy engine, auto shifter and four doors, the Rubicon Unlimited works well as a commuter. One could easily use it to travel to work or drop the kids off at school. The vehicle is – dare we say it? – practical.
But there are a couple of problems. Firstly, it has a rather serious thirst – typical of 4x4s with large petrol engines. One would expect an engine that offers 209 kW to be heavy on petrol, but watching the needle drop at an alarming rate as you negotiate congested city streets is enough to make you wish you had opted for an oilburner. If you’ve got the money to pay for it and don’t mind trading economy for performance, this isn’t a problem. But if you’re worried about skyrocketing fuel prices, the Jeep’s consumption is something to keep in mind, especially if you’ll be spending most of your time in town. During our test, which consisted of a lot of open-road driving, we averaged around 13 litres per 100km. In an urban environment, though, you can expect it to be quite a bit higher.
It also has to be mentioned that the Wrangler did not feel quite as powerful as we’d expected it to be. It did not feel under- powered by any means, but it didn’t feel as potent as we thought it would. Once the vehicle picked up speed, power was ample, but it didn’t have the sort of oomph from standstill that we would have liked. That said, the vehicle impressed us. It provided as good a drive on tar as one could expect of a proper off-roader. The Wrangler is not a luxury SUV, but the new engine/gearbox combination has certainly increased its overall refinement. The five-speed automatic gearbox worked well and offered smooth, predictable gear changes.
Considering its price, and the fact that it is a hardcore 4×4, the latest Wrangler’s interior is plush. But is it tasteful? Not particularly (some of the finishes are a bit too shiny), but it is comfy and there are a surprising number of comfort and entertainment features. For example, the Wrangler now boasts a CD player with a touch-screen, Bluetooth connectivity, iPod compatibility and steering-wheel-mounted controls – things one would not expect in a rough and tough off-roader.
Thanks to the upright windscreen, the front of the Wrangler’s cabin is quite spacious, but the high dash and black finishes conspire to make it seem a bit claustrophobic. Despite this, spending time in the vehicle isn’t unpleasant or tiring. And what about the rear seats? Can one actually fit four adults into the Rubicon Unlimited? Yes, you can. Sitting in the back isn’t bad at all.
The Jeep is certainly capable of transporting four adults, making it far more practical than the shorter Wrangler. If you like the look of the Wrangler, but find the lack of rear doors a bit restrictive, the Unlimited is the perfect solution. Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels in the latest Wrangler have also lessened considerably over those of older Wrangler models. Comfort still plays second fiddle to off-road capability, but you won’t feel as if you need to visit a physiotherapist as soon as you exit the vehicle, even if you’ve been tackling ugly roads.
*** Gravel performance and handling
The Rubicon Unlimited’s performance on gravel roads was its weakest point during our test. NVH levels remained pretty good, but the vehicle felt jittery on bad dirt tracks. Once we started travelling at speed on corrugated roads, we became acutely aware that we were in a high-riding 4×4 with a powerful engine and the aerodynamic characteristics of a post box.
Of course, this is to be expected of a vehicle that is geared more towards trail driving than gravel travel, so one can’t criticise the Wrangler too much for this. In fact, one could argue that it is because the Wrangler has been improved so much that its gravel performance tends to be disappointing. How so? Well, the powerful and refined engine/gearbox combination can make one lose sight of the fact that the Wrangler is really not the sort of 4×4 that wants to tackle dirt roads at speed. The Pentastar engine might encourage spirited driving, but its underpinnings prefer a more docile approach. It felt far better once four-wheel-drive had been engaged, so we would recommend engaging all four wheels as soon as you leave the tar.
When we tested the Land Cruiser 79, we were blown away by how stable it felt on gravel in two-wheel drive (the rear fuel tank, which is next to the rear axle, was full, which undoubtedly added to the stability). Other vehicles such as the Land Cruiser 200 and Discovery 4 also inspire a lot of confidence on dirt. The Wrangler, however, is a different animal. With its solid axles, massive ground clearance and boxy shape, it necessarily relinquishes a certain amount of high-speed performance for rock-crawling ability. And that’s okay.
If you consider that the Wrangler is primarily a trail vehicle, its NVH levels and handling on gravel are more than acceptable.
***** Trail capability
When it comes to off-road driving, the Wrangler Rubicon is in a class of its own. It has everything one could want in a hardcore 4×4. Most importantly, it has great ground clearance (241mm), heavy-duty Dana 44 axles and diff locks at the front and rear. If this isn’t enough, it also has a switch that disengages the electronic front sway bar, which increases its already impressive wheel articulation. According to Jeep, the facility provides the latest Rubicon with 22% more wheel travel than previous generation Wranglers.
Another impressive off-road feature is the slow-speed rock-crawling ability. With low-range gearing engaged, the Jeep is capable of moving incredibly slowly over rocks under its own steam. Combined with the front and rear lockers, this allows the Wrangler to tackle most obstacles with hardly any momentum. Whereas the majority of vehicles would be forced to charge at an obstacle, the Wrangler Rubicon is normally able to scale it in a slow, controlled fashion.
Does the Jeep have any off-road shortcomings? Not really, but if we had to nitpick, we would point to the fact that the auto box doesn’t allow the sort of engine braking a manual transmission would.
The Unlimited model also has an unexpectedly wide turning circle, which can be a bit of a hindrance on tight trails. But these are minor issues. The Rubicon’s biggest problem when it comes to off-road driving is simply that it is too good. It is such a competent off-roader that it almost takes the fun out of 4×4 driving. The driver’s ability becomes largely irrelevant.
*** Overlanding suitability
The Wrangler’s suitability for overland travelling is contentious. Sure, it has its detractors, but it also has its staunch supporters. If we had to recommend a vehicle for overland travelling, it probably would not be the Wrangler, but some people might find it a terrific overlander. It really depends on one’s needs and expectations.
Because of its so-so performance on gravel, it is not the ideal vehicle in which to tackle thousands of kilometres of ugly dirt roads. But if your overland journey will incorporate a lot of technical 4×4 driving, or if you’ll be heading into the dunes, the Wrangler won’t disappoint. Since the introduction of the Unlimited range, the Wrangler is more capable of swallowing all the supplies needed for a long journey. Yes, the Rubicon Unlimited is probably a little less capable off road than the SWB Rubicon, but in terms of overland practicality, it is far superior.
The Wrangler Rubicon is just about the best standard off-roader money can buy. Vehicles such as the Toyota FJ Cruiser and Mercedes-Benz G-Class come close, but the Jeep offers better value for money. With its punchy petrol engine, comfy interior and robust 4×4 drivetrain, it is an excellent trail vehicle. Sure, there are better all-round SUVs out there that can beat the Jeep when it comes to dirt roads and city streets, but none of them have the off-road prowess of the Wrangler. If you’re looking for an unstoppable 4×4 with loads of charm, the latest Wrangler Rubicon is definitely worth looking at.
We would argue that the SWB Wrangler Rubicon is (marginally) more capable off road and looks better than the elongated Unlimited, but the increased practicality of the Unlimited is enough to make it the better choice, even if it is a bit more expensive. With the addition of the 3,6-litre Pentastar engine, the Wrangler has taken a huge step towards becoming a truly practical and versatile off-roader.