New Car Reviews

Right at Home: We Tackle the Rubicon Trail in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

When you set out on the Rubicon, there’s no turning back.

In the year 49 B.C., emperor Julius Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon River into Italy, an egregious act of aggression that caused much peeing of pants among Roman senators, who fled rather than face the civil war Caesar’s act was sure to incite. “The die is cast,” Caesar said shortly after drying off, thus coining one of two phrases that resulted from his actions.

The other: “crossing the Rubicon,” which has come to mean “to commit oneself irrevocably,” perhaps to the point of no return.

That’s a good attitude to have when you climb into a Jeep to tackle the Rubicon Trail, en route to California’s own little Rubicon River and beyond. Located near Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border, the Rubicon Trail is “a 10 out of 10,” says Pearse Umlauf, president and CEO of Jeep Jamboree USA. He and his company have rated Jeep trails across the country, from 1 (you can make it on your Big Wheel) to 10 (only experienced, serious off-roaders need apply). Umlauf and his crew would be our guides, helping us steer over and around the rocks: “Left, left! Now right, right, right!”

I was last here in 1992. Then it was the 4.0-liter inline-six with a three-speed automatic; today it’s a 3.6-liter V-6 with an eight-speed automatic.

Many of the journalists on this particular trip, convened by Jeep to show off its new 2018 Wrangler Rubicon, were not experienced but there’s something about facing off against boulders twice the size of a buffet table. The latter is what automotive journalists are typically used to steering around on press trips.

I was last here in 1992, then as now in a Jeep Wrangler, but a very different one: It was a rectangular-headlight YJ, which replaced the Jeep CJ in the 1987 model year, soldiering on until it was replaced 10 years later with the TJ and a welcome return to round headlights. Also then as now, I drove a six-cylinder Wrangler with an automatic transmission—in 1992 it was the 4.0-liter inline-six with a three-speed automatic; today it’s a 3.6-liter V-6 with an eight-speed automatic.

Actually, given the span of 26-plus years, maybe the new Wrangler isn’t so different. Which is, of course, part of its charm. With the possible exception of a Porsche, the Jeep would likely be the only modern vehicle recognizable to any unfortunate human stranded on a desert island for, say, the last 70 years.

This created a substantial challenge for people like Scott Tallon, director of the Jeep brand, and his designers and engineers. They needed to craft the first new Wrangler in 11 years, somehow keeping its character as the most traditional mainstream vehicle on the road yet bringing it to within the latest safety, comfort, and performance parameters. Especially for the Wrangler Rubicon, the most off-road-capable Jeep model since the marque introduced it in 2003.

Suggestions that would have made it easier to build were largely dismissed: Get rid of the fold-down windshield (they didn’t); get rid of the removable doors (they didn’t). And most of all, get rid of that ancient solid-axle front and rear and bring the Wrangler into the 20th century with all-independent suspension. One engineer suggested they do just that for this new Wrangler, dubbed the JL. “That person doesn’t work at Jeep anymore,” Brian Lees, the Wrangler’s chief engineer, said.

Although we did get from one end of the Rubicon to the other in 1992, this new Jeep makes it a lot easier. The first thing we did was disconnect the sway bars, a task that once required wrenches but now happens at the touch of a button; this gives you considerably more wheel travel. And we could lock the front or rear differentials, or both, again by pressing a button, though we only needed to lock the diffs in the most extreme situations.

Although independent suspensions work best in almost every other application, you can’t beat solid axles for serious off-roading.

The V-6 has plenty of torque—260 lb-ft—but that’s measured at a carlike 4,800 rpm, and the Wrangler is more like a truck. Consequently, even in low range, we’d get a squirt of power when we were only looking for a few drops. Left-foot braking helped solve that issue.

It took us the better part of a day, seldom exceeding 3 mph, to reach the Rubicon Springs campground. We “glamped” in tents set up a few feet from the banks of the Rubicon River. A helicopter visited a couple of times to haul in supplies and haul out trash.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the difference between the two-and four-door models. We did the portion to Rubicon Springs in a two-door, which is 166.8 inches long, 21.6 inches shorter than the four-door. Similarly, the two-door’s wheelbase is just 96.8 inches, 21.6 inches shorter than the four-door. So it should be a lot more nimble, right? Not necessarily. While the turning diameter is 5 inches shorter in the two-door, it wasn’t noticeable. Just as on the highway, we actually preferred the way the four-door handled off-road—more comfortable, more predictable, less jarring.

