You don’t come to the Rubicon Trail in 4x4 gear off the showroom floor - unless it’s a Jeep Wrangler with a Rubicon badge on the side of the bonnet
2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: 3.6-litre V6 Pentastar petrol engine 209 kW/347 Nm with 5-speed automatic transmission, front and rear differential locks and electronic disconnecting front sway bar. The 2012 Jeep Wrangler will be launched in Australia in the first quarter of 2012.
Location: The Rubicon Trail – California, USA.
Be sure to put the Rubicon Trail on your ‘bucket list’. The scenery is beyond spectacular and the sense of personal achievement after simply making as far as the trailhead seems more akin to having walked on the moon.
The Rubicon Trail itself is exactly that; nothing more than horse trail that I suspect has changed little from those Wild West days of the 19th century when famous American gunslingers may have trodden this very trail. At least that’s the story I’m going with. From ground zero, it looks like the last place you’d want to be driving a stock-standard Jeep Wrangler. A good horse and saddle would seem like the more appropriate equipment for travel in these parts.
I’ve been across Australia in a variety of highly capable 4WD vehicles and that was hard going, but the Rubicon Trail may as well be on another planet. My driving partner for the journey is surveying the way ahead from the very start of the trail and says it’s like nothing he’s ever seen. What he means is that it doesn’t look possible, at least not unless you have one of those junior monster trucks with 45-inch wheels and a ladder to reach the cockpit.
The first part of the Trail involves scaling rock walls at some ridiculously acute angles. The hardcore off-road guys from around these parts say, “If you can't make it to the trailhead, then you have no right to be here.” They’re dead right. This isn’t rock crawling, it’s mountain climbing in a Jeep.
The word is that there are boulders up ahead that are bigger than the Jeep Wranglers themselves, and frankly, there wouldn’t be a single driver in this convoy of 15 Jeeps that isn’t feeling a little intimidated right now. It makes the usual mud and ruts terrain back in Australia seem like a walk in the park.
The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is ‘Trail Rated’, meaning it’s seriously capable off-road. It will need to be. On the US Trail Rating system from 1 to 10, where 10 is 'Extreme' and lists multiple warnings including: “Severe conditions. Extreme caution recommended. Impassable by stock vehicles. Winching required. Trail building necessary. May be impassable. Vehicle damage probable. Personal injury possible. Extreme caution necessary”, the Rubicon Trail rates a 10.
It’s also highly unusual to see stock vehicles on the Trail, even Jeep Rubicons. This place is generally considered the private domain of custom extreme terrain vehicles only, and even they sometimes break.
Jeep Vehicle Line boss, Ray Durham, who has played up here before and lists drag racing and quad-biking as family sports, recounts the last time he was here at the trailhead with a Wrangler. The extreme vehicle folks, as nice as they are, questioned his ability to get to even first base in his stock Jeep. He simply told them he’d see them back at Tahoma on the McKinney Rubicon Springs Road. They were of course gob-smacked when he turned up there in his off-the-showroom-floor Rubicon.
Ray reckons in no uncertain terms that he can get a standard Wrangler (that’s non-Rubicon) from one end of the trail to another. I believe him. But that doesn’t mean anyone else can. For the rest of us Rubicon virgins, the minimum requirement is a Wrangler Rubicon edition. In fact, in hindsight, I seriously doubt any other stock 4WD on this planet could successfully negotiate this trail in the hands of a first timer.
For starters, the electric front and rear differential lockers are essential equipment for climbing the more serious rock ledges on the Trail. They can be extra slippery due to the dry sand that often covers them. There are times when you’ll need both front and rear lockers engaged, but more often than not, you can get away with rear lockers only.
Another Jeep Wrangler Rubicon feature critical to conquering the Trail is the disconnecting front sway bar. That’s because you can’t possibly dodge all the boulders (yes, these are boulders not rocks) so at times you will need to scale them at stupidly absurd angles that don’t seem possible in a production series vehicle, Rubicon included. Easily activated by the touch of button, it will give you crazy levels of front wheel articulation in order to get the job done.
Did I mention the three separate skid plates on the under-body or the heavy-duty 4mm rock rails under the sills? You’ll be needing that kit too if you want to make it out of here in one piece – literally.
As hardcore as the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is, the 2012 model is also a highly civilised highway cruiser and lightyears ahead of the current Land Rover Defender in the on-road dynamics department.
The distance from our accommodation at Squaw Creek to our starting point at Loon Lake is about a two-hour drive along some very well maintained California roads. The route takes in some breathtaking scenery including the magnificent Lake Tahoe and its surrounding forests.
