The top of the food chain in Jeep’s off-road armoury...
2011 Jeep Wrangler 2-Door Rubicon 3.8L V6, six-speed manual transmission
Photography - Brett Davis
If there were a 4x4 version of Germany’s perilous Nurburgring, it would have to be the 35 kilometer Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the United States.
The words ‘hardcore’ and ‘dangerous’ go some way to describing what confronts those who attempt the cross the unpaved section of the ‘Trail’, but ‘impossible’ might be a better description for immoveable obstacles such as the Devil’s Postpile, Walker Hill, the Soup Bowl and Million Dollar Hill. The term ‘seven miles in seven hours’ is often used to describe the rate of travel on the ‘Rubicon’. Enough said.
So it’s entirely fitting that Jeep’s most capable off-road vehicle, the two-door Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, is so aptly named after what some hardcore enthusiasts regard as the ‘Mission Impossible’ trail.
While there’s a decent size premium to be paid for the silver Rubicon transfers on each side of the bonnet, don’t be too disappointed in the fact that apart from those stickers, there’s little if anything that distinguishes it from the standard Wrangler Sport, at least from an exterior perspective.
That said if I bought a Rubicon, I would want other folks to know that I’m driving what is effectively the top of the food chain in Jeep’s off-road armoury. So those ‘Rubicon’ transfers are a big deal to the buyers who pay the additional premium.
Make no mistake, you’re looking at one of the world's most capable off-road vehicles, bar none.
It’s more than likely though that most of a Rubicon’s kilometres will be notched up on the bitumen, so it still needs to perform reasonably well around town as the family chariot, despite its legendary off-road reputation.
For starters you’ll need to climb into the Jeep, as it’s quite a step up into the cabin, although without being too difficult. In fact, after a few days of ownership, you won’t give it a second thought, but small kids under 10 years will require a boost upwards. Enthusiasts will buy the short wheelbase three-door version, but those who need a certain level of practicality will be better off with the four-door Rubicon.
The new 2011 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon comes with a much improved interior, which means that it’s a notch up on what you’ll find in the Land Rover Defender, the Rubicon's direct competitor in the off-road department.
This is a vastly improved fit-out compared with the previous model and looks, and feels more car-like than a serious 4x4 vehicle. Thankfully, Jeep has moved on with the Wrangler and realised that off-road duties occur on the occasional weekend only, and during the week, the Rubicon serves as a daily commute vehicle.
There are plenty of soft touch materials and metallic look accents in the cockpit, similar to that in the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee. The thick-rimmed leather bound steering wheel is a nice bit of kit too, and adds a touch of class to the Rubicon.
Add to that features such as automatic headlights, and an Infinity Audio System with a 368-watt amplifier and subwoofer producing a very decent sound, and the Rubicon isn’t a bad place to spend some time. There are a couple of option packages available at reasonable prices, but if the budget is stretched, just go for the Connectivity Group for a around a couple of hundred dollars. That will give you Bluetooth hands-free calling with Address Sync, making for stress-free communication while on the run.
Jeep call this particular variant the Jeep Wrangler two-door Soft Top (only our test car was equipped with a removable hard top), so this being a sunny day, we have obliged and released the front section of the roof for that open-air experience. It’s a simple task that only takes a few minutes to remove, and can be comfortably stored behind the rear seats. You also have the option of removing the remaining rear section, but you’ll need to do that at home, as storage in the vehicle would be a problem, if you are carrying any rear-seat passengers.
Shod with what are essentially ‘all terrain’ tyres, the Rubicon provides a firm and somewhat jittery ride over anything other than a well-maintained freeway surface, although, turn-in reveals little or no body roll, even when travelling at speed. In that respect, it’s better than some sedans in its handling ability. While the Rubicon is sprung firmly and has a knack for finding any and all imperfections in the road surface, large speed bumps and those unforgiving metal car park humps are ironed out completely by the Jeep.
There’s a tonne of safety gear on board the Rubicon too with front airbags, ESC, Brake Assist, All-speed Traction Control (ASTC), Electronic Roll Mitigation (ERM), Trailer Sway Control, Brake Lock Differentials (BLD), and the must have Hill Start Assist, which takes the pain out of city commuting for those that choose the six-speed manual box.
Our off-road test route for the Rubicon, were the various trails around famous Zig-Zag Raliway, not far from Lithgow, in the Blue Mountains.
The word ‘trail’ probably doesn’t convey the degree of difficulty in climbing the deep-rutted slopes or the seemingly vertical sections around the so-called quarry.
We might be in the most capable 4 x4 Jeep has to offer, but those soft ruts look nasty all the same, and today we don’t have the luxury of a support vehicle to pull us out if we get bogged. Time to engage the full suite of the Rubicon’s off-road armoury before we tackle the trail ahead, and they are formidable additions to an already ‘tougher than nails’ Jeep Wrangler platform.
First off we engage the legendary Rock-Track 4:1 low range for slow crawling up and down these ruts. A simple double-tap on the button to the right of the steering wheel locks both front and rear differentials (or you can lock one or the other), while another button disconnects the front sway bar for impossible levels of wheel articulation.
Unless you’re negotiating a very steep bit of ground, you’ll find that first gear is too slow, and second or third will be more useful. What is immediately obvious is the ease at which the Rubicon can conquer relatively difficult terrain.
Not only that, it’s the comfort inside the cabin that surprises me most. The result of the disconnected sway bar means that even though one wheel is 45 degrees up or down on the opposing wheel, the Rubicon remains stable and sits relatively flat. It hasn’t been five minutes behind the wheel, and already I’m mighty impressed.
While the 3.8-litre V6 petrol engine is more than competent and certainly up to the task, the lack of torque down low in the rev range is not ideal - especially on the tarmac - but it’s less of an issue on the rough stuff with low range engaged. It’s a shame Jeep doesn’t offer the choice of the 2.8-litre diesel powertrain with its stump-pulling 460Nm of torque from the automatic variant. To me, that would make more sense from both an off-road and fuel economy perspective than the petrol unit.
Throughout the morning, it didn’t seem to matter how steep or deep the ruts were, the Rubicon made mince meat of anything we tackled, and all with ridiculous ease.
It’s difficult to convey just how steep some slopes are through a camera lens, but trust me when I tell you the climb up to the quarry wall was bloody steep, so when the opportunity presented itself, there was considerable debate as to what the consequences might be if things didn’t go to plan. Of particular concern was that there were just precious millimetres either side of the vehicle, and simply no room for error.
With the Rubicon performing faultlessly all morning through mud, water and up the rut-laden trails, this narrow vertical was another matter entirely. We decided to give it go, a decision influenced to some extent by the large group of motocross riders who had gathered at the bottom to see if the Rubicon could make it up or not. All a bit of an anti-climax really as the Jeep went straight up in second gear without any loss of traction whatsoever.
It doesn’t mind getting wet either, as tested through some deep muddy pools, again with plenty of traction through the slippery stuff, even at crawl speed.
The Rubicon is an extraordinarily capable piece of off-road equipment that simply wasn’t challenged during what we thought was a sufficiently difficult route. It’s also versatile enough for the daily commute.
You can get into a Jeep Wrangler for as little as $32,000, but if you want the Rubicon, be prepared to step up with another $10,000 for that privilege. You would need to be a seriously committed off-road enthusiast to pay the sizeable premium over the Wrangler Sport, but knowing what this Jeep is capable of, we understand completely if you can't resist it.
Coming soon to CarAdvice will be the same test in the Land Rover Defender, the Rubicon’s direct competitor.
Additional equipment on the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (over Wrangler Sport):