Jeep Wrangler takes on the Rubicon trail
Dusk wraps its pink fingers around the Sierra Nevada mountain range at around 6:30pm in Autumn. Shadow begins to fall over the tree-covered mountainside, cooling all but the sun-baked granite outcroppings that jut out of the trail at odd intervals. Somewhere in the distance, as we round a rocky bend, the unlikely sound of a grand piano rings out the chords to Freebird.
OK, so maybe it wasn't Freebird. My ears were clogged with dust and lulled into complacency by the growl of twenty-some Rubicons negotiating the seemingly impossible trail from which the most rugged edition of the Jeep Wrangler takes its name. It's not that these unimpeachably capable SUVs are particularly loud — they have just the right throaty rumble to complement their copious torque — but rather that navigating the Rubicon trail is a driving feat of such intensity, requiring complete concentration, that one enters an almost trance-like state. In the spirit of good journalism, I admit that I may not have heard correctly.
The Rubicon isn't just sporty, or utilitarian: it belongs to that rarified go-anywhere vehicle niche that Jeep Wrangler model rep Tony Petit describes as "the factory mountain goat," which is a much better name than my own Romanesque offering, "dirt chariot."
Some discussion of the mountain goat's natural environment is in order here, but first this requires a history lesson: California's Rubicon trail takes its name from a stream in northeastern Italy that once delineated Italy from Cisalpine Gaul. The Rubicon is the point of no return, across which Julius Caesar led his army into Italy in 49 BC, breaking the law forbidding a general from leading an army out of his province, binding himself to war against the Senate and Pompey and provoking three years of civil war. With its deep ruts, jagged rocks, and sheer cliffs, the Rubicon trail represents a similarly grave compact between vehicle and driver. Like a general marshalling his troops, there is an unspoken awareness that we may not all make it back in one piece… especially when piloted by certain journalist peers. I've witnessed impressive off-roading feats among the dunes of Dubai and the crumbling trails of the Spanish countryside, but never before have I seen anything quite like Rubicon.
"Woodchuck to Blue Squirrel, Woodchuck to Blue Squirrel," the nearest trail guide's walkie-talkie sputters to life. "Be advised: we've got another one riding the clutch in the green two-door." This might seem unduly critical at first glance, as Chrysler can afford to replace a clutch once in a while, but the real issue is that slipping the clutch in this context simply means, well, slipping. In four-wheel-drive low, the Rubicon's 347Nm combined with its two-speed transfer case with a 4.0:1 low-range gear ratio allows this Jeep to crawl up the steepest, most challenging grades without any need of the clutch, or even the accelerator much of the time. Simply put, the Rubicon is almost impossible to stall, and engaging the clutch only causes the goat to lose it's footing — a phenomenon that is patently obvious when you're behind the offending driver on an uphill stage. Once more, in the spirit of integrity, I should admit I did actually stall an automatic-tranny-equipped Rubicon once when badly misjudging my line. So, you know, they're not idiot proof. Happily, it was one brief pause in an otherwise astounding two days of off-roading, and the guys at Jeep assured me the battle scar, er, I mean minor scratch, would buff out.
Propelling the mighty Rubicon is Jeep's new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6, which is constructed with a high-pressure, die-cast aluminium block fitted with cast-iron bore liners and aluminium cylinder heads, and designed to meet all known future worldwide emission standards.
The Pentastar produces 284bhp, and combines with the new automatic to improve power output by 42 per cent over the previous model, while adding 9 per cent more torque. Jeep engineers have also improved ride and sound characteristics of the Wrangler's body-on-frame design (American car classicists emit sighs of pleasure whenever you work in the term ‘body-on-frame').
Revised suspension calibrations contribute to overall improvements over previous models that make the Wrangler a tad more civilised at highway speed. Sure, it's not everyone's idea of a daily driver, but off-road fanatics will surely enjoy this new level of (relative) refinement. I say relative because Jeep's hearty aesthetic is brashly and unapologetically American compared with, a somewhat random example, the new PG Tips-equipped LR4.
Rubicon also includes electric front and rear locking differentials and disconnecting front sway bar, taking Wrangler to the highest level of capability available in a factory Jeep… or a factory anything for that matter.
In order to navigate the Rubicon's craggy surfaces and daunting switchbacks, we had the sway bar disconnected full time, using the front and rear lockers to overcome only the most challenging uphill sections. Just when it would seem that Jeep's Mountain Goat might have to retreat from some immovable object, we'd hit the lockers, try again, and lurch right over the section in a burst of forward momentum. It was at this point that Tony Petit took it upon himself to show me how to buttress my right foot against the interior sidewall of the Jeep, allowing the shock of suddenly clearing an obstacle to be diverted from the accelerator.
With an approach angle of 35 degrees, breakover angle of 22 degrees, and departure angle of 28 degrees, the Rubicon was able to tackle the steepest grades and deepest ruts that we could find. Each wheel's full 10in of articulation allow the Jeep to apply maximum tyre surface area to four different planes, giving it the appearance of some splay footed animal caught in difficult passage. Except the Jeep isn't caught. It grips rock, dirt and tree roots alike, sending you on your way under the most challenging off-road circumstances. Wrangler offers standard electronic stability control, electronic roll mitigation, Hill-start Assist, Hill-descent Control and brake traction control among two dozen standard or optional systems.
That first evening, as we rolled into Rubicon's storied base camp, the piano pounding away surreally, I noted the first signs of a great test drive; a minor aching of the facial muscles used to smile.
The next day, as we began the slow climb back up the trail, hot showers and soft beds on our minds, a bit of interesting chatter came over the radio: "Base to chopper, base to chopper; reduce speed at earliest convenience, the lid of the piano is looking a bit loose." Straining my neck to look up through the canopy of pines, the whir of rotors seemingly close, I couldn't see the helicopter hauling away the baby grand in what must have been one of the more interesting visuals on that day. Happily, the lid never came clanging down atop us, and we made the arduous trip back to Lake Tahoe without incident.
The idea of the piano, sailing along high above the mountain range stuck with me though and I think it says something about the Rubicon. Sure, you can airlift your piano deep into the American wilderness for an al fresco recital, but if the maestro has a fear of flying, the Rubicon just might be the only vehicle that can get him or her there on time.