It also provides a perfect opportunity to road test the many improvements made to the latest Jeep Wrangler including the award winning 3.6-litre V6 Pentastar engine from the Grand Cherokee. This is what the punters have been waiting for, as it replaces the previous 3.8-litre unit and offers 43 per cent more power, slightly more torque and better fuel economy.
It’s something that is patently obvious from the very first time you prod the throttle; there’s heaps of ‘get up and go’ and it’s significantly quieter inside the cabin. That’s not surprising either when you learn that durability testing included millions of kilometres on all kinds of roads and in all kinds of weather conditions.
The extra grunt is a welcome addition to the Wrangler, especially for this lengthy highway stint, but it’s the recent interior makeover and NVH (Noise Vibration Harshness) levels that impress most. That’s partly the powertrain and partly the new five-speed automatic transmission, which offers a more refined shift than the previous four-speed box.
If you’re about to ask the same question I did, which is why not at least a six-speed box, given the large range of SUVs in the Jeep line-up that could use such a transmission, then rest easy. Chrysler Group LLC is said to be introducing the ZF- 8HP 8-speed automatic transmission from 2013, which should make these vehicles even more liveable as a daily drivers.
That aside, the new interior is contemporary and with inclusions such as Sat Nav and Bluetooth streaming (which are easy to use and intuitive), the Wrangler is now an easy thing to live with 24/7.
Ride and handling in the Wrangler are also much improved, with surprisingly little body roll at 120km/h through sweeping bends on a 140-kilometre round trip into Reno, Nevada - and that’s on All-Terrain tyres.
We know we’re getting close to the trailhead at Loon Lake when we pass the first of many extreme off-road machines (without tags of course) on a trailer. The machine pictured below is a lightweight unit compared with the weapons-grade versions that we saw on the Trail itself.
It’s becoming more and more obvious; you don’t come to the Rubicon Trail in 4x4 gear off a showroom floor, unless of course it’s a Jeep Wrangler with a Rubicon badge on the side of the bonnet. Even then we are told by the locals, "expect some damage".
One thing’s for sure, looking out over the start of our route, referred to as the ‘Granite Bowl’, is unlike any 4x4 driving I’ve ever done in Australia. This is the Mecca of rock crawling, and we’re about to get a taste of traversing granite slabs at 30-degree angles. All I can think about at this point is that I’d sure hate to roll this thing over on its side.
The trail guides are already at work providing extraordinarily accurate instructions on everything from wheel angle to how much throttle is required to climb some of these ledges as we head towards Ellis Creek. Without these guys, we don’t make it out of here. Seriously.
We’ve got close on 15 miles (24km) to go and the rule of thumb on the Trail is ‘One mile, one hour’ and that’s if nothing breaks.
It’s also hot and dry up here during the day with elevations of between 6000-7000 ft (around 2100m) so I’ve come prepared with my Scala cowboy hat (straw of course) as we have removed the roof section of the Wrangler Rubicon for that open-air freedom. It’s a great feature that transforms the Wrangler into a full convertible car.
Rock crawling requires very low gearing, so we’ve engaged low range in this automatic edition, which is armed with new gear ratios. First is more like a crawl ratio and that’s a good thing as we negotiate the rock ledges in what is no less than a rock valley.
We’ve already heard the metal-on-metal up ahead, but that’s what the skid plates are for.
This part of the Trail is supposed to be child’s play, but to be honest, some of these rock steps are steep so I’ve already engaged the rear lockers, just to be on the safe side. We’ve also hit the disconnecting front sway bar button, as already there’s a need for a fair degree of articulation so as not to rub metal.
The route back down the Granite Bowl is even steeper and at a more severe angle. Time to dial down the Bose stereo (it’s a great system, but not right now) and pay more attention to the next trail guide who’s working this particular patch. Looks are deceiving, you just can’t charge off down here, as tempting as that might be. Even the step down off the valley requires some very precise placement of the vehicle.
Our next obstacle is known as Walker Hill, for obvious reasons. This is a seriously hardcore climb that is best described as a minefield of ‘damage-causing rocks and boulders’ that seems to go on forever. Front and rear lockers are well and truly engaged for this stint and it’s still hard yakka. Several vehicles ahead have to back-up a number of times before they make it over some of these monster rocks.
I’d suggest the skid plates will pay for themselves ten-fold by the time all 15 Jeeps make it to the top of this place. It’s like a war zone up here. There’s a guy on the side of the Trail trying to replace his smashed driveshaft.
There’s little or no respite on the Trail – in fact, it’s downright relentless. Next up is another bowl, only this time it’s the ‘Soup Bowl’ and frankly, it looks impossible without the aid of 45-inch wheels and a monster truck.
