The Rubicon Trail meanders some 22 miles through the piney, rock-strewn wilderness that stretches out west of Lake Tahoe. It's the most storied off-highway pass in America, and an automaker that dares evoke the name must be prepared to put up or shut up. With its new top-spec Wrangler, Jeep has put up.
Although the trail-readiness of the bone-stock Wrangler is well documented, eager Jeepers, always looking for the off-road advantage, have made the four-wheeling accessory market fat and happy. In creating the Rubicon, Jeep itself at last has a Wrangler with the kind of kit a serious rock-hopper could heretofore find only in the aftermarket.
Diamond-plate sill protectors prove their worth on the trail within minutes, and the grab-happiness of the 245-series Goodyear Wrangler MT/R tires is simply astonishing. A low-range transfer case with a 4:1 ratio puts more torque at the wheels and significantly enhances control at single-digit speeds. Completing the package are locking front and rear differentials on stout, Dana 44 axles, actuated by a toggle switch on the dash.
Jeep's familiar, 4.0-liter straight six is the only engine, matched to a standard five-speed manual gearbox. A four-speed automatic is available (notably upgraded from the old three-speed), but in truly hairy situations, we appreciated the manual's more subtle power delivery and superior engine-braking ability.
The Wrangler Rubicon is, all told, a stupendously capable tool for traversing hostile terrain. And, aside from the knobby Goodyears' incessant drone, on-road behavior is all but indistinguishable from that of lesser Wranglers. Unlike typical catalog creations, the Rubicon was engineered as a complete vehicle, without the bad manners that often accompany a la carte upgrades. Jeep chose its equipment carefully and wisely beefed up secondary components to cope with additional mechanical stresses. As a result, the Rubicon's boulder-bounding heroics are backed up by the less dynamic virtues of reliability and everyday drivability.