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Here we have the new 2019 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, Suzuki Jimny and Toyota LandCruiser 79 Series 'Troopcarrier'. Which is most capable and our favourite off-road?
The new 2019 Jeep Wrangler is finally here, after a long time waiting. It might not look like it, but it’s an all-new design for the American brand's most iconic vehicle and nameplate.
Going all-out, Jeep has boldly stamped this new 'JL' Wrangler as ‘the most capable 4x4 production SUV on the planet’.
It could be entirely true, but is problematic to really prove or disprove. However, we can go to some effort to really find out what this Wrangler is made of by taking it 4WDing, and pushing it as hard as we can.
To make this test more interesting, we’ve compiled a couple of other 4x4s for comparison. Two vehicles that are also traditional 4WDs with truckloads of off-road prowess, also dripping with heritage and icon status.
We have the 2019 Toyota LandCruiser Troopcarrier, a 4WD deeply ingrained into the psyche of remote and rural Australia. And we also have the 2019 Suzuki Jimny. This isn’t a loaner; it’s Mike Costello’s own Jimny sporting some different wheels (Dynamic Steel) and tyres (BFGoodrich All Terrains).
Like I said, the Wrangler is an all-new design. The basic recipe hasn’t changed, lest the designers invite threats of death or worse from the rusted on, hardcore fan base.
It’s still a ladder chassis with coil-sprung live axles at each end. It’s still incredibly boxy, with a small, flat windscreen and capacious fender flares. And, of course, there are round headlights flanking that seven-slot grille.
We have the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, which really ups the off-road ante. Perhaps the most important change over a normal Wrangler is gearing: stronger, lower-geared differentials and a 4:1 transfer case give you a 77:1 ratio in low-range, first gear.
Big gearing reduction like that means your torque is multiplied, and you can travel at an ant’s pace smoothly and without a heavy strain on your driveline.
Combine that with good tyres, locking differentials, a front swaybar disconnect, a low centre of gravity and supple, softly tuned suspension, and you’ve got all of the ingredients for something stupendously capable off-road.
While you can get a diesel Rubicon, we have the petrol-powered option: 3.6 litres worth of V6 gives you 209kW at 6400rpm and 347Nm at 4100rpm.
While it looks bigger and more cumbersome, don't write off the big, legendary LandCruiser for off-road ability.
Overall gearing reduction isn’t so low (44:1), but peak torque at 1200rpm makes up for that. It makes 4WDing really pleasurable, with 4.5 litres of V8 ticking away at idle or with some wind in the sails.
While it might eschew that supreme rock-crawling ability, the Troopy is immensely capable in its own right. Enough room to live out of, 180 litres of fuel capacity, and a big payload mean it is more adept at slaying deserts rather than conquering climbs. Twin lockers means it still takes a lot to stop it in the bush.
The diesel V8 develops 151kW at 3400rpm and 430Nm at 1200–3200rpm, doing it in a lazy, old-school fashion. The burble is addictive, as is the stiff wall of torque that’s available virtually instantly.
It runs through a low-geared five-speed manual gearbox, your only option. Fifth gear is taller these days, which does help a bit on the highway.
While Australian 4WDers first fell in love with the Land Rover, it was the LandCruiser that has really stood the test of time with reputation and popularity as a hard-working vehicle.
It’s become part of the fabric in regional and outback Australia, along with being a regular sighting in mining and industrial sites.
The LandCruiser got a start in Australia because the Thiess brothers couldn’t get their hands on additional Land Rovers for the massive Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme that was well underway.
They looked abroad for other options, and found the 20 Series LandCruiser. The first examples of the LandCruiser landed in Australia in 1959.
Toyota Japan and its local distributors soon realised the huge potential of this kind of vehicle in Australia. When the updated and vastly improved 40 Series LandCruiser landed in the early 1960s, it wasn’t long until they were selling strongly to farmers, 4WDers and fleets right around the country.
It was available as a ute or Troopcarrier as a long wheelbase, or as a short-wheelbase wagon. Early 40 Series LandCruisers only had three-speed gearboxes, but you could opt for petrol or diesel power. Toyota listened to its Aussie customers, even in those early days. It fitted bigger engines and bigger fuel tanks, with the rest of the driveline making up a reliable and effective overall vehicle.
The new-look 70 Series LandCruiser came in 1984, but the recipe barely changed: big torquey petrol and diesel engines, big reliable drivelines and great load-lugging off-road capability.
It’s the same story today: 4.5-litre diesel V8, ladder chassis, live axles and rear leaf springs. It’s easily the least-modern vehicle on sale today in Australia, if you discount the Morgan. It drives like an old 4WD, because that’s exactly what it is.
Then, we have the Suzuki Jimny. Compared to the LandCruiser’s 12-year tenure, the Jimny is new for 2019. Just like the Troopy and Wrangler, the Jimny is all about sticking to its guns.