The trick here though is to climb up the step as far as the Jeep can go and then turn the wheels to right full lock and give the throttle a prod. Then pray that the front wheels slide down into the ‘V’ section. Don’t worry about a little damage here - it’s going to happen whether you like it or not. Oh, and for the first timers: you need to learn how to left foot brake on the Rubicon or you’re likely to run into a few large rocks.
‘Little Sluice’ - or ‘Cruel Sluice’ as it is sometimes referred to - awaits those that have managed to get this far without sustaining catastrophic vehicular damage. It’s probably the most difficult section on the Trail, and again, some vehicle damage is unavoidable.
Up ahead just doesn’t look possible. So far our Rubicon has not faltered, but if we’re going to come unstuck, then this will be the place it is bound to happen.
The pace is slower than crawl mode and precision is the key. That means watching the trail guide like a hawk with one eye and looking at the where your front wheels are pointing with the other eye. Crunch. Thank god for those heavy-duty rock rails as the Jeep crashes down onto a rock. That was ‘my bad’. I should have placed the left wheel on top of the boulder.
The angles are so extreme on this section that if you’re not behind the wheel, it is far more comfortable to walk in front of or behind the Jeep taking photographs.
I reckon there’s about two hours of light left and we still have a way before we hit Buck Island Lake and on to Big Sluice. One thing is for sure: you don’t want to be negotiating this part of the Trail at night.
Thousand Dollar Hill is the next so-called obstacle and although it’s a steep climb over rocks and requires precision throttle inputs, it’s a breeze compared with Little Sluice.
There are some journalists in our convoy from China, many of them novice 4x4 drivers, and yet apart from relatively minor bumper damage, every one of these 15 Wrangler Rubicons is still going strong. More to the point, we are the only stock production vehicles on the Trail and that’s quite incredible given what these vehicles have endured so far.
We’ve arrived at Buck Island Lake and as picture postcard beautiful as it surely is, not far away is one of the more tricky sections they call the ‘S-turn’. It’s another of those steep steps that you can’t simply power up and drive straight over. A few drivers tried it that way and after 20 or so attempts finally worked out that you need to pivot the car through 90 degrees and essentially side straddle the rocks.
We’ve still got to get down through the Big Sluice before we reach camp at Rubicon Springs and darkness is already upon us. Doing this stuff in broad daylight is extreme; doing it at night without being able to properly see the hand signals from the trail guides is nuts.
This looks difficult with a tight hairpin coming up and to make matters worse the Rubicon mozzies have arrived in force. Time to put the roof and windows back up or you’ll pay the price. The process is a little fiddly for my liking and is only half intuitive with a few zippers that refuse to do what they’re told.
For most of the steep rock crawling sections I’d suggest front and rear lockers are mandatory, but for the tighter turns, you’ll need unlock the front lockers unless you fancy doing 20-point turns in front of a crowd.
Forget the one mile, one hour rule at night, by the time we finally arrived at Rubicon Springs, it was 10.30pm and the shower bags were cold. That’s not what you want to hear after being drenched in sweat a few hours before. I had one anyway - at least for the 60 seconds I could handle the cold water and the hand-held showerhead no larger than a 20-cent coin.
Most of us thought we would have a leisurely dirt-road drive to Cadillac Hill and Observation Point, but that’s not how the Rubicon Trail works. Just when you think you’re through the more difficult parts, you get smashed with another section that rivals the Little Sluice in its degree of difficulty. Front and rear diff locks activated, again.
At this point you are physically and mentally exhausted although the Jeeps could do it all over again and then some, with no mechanical hiccups whatsoever.
One of the Trail guides said it gets easier from here on in. No, it doesn’t. In fact the climb up Cadillac Hill pretty much blows the difficulty meter to hell and back. There are some boulders up here that you need to avoid, and sometimes it can be all but a single millimetre that separates the Jeep from major panel damage.
To make matters worse there were a couple of medical emergencies in our group, although none were the result of injury on the Trail. The rapid response from the California Highway Patrol helicopters that were on the scene within 20 minutes of the call was indeed impressive. So was their flying.
The Trail is full of surprises, not least of which looked like a small makeshift cemetery with what we assumed were the graves of hardcore rock crawlers that wanted to be buried on the Rubicon Trail.
Finally there’s a dirt road ahead and no visible obstacles. I’m actually craving for some smooth California tarmac. But then again, we just completed an unforgettable journey that few in the world will ever experience.
I’m also fairly certain that if I ever did it again, my choice of equipment would be the same: a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon – stock standard off the showroom floor.