Think the Jeep Wrangler is too soft? Annoyed by the gentle shifts, the too-smooth ride, the car-like interior? Try the Rubicon with a stick-shift and the term “soft-roader” will instantly leave your mind.
Sure, if you get an automatic, the Wrangler Unlimited is comfortable and smooth; but something feels wrong. It's too civilized. Get the stick-shift Rubicon, and that problem will disappear.
It is amazing to hear and feel the same V6 used in the Town & Country minivans when it's in the Jeep Wrangler. Any pretense towards civility, except for the comfortable seats and out-of-place stereo, is gone; the engine is gruff, roaring at relatively low speeds, sounding more like the old 4.0 than the 3.8 in other cars. The clutch is smooth, but the stick has a nice long throw, and takes muscle to get into place; it's exactly what it should be, except for a surplus of gears and the placement of reverse. In a non-performance vehicle, five speeds seems to be the sweet spot between constant shifting and optimized performance; the Jeep has six, with a narrow range, so you can be doing around-town speeds in sixth gear, though it'll mean downshifting for power.
The reverse gear is badly placed, especially for a six-speed, all the way off to the right, instead of being conveniently on the left, and there is no lockout mechanism, so it is possibly to grind 'em while seeking sixth... or to get into fourth in a search for sixth. That said, the transmission now has a capable ally in the hill holder system; if you have to start on the way up a hill, the brakes will stay on for two or three seconds while you let out the clutch, preventing the rollback which can make some manual-transmission drivers nervous on hills.
The raw feel of the stick is accentuated by the ride of the Rubicon off-road package. With its oversized wheels, off-road tires, and heightened suspension, the Rubicon is twitchy on the highway, and passengers bounce on even mildly rough roads. It retains much of the tight turning radius of the standard Wrangler, but it's harder to drive on-road. Engage the four wheel drive, and, as one would expect, the turning radius suddenly widens, awkwardly; that's a characteristic of mechanical four wheel drive systems, as opposed to fluid-coupling all wheel drive. The low-gear four wheel drive is designed for severe use, with a ratio of over 70:1. It comes in handy for severe snow spots, but normal people won't use it on-road or on-driveway (for that matter, its use off-road is likely to be fairly unusual).
While the Wrangler Unlimited was created with off-roading in mind, the Rubicon was set up for dedicated off-roaders, packaging in numerous additions which real Jeepers have often added on their own. That includes special, huge tires, a higher suspension, and skid plates; the front air dam is removable for a better approach angle and the fenders are a matte black to minimize collision damage in tight spots. The Rubicon is a good choice for those who are truly dedicated to off-roading or who live in inaccessible lands, but its optimization for forest and quarry make it somewhat unsuitable for living on paved roads.
The standard Wrangler Unlimited is far more streetable; the lower height makes entry and exit easier and improves cornering and real-world gas mileage; it makes driving far easier. For those who need a Jeep to drive through heavy snow and over dirt roads with the odd mud-hole, the Wrangler Unlimited Sport or Sahara is the more sensible choice, not to mention much, much cheaper.
Around town, even the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is relatively civil; the off-road tires are only a bit noisier than usual. Though busy and bouncy, the ride is cushioned, a more pleasant experience than past Rubicons. Confidence around turns is increased, though intelligent drivers will probably not test the Rubicon's road adhesion around sharp turns. The electronic stability control adds a bit of extra cornering capacity, presumably preventing some rollovers.
The old straight-six was loud, rough, and brutish, giving a nice kick when provoked, and we loved it. The 3.8 liter engine, which has been around in one form or the other since the early 1990s (it's still new compared with the 4.0), has less torque, especially in the lower revs. Many are disappointed in the loss of some trademark Jeep engine (which remained reliable and powerful to the end); get the automatic, and the car feels much softer and gentler, and you are likely to miss the low-end torque more and use the high-rev horsepower less. But the manual transmission, to a degree, makes up for it.