It’s cheap and cheerful, coming in at $23,990 and sporting loads of retro-cool character, it’s impossible to not love the Jimny.
While there aren’t any locking differentials or big tyres, the Suzuki uses its small size and weight to an advantage. There are barely any overhangs from the 2250mm wheelbase, and the rampover angle is equally impressive.
The simple fact that the Jimny weighs a scant 1095kg is its best asset off-road. It has this ability to scamper through or around obstacles that other vehicles simply don't have.
Under the bonnet of the Jimny is a new 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol, which ekes out 75kW at 6000rpm and 130Nm at 4000rpm. This runs through a five-speed manual gearbox and a part-time 4WD system.
While many bang on about LandCruisers and Land Rovers in the early days of Australian 4WDing, Suzuki cannot be forgotten. Preferred by graziers and cockies on blacksoil country and rocky mountain ranges alike, the diminutive Suzuki LJs and Sierras used size to their advantage.
Where other 4WDs were getting bogged or looking like rolling, the little Suzuki would just keep on clambering.
Along with being small, the Suzuki 4WD was also simple. It’s hard to believe these days, but once upon a time this was something vaunted and valued.
If something did let go, all of the mechanicals were tiny and easy to replace. I’ve seen a mate pick up a transfer case with one hand and a dodgy back.
Although it’s still small, the Jimny has slowly gotten bigger and heavier over the years. When it produced the original LJ10 in 1970, Suzuki made a motorcycle with a bigger engine. No joke.
Built to Kei car regulations in Japan, the LJ10 weighed 590kg and was powered by an air-cooled 359cc two-cylinder two-stroke motor.
Fast-forward a few years, and the LJ50 was the first Suzuki 4WD destined for export. Still two-stroke, but now with three water-cooled cylinders and 550cc of capacity, the LJ50 started building Suzuki’s reputation for great off-road ability and dependability in Australia. It all boiled down to the size and weight.
The new Jimny still has many of those core attributes that made the original so effective: live axles hanging off a ladder chassis, low-range gearing and minimal overhangs. Suzuki opted for four-stroke power in 1977, and coil springs came into play in 1996.
Let’s be clear about these cars: each one is a massive exercise in compromise. None are particularly comfortable or refined on-road, when compared to other vehicles at a similar size and price. They all rate poorly in the safety stakes, as well.
The LandCruiser Troopcarrier is untested (although the single-cab got five stars in 2016). The Jimny gets away with a three-star rating, while the Wrangler got slapped with one star.
While you could easily live with these vehicles from a daily point of view, you have to want it, and there is a sense of putting up with them. If convenience and comfort (along with safety) are high priorities, look elsewhere.
If you’re trying to put your finger on something else, something less rational, then one (or all) of these 4WDs could be up your alley. It’s a combination of things: heritage, design, aesthetic, off-road ability and rugged practicality.
These vehicles do offer something that a ‘normal’ vehicle cannot muster. To steal a phrase, they’re an antidote to the homogeneity that is rife today.
The fact that elements like off-road ability, classic design and traditional underpinnings have been put in front of safety, manufacturing efficiencies and broad market appeal is what makes these cars different, and therefore desirable.
While vehicles like the Wrangler, Jimny and LandCruiser are never going to sell as strongly as a Grand Cherokee, Vitara or RAV4, they’re very important for a brand and its perception in the marketplace.
Like a tech-laden, go-fast supercar, an iconic 4x4 in the line-up acts like a halo car for the rest of the brand, and can boost overall sales.
To give these modern primitives a chance to shine, we took them off-road. In the sloppy, rocky and bouncing hills that make up Lidsdale and Marangaroo, our aim was to: a) see how these modern primitives handle a day on the tracks; and b) push this new Wrangler as hard as we could go off-road. Jeep does call it the most capable, after all.
Let’s get to the point: all three of these vehicles are impressively capable off-road, and well deserving of their respective status and heritage. Live axles give away refinement points like Kyrgios during a dummy-spit, but there really is something to be said about the stability and flex they give for off-roading.
While independent front suspension utes are good, I still think these vehicles are better.
The Troopcarrier feels the least happy in steep and heavily rutted terrain. It’s a tall rig, and the GXL specification scores locking differentials.
The leaf/coil suspension is tuned more for that 900-odd kilogram payload and 3.5-tonne towing capacity instead of outright flex and off-camber stability. You’ll notice this mostly when taking on the steeper and more technical challenges.
While it’s still very accomplished, this kind of 4WDing isn’t the strength of the Troopcarrier.
Throw it in the desert or plough your way up hundreds of kilometres of deserted beach in the Top End, and you’ll probably think this LandCruiser is the best thing in the world. And you might be right.
While the Wrangler and Troopcarrier both have locking differentials, all three vehicles benefit from smartly tuned off-road traction-control systems. This technology hasn’t made locking differentials redundant, but a good system certainly knocks on that door.
