How hard can you really push a Rubicon off-road? Strap on your rock sliders, ’cos we’re going to find out.
This is the all-new 2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, although many of the uninitiated might struggle to tell the difference. Only five per cent of the overall vehicle is shared with the outgoing JK Wrangler, which has been on sale since 2007. This new model is coded JL.
Sydney’s Golden Century restaurant wouldn’t dare mess with its XO Sauce recipe, and Steve Smith is unlikely to change his batting technique. His captaincy, on the other hand… Anyway, my point is: Jeep isn’t going to reinvent or radically change its most iconic model. It still has the same looks, with flat sides, big flares and a narrow, flat windscreen. And, of course, don’t forget that seven-slot grille.
It’s not just about looks with the Wrangler – it needs to hold a mechanical tradition as well. Live axles live on at each end, with trailing arms and coil springs mounted to a ladder chassis. Big tyres sit wide of the body under angled, flat-top flares. Although it’s all new, it’s all largely the same.
The importance of the Wrangler for Jeep, and more broadly for FCA, cannot be understated. Without the Wrangler, the Jeep brand becomes a ship without a rudder. It’s at the very core of the heritage and ethos of what Jeep is all about, and the reason why it can shift a wider range of softer, city-biased SUVs. If the Wrangler succeeds, Jeep succeeds. If not? I’m sure you can figure it out.
The Rubicon is the most expensive Wrangler you can go for, but I reckon it’s the best. For your additional bit of spend over the Overland specification, you get some serious off-road modifications. The Rubicon is named after the famed Rubicon Trail near Lake Tahoe in California, and it’s all about supreme technical off-road ability.
The hardcore model gets bigger and stronger diffs fitted at each end, complete with electronic lockers. The front diff goes up from a Dana ‘AdvanTek’ M186 to an M210, while the rear diff grows from M200 to an M220. Those numbers reference ring gear diameter, and generally speaking, the bigger the ring gear, the stronger the differential. These differentials have slightly smaller ring gear diameters than the outgoing JK Rubicon (Dana 44), but Dana rates them for the same amount of torque: 8200Nm. That’s only part of the story if you really want to dig into diffs, axles and housings for rock crawling.
Along with having stronger and more efficient gearsets, the JL Wrangler scores stronger axles and a stronger housing, and less weight in the moving parts. There’s also an axle disconnect on the front end, which reduces your rotating mass in 2WD for a slight gain in fuel economy. The diffs are also wider on a Rubicon, giving you a lower centre of gravity and better stability on side angles. Smaller ring gears compared to the previous generation can convert into improved ground clearance, as well.
For off-roading fun, the front-axle swaybar disconnect returns, and the same 4.1:1 ratio is used in the Rubicon differentials. When combined with a 4:1-ratio transfer case (Jeep calls it Rok-Trac), you get a 77:1 low-range crawl ratio. That’s supremely low, and invaluable for tackling low-speed, complex and technical off-road challenges.
And, of course, don’t forget tyres. Using light-truck BFGoodrich mud-terrain or all-terrain rubber straight off the showroom floor is a hugely important piece of the off-road puzzle. They have much more strength and grip; two things worth their weight in gold for a 4WD.
The Australian-delivered Rubicon does get a little watered down compared to the home market. While Americans get 285/70R17 rubber (closer to a true 33-inch tyre), Australians get something slightly smaller and narrower: 255/75R17. We get the older-style KM2 mud terrain as well, compared to the newer KM3 stateside. The fenders are a different design, as well: they have less clearance, which could present problems for those looking to fit bigger tyres without a suspension lift.
Our test Rubicon has the 3.6-litre petrol V6 under the bonnet. The Rubicon is only available in the five-door Unlimited specification, but you can also choose a more expensive 2.2-litre diesel powerplant. Our petrol test vehicle has a price of $63,950, while the diesel lobs in at $68,950.
The petrol engine is a carryover from the JK Wrangler making 209kW at 6400rpm and 347Nm at 4100rpm. The gearbox, however, is new: an eight-speed Torqueflite unit. It’s got a good spread of ratios for quiet and low-revving operation most of the time, but will shift gears quickly to get moving. The engine does need to pile on revs to help get moving on-road, so the gearbox does sometimes feel like it has its work cut out.
The interior looks carryover, as well, despite being all new: flat, upright and tall, reminiscent of the grand-daddy Willys Jeep. The interior does feel good overall, with hard textured materials and meaty, functional controls that feel good to operate. Jeep’s new Uconnect system sits proud as punch, with 8.4 inches of responsive viewing pleasure.
There’s native navigation, as well as smartphone mirroring, along with a stack of other technical information. Off Road Pages, in particular, provides drivers with stacks of data to wade through while driving: gearbox and coolant temps, as well as oil and tyre pressures. The reversing camera is crisp and clear, giving you a good aid when reversing and parking. The turning circle, by the way, is 12.44m.
The driving position feels good, although visibility is stunted through the small, flat windscreen aperture. The leather seats, embroidered with ‘RUBICON’, come as part of a $1500 Luxury Package. This also gives heated front seats and steering wheel, along with body-coloured flares.
Second-row comfort is good, as well. There’s plenty of room and the seats feel cosseting, although the internal frame (that lets you remove the roof panels) does eat a bit into your headroom. If you’re tall, there’s a chance you could mash your head against it under heavy braking or rough roads.
Open the unique split tailgate door set-up on the back, and you’ll find a decent-sized square loading space. It’s not huge, when you consider the overall size of the Wrangler; the big subwoofer and aforementioned internal frame do steal some raw space away. Like previous-model Wranglers, the load space (and meagre payload) is on the small side. It’s enough for the day-to-day and weekends, but it’s not as well suited for being loaded to the gunwales for long trips.