Which is not to say there weren’t tight spots. Eventually we got used to hearing our Jeep bottom out hard against the skidplates and to feeling the way the steel rock rails, beneath the rocker panels, scuffed against boulders. The massive Dana axles front and rear were a welcome overkill. Yes, there were scratches and scrapes underneath the Jeep afterward, but in the end the only cosmetic damage we spotted during a normal walkaround was the round tailpipe that was, well, no longer round.

Much of this is due to the Rubicon’s generous 10.8-inch ground clearance, about an inch more than the regular Wrangler. Approach angle is an amazing 44 degrees, and departure angle is 37 degrees. The standard Rubicon tire is the BFGoodrich K02 All-Terrain LT285/70R17C, but our Jeep was fitted with the slightly more capable 33-inch BFG KM3. The tires were surprisingly quiet on pavement; in fact, the Jeep Rubicon is pretty quiet, with one major exception: As you rock-crawl, the electric cooling fan comes on with a roar that you just have to get used to.

As usual, the colorfully named sections of the trail that have reputations as being the toughest—Little Sluice, Soup Bowl, and the infamous Cadillac Hill—were so named for a reason. There is, for example, a wrecked 1930s-era Cadillac down there in the woods. Indeed, the Rubicon Trail’s history—even recent history— suggests it is not a place to trifle with. There have been at least three fatalities on the trail since 2012, including one each in 2016 and 2017, which occurred when an unbelted occupant was thrown out as their vehicle rolled over.

The Rubicon Trail’s very existence is somewhat amazing, and that’s not for lack of critics who’ve tried to shut it down despite its history spanning multiple centuries. The Washoe and Maidu-Nisenan tribes traversed the trail long before a military party “discovered” it around 1844. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork American River, and invading prospectors used the trail. In the late 1800s, Rubicon Springs, the privately owned campground at about the route’s halfway point, became a source of mineral water craved by the health-conscious, and a prosperous bottling industry was born.

Lodges followed, including a two-and-a-half-story hotel serviced daily by a four-horse carriage. But by the 1920s, tourism died and the Rubicon was used mostly by hunters, fishermen, and loggers.

Then, in 1953, avid off-roader Mark Smith hosted the inaugural jamboree, with 55 Jeeps, most of them military-surplus. The off-road guru remained a central caretaker of the Rubicon Trail and an important face of off-roading in general until he died in 2014 at the age of 87. Smith hosted my first trip along the Rubicon in 1992. His former son-in-law, Jeep Jamboree USA’s Umlauf, continues the tradition. “Mark fought for years the threat of the trail being closed,” Umlauf recalled, countering efforts from environmental groups and even the U.S. Forest Service. That’s one reason Smith and a group of investors bought the land at Rubicon Springs: “He reasoned that they could never close him off from his own property.”

The trail last faced a major crisis thanks to a water-quality board concerned about erosion and pollution, largely from silt. But El Dorado County, with help from groups like Umlauf’s, as well as Friends of the Rubicon and a dozen other entities, stepped up to create a master plan for the trail, which the county saw as a major tourist attraction. It worked. The Rubicon Trail, once darkened by trash, spilled oil, drunks, and even some graffiti, is now downright spotless, and the people you meet along the route seem intent on keeping it that way.

Such as two veteran off-roaders we met during a break in the trip—one driving a Toyota truck, the other an old Jeep Cherokee, both stripped of all but the most essential parts, which apparently did not include doors, windows, or an interior. “We just love off-roading,” one said. “If we come to a fork that’s clear trail one way and a rock the size of a Volkswagen the other way, we’re taking on the rock.”

Mark Smith would be proud.

You Want to Drive the Rubicon?

The Rubicon Trail hosts multiple off-road events each year, but the two best known and most popular are the Jeep Jamboree and the Jeepers Jamboree. Yes, despite their so-similar names, they are two separate events. The Jeep Jamboree is smaller, shorter, and more exclusive, and it encourages families. The Jeepers Jamboree offers more of an “adult atmosphere” and allows non-Jeep vehicles, including Toyota Land Cruisers, Toyota trucks, Suzuki Samurais, International Harvester Scouts, and pre-1979 Ford Broncos. Jeep Jamboree, however, requires that you drive a 1987–2019 Jeep Wrangler, with older Jeeps or non-Wrangler models requiring prior approval.

Prices per person are about $400 to $500 and include different amenities. The Jeepers Jamboree is typically in July; the Jeep Jamboree is in August. You can register online. Make sure you do so early, as there’s usually a waiting list.

jeepersjamboree.com  |  jeepjamboreeusa.com

2018 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Specifications

PRICE $44,940/$51,220 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6; 285 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 18/23 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 188.4 x 73.8 x 73.6 in
WHEELBASE 118.4 in
WEIGHT 4,145 lb
0–60 MPH 7.4 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 100 mph (governed)

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