Because the Jimny is so light, its lack of locking diffs isn’t worth being too worried about, for two reasons. Firstly, that weight. Compared to a 2325kg Troopcarrier or 1992kg Wrangler, simple physics tells you that the Jimny is much less likely to break traction.
Secondly, the driveline of the Jimny is one that does need a little speed to get into the sweet spot. Reduction in the transfer case isn’t huge, and the engine needs to be above 2000rpm to feel happy.
At that speed, you’re at a little more of a crawl, and then increased wheel speed means the traction control responds quickly to brake spinning wheels.
The Jimny feels fun and enthusiastic to drive off-road; something like the off-road version of a budget track car. It might not have the big credentials on paper, but it’s designed and engineered in a way to get the very best out of what it has.
Sure, those all-terrains help out, but they only augment a solid foundation of capability. Did I mention how fun this thing is?
While there were vehicles designed and built previously that did have all four wheels driven, nothing really nailed the 4x4 brief until the arrival of the Willys MB ‘Jeep’. It came about through government tender during the lead-up to WWII.
The War Department wanted something smaller and more capable than its current range of trucks, so it solicited tenders from manufacturers.
Here’s Uncle Sam’s wish list: It needed to be a 4x4 three-seater, with a fold-down windscreen and a 115Nm engine. The dimensions were a 47-inch wheel-track, 80-inch wheelbase, 300kg payload and 590kg vehicle weight.
After a very short period of gestation, the original Jeep was born in 1940. The original manufacturer, Bantam, was too small a company to handle the vast quantity the War Department was demanding, so Willys and Ford were also contracted to build.
It was a raging, raging success. For the war, an estimated 1.5 million 4WD vehicles were built in the USA.
That original ‘Jeep’ is a powerful legacy, and one that the modern Jeep brand holds onto very closely. It still lives on with the Wrangler to this day, with the seven-slot grille, wide fenders and boxy shape making it unmistakable in today’s landscape.
It’s not just an exercise in looks; the Wrangler is staunchly still a 4x4 under the skin.
That concoction of additional Rubicon party tricks means the Wrangler is immensely capable in rough, steep, rutted and seriously challenging terrain. Our final challenge, the ascent up to Mount Walker, was going to put this to the ultimate test.
This is the kind of track a standard 4WD would not attempt, especially considering it has been a little bit wet in places. It’s a steep and shaly climb, with off-camber steps and big steps to negotiate.
Along with being a thorough test for the raw clearance any vehicle has, it will also thoroughly examine your protection, stability, articulation, and ability to hold traction.
I didn’t know if we were going to be able to do it. I was worried, too. It’s a very challenging track, and there is a decent chance of something going wrong and damage being done.
Not good when it’s your own car, but worse when it’s somebody else’s. Aired down to 16psi, and with the cameras rolling, we had to at least give it a try.
The going was tough, and we had to make constant small adjustments to our line to search for that last little iota of traction and clearance, and made it halfway with only a little track building.
But right at the end, we were pretty well stuck. Both ends were trying to climb a rock step, with the front one being particularly sheer.
We didn’t have the clearance to tackle the steps head on, so we were trying to thread our way across at a bit of an angle. Rather than climbing, the car was sliding sideways and back as wheels grappled on the edge.
At this point, I was pretty sure we were finished. My mind turned towards the equally butt-clenching job of reversing back down where we had been.
Maybe it was pondering that job when we resolved for one more crack. I had the brake pedal almost touching the firewall, with only snippets of track visible from inside. Poor Dom and Mike toiled like Egyptian slaves, packing rocks under the wheels and into holes.
After pulling a tricky five-point manoeuvre to get myself further across the steps and at the right angle, we all held our breath. I fed steady throttle in, hoping it was enough to grab traction, but not enough to spit out the rocks.
It churned in one spot for a moment, and then lurched forward. The front end was over, and the rear followed. We were up! We got the Wrangler up to the trig point (and a great view of the surrounding country), and we enjoyed the moment before turning tail and heading home.
Would the other vehicles have made it up? Maybe. But probably not, and with a decent risk of damage. While stuff like mud-terrain tyres, locking diffs and a disconnecting swaybar are all very cool and quite effective, the unsung hero in this test was no doubt the protection.
While the Wrangler does have good clearance around the vulnerable sills and rear quarters, having steel rock sliders and bash plates underneath was the difference between continuing to grind our way up the mountain or conceding defeat.
Is the Wrangler the most capable production SUV ever? I can’t say for sure, but it’s definitely right at the pointy end.
Like the LandCruiser and Jimny, the Wrangler is gripping firmly onto its iconic design and engineering.
That’s bad news for modern things like safety, handling and refinement, but it’s good news for those who want a Wrangler. A real Wrangler.