The short-wheelbase Wrangler Rubicon is making a short comeback to Australia in 2021, with only 40 vehicles making up a 100-strong contingent of ‘Recon’ special-edition models.
And we’ve got a 2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon in short-wheelbase guise to put through its paces off-road.
Keen readers will recognise the car from Kez’s review in January, which stuck mostly to living with, and driving, the Wrangler around town. It’s an important aspect to consider, especially when most buyers will spend a majority of their time in the cut and thrust of daily life.
|2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon SWB|
|Engine||3.6-litre naturally aspirated petrol V6|
|Power and torque||209kW at 6400rpm, 347Nm at 4100rpm|
|Drive type||Part-time 4x4 with automatic mode|
|Fuel claim, combined (ADR)||9.6L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||13.5L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating (year tested)||3 stars (2019)|
|Warranty (years/km)||Five years/100,000km|
|Main competitors||Ford Ranger Raptor, Toyota LandCruiser 70 Series, Suzuki Jimny|
|Price as tested (excl. on-road costs)||$66,950|
However, a Rubicon-badged Wrangler is screaming to be tested off-road. So, we booked in some additional quality time up in Sydney.
Rubicon specification dates back to 2003 and the TJ Wrangler, when Jeep first started adding popular off-road modifications straight from the factory to further improve the Wrangler’s off-road ability.
Named after the famously challenging, rocky track on the California-Nevada border, first versions of the Rubicon gained a 4:1 low-range transfer case, taller all-terrain tyres, stronger locking differentials front and rear, tweaked suspension and rock sliders for protection.
Many would argue this short wheelbase is the iconic Wrangler in its most – dare I use the term – pure form. And Rubicon is undoubtedly the most compelling.
However, most Australian buyers have ended up in a long-wheelbase Unlimited variant.
The first so-called ‘Unlimited’ Wranglers back in the days of TJ were a stretched two-door. It wasn’t until the JK Unlimited – which arrived in 2007 – that we saw Wranglers with a second set of seats and doors.
Australians weren’t treated to any Rubicon until the JK Wrangler, in both long (Unlimited) and short (Limited) wheelbase formats.
As long-wheelbase sales quickly dwarfed those of the shorty, Jeep Australia only brought in five-door variants of the new JL Rubicon a few years back. Short-wheelbase vehicles restricted to less off-road-focussed variants.
But you small, faithful troupe of two-door lovers, prepare for a short and sweet taste of 2459mm (96.8 inch) wheelbase life in 2021.
|2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Recon Short Wheelbase|
|Transfer case ratio||4:1|
|Approach, departure, rampover angles||42°, 31°, 27°|
|Listed ground clearance||255mm|
|Tyre size (diameter)||LT255/75 R17 (32.1 inches)|
Only available in this Recon specification, our tester has an asking price of $66,950 before on-road costs. It sits alongside a $71,450 long-wheelbase Unlimited Recon Rubicon, and gets a few exterior tweaks: black grille and bonnet details, painted 17-inch alloy wheels and some extra badging.
More importantly, Rubicon Recon gets a modular-design steel front bar. The small front hoop is removable, as are the wings if you’re chasing every bit of clearance possible. The bar has a couple of red recovery hooks mounted on top, but it isn’t winch-compatible.
Rubicon goodies mimic that first iteration from 2003: there is a 4:1 low-range transfer case, which equates to a 77:1 crawl ratio. LT255/75 R17 BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tyres are amongst the best rubber you’ll see on a showroom floor, but they aren’t as good (or as big) as what is offered overseas.
Front and rear differentials are bigger Dana units with electronic locking centres, and the front swaybar has an electronic disconnect function. This makes the coil-sprung live axles, with control arms and Panhard rods, terrifically stable and flexy off-road.
Sturdy rock sliders and underbody bash plates make for good overall protection, but you’ll need to be going pretty hard to use them because clearance is overall very good. Jeep lists ground clearance at 255mm, and there are 42° approach, 27° breakover and 31° departure angles.
And the turning circle of 10.5m shows how nimble this short-wheelbase Wrangler is. It’s helpful around the city, but it’s also very handy off-road.
Worth noting, we started running out of departure angle in some pretty steep and extreme scenarios, scraping the muffler and numberplate mount. The numberplate is particularly in the firing line, but no permanent damage was done.