On-road, you definitely do notice the mud-terrain tyres in comparison to something more tame and worse off-road. You’ll feel the tread blocks chattering away at low speeds, which becomes a non-intrusive hum at highway speeds. They might get louder as time goes on, but noise is reasonably well controlled overall.
Steering is a bit vague and wandering at highway speeds, meaning longer drives could become tiresome for the driver. Overall, it’s an improvement over a JK Wrangler – something Trent found on his time in Tasmania. Don’t fall into the trap of expecting it to have comparable refinement to a soft-roader or SUV of similar size and price, because you’ll be undoubtedly disappointed. There is more wind noise, thanks to that flat and upright windscreen, along with more sharp edges than an unfolded Leatherman. However, if you’re used to old and modified 4WDs, you’ll find the Wrangler pretty impressive.
Enough about the on-road experience. If you’re seriously interested in a Wrangler Rubicon, you’ll want to know what it’s like off-road, and how capable it is. To find out, we pitted the Jeep against some of the harder tracks you can find in the Mount Walker region. Namely, the climb up to the Mount Walker Trig Point.
This climb is one of serious difficulty, and something only modified vehicles with big lifts and big tyres would dare take on. It’s steep, shaly and rutted, with concurrent steps on dodgy angles being the most challenging parts.
Aired down to 16psi and with all of the aforementioned party tricks engaged, we began our slow crawl up the hill. It was soft and wet in spots, making this challenge even tougher. We stopped a few times, re-adjusting our line and momentum slightly to maintain progress. The Wrangler was flexing, spinning and gripping plenty, with fully locked diffs and deep, low gearing letting us crawl slowly.
Things started to get interesting when we got to the rock steps. There was no easy line through this – all you could do was pick a line across the steps, straddling them to help your clearance, and hope the suspension would soak up the angles.
There were two very important observations to make at this point, and two less obvious places where the Rubicon excels. Firstly, protection. Stout, wide and well-designed rock sliders mean you don’t need to second-guess your approach for fear of damage, and you can sometimes drive through a bottom-out contact to keep going. Ditto for the underbody bash plates, which I can now attest to being genuinely strong and effective.
The other point is stability. While some 4WDs will gain ground clearance by fitting big tyres and big suspension lifts, the Wrangler doesn’t need that. A wide body and reasonably wide wheel track (1598mm) give you room for the good-sized tyres, and plenty of suspension movement without a tall body and correspondingly high centre of gravity. The net result of this is great stability, especially when the front and rear ends have similar levels of flex. And when your nose isn’t pointing exactly upwards on a steep and rutted hill, the importance of good stability cannot be overstated.
We made it to the top of the high, helped out by some heavy-handed track building in one particularly tight spot. With just enough clearance, the tyres clawed and the steel gnashed at rock as the front end climbed a big step, followed by a scrambling rear, and we had overcome the worst bit. Some other stock vehicles could maybe make this challenge as well, but I wouldn’t be confident of doing it without a big risk of rolling or serious damage.
It’s not all mechanical stuff for off-roading; the Wrangler Rubicon does have one of the better hill descent control systems out there. With a lowest maximum speed of 1–2km/h, you can crawl down some challenging sections of track (like what we had to do), with a foot hovering over the brake pedal and your focus placed squarely on wheel placement. Using the gearstick in the manual selection, you can then adjust your speed up and down. It’s a good system, and it works well.
So, yes, the Wrangler Rubicon is immensely capable off-road, and has the ability to push most 4WDers into tougher terrains and more challenging situations than just about any other 4WD out there. I can’t say it definitely without a real back-to-back test, but the Wrangler Rubicon is likely the most capable (in a technical-terrain sense) 4×4 you can currently buy in Australia.
Where the Rubicon (and the entire Wrangler range) falls down without excuse is the safety rating. ANCAP gave it a decidedly poor one-star safety rating, which was extrapolated from Euro NCAP testing in 2018. It got one star in the Euro NCAP, as well.
The specific car that was crash-tested was a four-door Unlimited Sahara (Overland for Australia) without autonomous emergency braking, but the one-star rating goes across the board: Sport, Rubicon, short wheelbase and long wheelbase.
When you consider four stars is a bit of a fail for some brands, scoring only one star is a damning number. While it’s a new car, the fact that it has a ladder chassis, live axles and an overall old-school design means it’s going to be difficult to make the Wrangler as safe as anything modern. The fact that the roof and doors come off, along with a fold-down windscreen, only amplifies that problem.
At the same time, we need to remember that Toyota got five stars for its single-cab LandCruiser 70 Series back in 2016 (under less stringent criteria), and Mercedes-Benz recently attained a five-star rating for its G63. The Jimny didn’t do as well in 2018 with three stars, but it’s not nearly as dismal as one star.
Regardless of all that, the buyer’s decision is simple: if safety is on your list of important factors, then you’re best off overlooking the Wrangler. If safety sits much lower down the list, or you’re happy to forgo the best chance of walking away from a serious prang, the Wrangler Rubicon is enticing.
There’s nothing else like the Wrangler on the market, and there is nothing else that will keep up with a Rubicon on tough, technical off-road driving. Plus, when the rock-crawling bug bites, your options for modifying a Wrangler for more clearance and capability are stupendous.
For a 4WD, the Rubicon is easily the best value-for-money proposition from the Wrangler range. Lockers, gears, tyres, sliders, and all of the rest of the 4WD gear justifies the $10,000 spend over the Sport S model, along with niceties like a hard roof, improved interior and better infotainment system. And, while the hard roof or flares aren’t colour-coded and the seats aren’t heated like the Overland, I think the mechanical upgrades are more in keeping with the Wrangler’s ethos.