Base price: $47,345 (2-door)/ $49,745 (4-door)
Engines: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, or 3.6-litre V-6
Transmission/Drive: Six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic/four-wheel
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 2-door 2.0-litre automatic: 10.5 city/9.4 hwy; four-door 3.6-litre automatic: 12.9 city/hwy.
Jeep’s most capable vehicle is the Wrangler, and its most off-road capable Wrangler is the Rubicon, named after this boulder-strewn trail in California’s Sierra Nevada. It’s 19 kilometres of rocks and sand, and even now at the end of the day when I close my eyes, I can hear the tortured scraping of steel: two tonnes of Jeep grinding across a boulder, only one wheel against the ground, pulling itself up and around the trail.
Not many vehicles can do this, which is why Jeep owners like to do it. They’ve been coming this way since the 1950s, when a group of Jeeps drove through to Lake Tahoe on the old disused stagecoach route. On the official 1-to-10 scale of off-road trails, the Rubicon rates 10, which is the most challenging possible.
Our group of Jeep Wrangler Rubicons had a team of spotters who walked most of the way, helping to guide the drivers through the trickiest sections. There were plenty of times I’d have just accepted the trail had ended. There was no way, surely, the heavy Jeep could climb this wall of rocks, or squeeze through that narrow, twisting gap in the stones. But it did, every time. Every single time.
Jeeps can do this for a number of reasons. They have extreme approach and departure angles (44 and 37 degrees), which allow them to climb and descend steep slopes without bottoming out. They have higher ground clearance than just about anything: a minimum of 277 mm (10.9 inches) on the new 2018 JL models, which is 18 mm greater than the previous JK models thanks to having larger stock tires.
They have incredible articulation, allowing greater travel for each wheel on its suspension, and more so when the sway bar is disconnected. And the Rubicon editions have an enormous crawl ratio of 77.2:1 with the eight-speed automatic transmission (84.2:1 with the six-speed manual), created through a 4-1 transfer case, with locking differentials for both front and back axles.
All those numbers mean the Rubicon can pull itself up the side of a stone wall if necessary, and there were plenty of them on the Trail to try.
The JL Wrangler is the first new generation of the iconic Jeep since the JK edition was introduced in 2006, and its engineers say they revised and improved pretty much everything.
“The JK is a beloved vehicle and basically has a cult following,” says Brian Leyes, chief engineer for the new Wrangler. “So how do we improve on it and not piss off the core of the group? We had to give the customer more: more capability, more fuel economy, more customer features, better driving dynamics.”
As before, the Wrangler is available as either a two-door or a four-door, a hardtop or a soft-top, and it comes with a choice of engines and transmissions. It also comes in four different levels of trim and capability: the Sport is the basic Wrangler (and starts at $34,945) while the Sport S has more features and the four-door-only Sahara ($46,745) is the most comfortable and loaded. Full connectivity is standard. For true off-roaders, however, the Rubicon is the way to go. It starts at $47,345 for the two-door and an extra $2,400 for the Unlimited four-door, and has the two-speed transfer case with stronger Dana solid axles, bigger 33-inch tires and rock protector rails.
Those rails saw a lot of action on the Rubicon Trail. The underneath of the Rubicon is capable of supporting the Jeep’s weight at just about any point, so a punctured gas tank or broken axle is unlikely. Even so, I took few chances. Spotters helped me point the wheels at the highest rocks instead of trying to straddle them, to limit the likelihood of “turtling” with all four wheels in the air. I climbed and dropped slowly over rocks at a fraction of walking pace, to lessen the impact at the bottom. The three-ply tires took an enormous amount of stress, sometimes supporting the entire vehicle on their sidewalls as the Jeep straddled a too-narrow gap between the rock walls.
This time around, the difference is that the new Rubicon can travel the Trail with less wear-and-tear than before. It should last longer, and the bumping and grinding will hurt less. The four-door is five centimetres longer than before, but its turning circle is about 40 cm improved from the previous model, meaning three-point turns are fewer.
I drove both the 3.6-litre V-6 (in the two-door) and the all-new 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (in the heavier four-door) and found both easily capable of hauling the Jeep around. The smaller engine actually creates the most torque at 295 lbs-ft, though a 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel that will be available next year will create a staggering 442 lbs-ft.
But why bother with all this? What’s the point of driving over rocks when you can go around them, or taking the trail over the mountain when there’s a perfectly good highway down in the valley?
About halfway through, I met Richard Williams from San Francisco, with his heavily modified 1989 Jeep Cherokee. He showed me a photo he’d just taken of his Jeep parked on a tall rock. “If there’s dirt road and Volkswagen-sized boulders, which way are we going to go?” he said. “The VW boulders, every time. Body damage, we expect it. It’s the challenge of it – it’s just how we wheel.”
I drove more carefully. I didn’t want to dent the Rubicon, but I needn’t have worried. At the end of the Trail the next morning, I drove down onto the shoreline highway at Lake Tahoe and slipped the transmission into High. The doors and roof were still off, but at 80 km/h, the dust blew from the cabin onto the poor suckers following behind.
The Jeep wallowed around the corners on its giant tires, but I sat up high and proud, ready for the mall.