This time-honoured combination of a ladder chassis, live axles and coil springs not only sets the Wrangler apart from a forever-modernising automotive world – where comfort, refinement and safety are paramount – it also leaves the Wrangler as a perfect choice for those keen to modify and personalise.
Thanks to a massive and vibrant international aftermarket scene for the Wrangler, your choices for modification are virtually endless.
Even if you're hell-bent on modification, I'd suggest getting out and driving this Wrangler stock-standard for a little while. Because you'll get to know the limitations of the Wrangler much better, and you'll also appreciate how good this thing is straight out of the box.
When you spend a lot of your time driving dual-cab utes and wagons with long wheelbases, you tend to forget just how good a short-wheelbase rig like this Wrangler can be off-road. Its nimble ability and clearance make it both potent and fun, and improved massively by the class-leading traction and stability on offer from the Rubicon package.
We were quick to earmark a challenging track called Ranger Bob’s in Newnes Plateau, whose rock steps and steep angles would provide a great test. And as we soon found out, the Wrangler was more than up to the challenge.
Despite plenty of rain making the track soggy and slippery, the Wrangler barely scrabbled on steep steps. So good, Sal the photographer missed his chance for a shot on one big sandstone step, and needed me to go back and do it again.
Second time along, the Jeep didn't do it so easily. Perhaps because we dragged a bit of water onto the sandstone, and made it much slipperier.
Further along the track, we started running out of clearance around the differentials because of the deep wheel ruts. A bit of back-and-forth, and helped by the Maxtrax, we were able to clamber over on a dodgy side angle, but the Jeep felt impressively solid from behind the wheel.
The wheel track of 1598mm isn’t as wide as a Ranger Raptor (1710mm), but is plenty enough to lend a sense of stability and sure-footedness in situations like this. And it’s a very big part of why this Wrangler is so good off-road, and how secure it feels from behind the wheel.
Low transfer case and differential gearing allow for slow, controlled driving. And while Australia might be one of the last bastions of dedicated diesel buyers, it's difficult to criticise the 3.6-litre Pentastar petrol engine for this application.
A shorty Wrangler is vastly different to a Gladiator, which has a bit more scope of space and payload for long-distance driving and towing. In this case of day trips, weekends away and hard tracks, the 209kW/347Nm petrol engine gets plenty of off-idle torque from gearing, but also has easily accessible power and wheel speed for when you need a surge in momentum.
From the driver’s seat, I was quite worried on one section: turning full-lock to point back up the hill, I had to negotiate a big drop-off before I could turn the Wrangler in the right direction. I couldn’t turn any earlier, because of the deep wheel ruts and a big hunk of sandstone in the way.
However, the Wrangler once again impressed. With all of the party tricks engaged, and with that tight turning circle, I was able to make an easy job of the challenge.
The only negative I experienced was a soft-feeling brake pedal at times on steep angles, pushing almost to the floor before getting enough brake pressure to hold the car. The problem went away when back on the flat, but caught me off-guard a couple of times as I jumped from one pedal to another on tight sections.
While we did manage to squeeze kids in the second row of the Wrangler around town, and throw some groceries in the boot, the interior is best described as pokey. But, that kind of compromise comes with the territory, and it feels silly to criticise a small car for being small.
Up front, it's plenty comfortable enough, and has great amenities like a big and crisp infotainment display, comfortable heated seats with manual adjustment, and a heated steering wheel with plenty of controls.
The ride is a classic shorty experience as well. The damping is good, but the short gap between front and rear wheels means it inevitably bobs and skips over bumps, jostling occupants along the way.
The BFGoodrich mud-terrain tyres certainly hum loudly at highway speeds, and grumble slightly at low speeds, but if you're a keen 4WDer, it's more than worth it for how good they are off-road.
That's the summary of this Wrangler. It's a pointed machine built to do one thing very well at the expense of many others. It's a true enthusiast's car, and a cheap form of motorsport for those keen to test their mettle behind the wheel in tough conditions.
With only 40 short-wheelbase Rubicons coming to Australia, I imagine they will be quickly snapped up by keen devotees of the Jeep brand and shorty lifestyle, whose decision will have been made long ago.