Acceleration was decent; the engine pulled fairly steadily through its range, without surging, though on the highway it had to be pushed past 3,500 rpm to get passing power. Flat-out speed runs are not especially enjoyable. Wrangler is rewarding in other ways.
The stick itself doesn't feel like any mainstream shifter; hold one during idle, and you can feel the engine vibrate. Hold on while you're driving, and it'll bounce and jerk around in your hand; you can watch it jerking back and forth on its own, mechanically attached to the chassis while the cab is more cushioned. Again, getting the manual transmission adds to the mechanical feel and flavor of the Jeep, stripping away decades of car-refinement. Which isn't to say the Willys people wouldn't have made their Jeeps feel like Buicks if they'd been able to.
When we stuck to moderate acceleration, our gas mileage shot up to EPA estimates; instant acceleration was still just a downshift and stomp away. Gas mileage is fairly poor (15 city, 19 highway), but that's normal for this kind of vehicle. Part of the problem is the shape, which is not aerodynamic and hurts highway mileage; part is the weight of all the four wheel drive gear, which hurts city mileage by adding a lot of inertia. Pure-highway mileage can go as high as 23 mpg; slower speeds, e.g. 55 or 65 mph, help economy and reduce wind noise considerably.
Unlike the base Hummer H3, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited can go uphill quite easily, even with the heavier Rubicon trim. The 3.8 liter V6 had power to spare; whereas in our test of the Hummer H3, with a manual transmission, we found even mild hills slowing us down to 55 mph or less, and downshifting helped but did not allow us to keep pace with twenty year old Ford Aspires. The Wrangler did not have this problem and could maintain speed even in sixth.
The dashboard is modern-nondescript, though the Wrangler screams for a key-in-the-dash and a dash-mounted headlight knob. Gauges are small but clear, with a 100 mph speedometer and 7,000 rpm tachometer (the redline is just over 5,600 rpm, so both gauges have some wasted space), a gas gauge and thermometer, and standard analog pointers with a plain, legible typeface and white backlighting. Away from the gauges, backlighting is the traditional green; the central power window controls were only marked by two tiny, dark green lights at night and, in general, night-time control labels could have been far better. Dome lights are kept in the light/stereo bar above and behind the driver's head, and in another roll bar behind the passengers; interior lighting is not up to car standards but is far better than in past Wranglers.
On the passenger side of the dashboard, a grab bar is the most distinctive feature, with a capacious glove compartment underneath; passengers may appreciate the lack of impediments to their view out the front. Other storage is kept between the seats, in a fairly sizeable console that can easily swallow up a 35mm camera with a long lens; and small map compartments in the front doors. Rear passengers just get fabric map pockets, on the backs of the front seats.
Controls are car-conventional, with a Toyota-style cruise control stalk, a headlamp stalk, and a front-and-rear wiper stalk. The door lock switch is a poor design — black color in a sea of black plastic, not lit at night, and protected on each side by a same-color barrier; the locks are also relatively hard to use and non-intuitive, leaving one to wish for the old-fashioned plungers to match the old-fashioned exterior handles, or, at least, locks that aren't surrounded by plastic and look different when they're locked vs unlocked.
The trip computer shows average or instant gas mileage, distance to empty, a compass/temperature; and the odometer/trip odometer is on separately on the other side. The control button (a single button) is awkwardly positioned on the gauge cluster, and reaching requires a stretch around the steering wheel and turn signal stalk; on the other side, the end of the wiper/washer control stalk is somewhat impeded by the center stack barrier. Digital transmission temperature, antifreeze temperature, oil temperature, and tire pressure readouts would be handy for off-roading.
The climate control itself is a mix of knobs (for vent position, fan, and heat) with tiny pushbuttons for a/c, rear defrost, and recirculate. The fan is a bit noisy, but heat blasts out quickly after the engine is started, and quickly gets so hot that even on a cold day it hurts at full strength. The Wrangler still has one of the fastest heaters of any car we've driven.
The four wheel drive system is activated by a traditional stick-shift, easy to move between RWD and 4x4 high but hard to get into low gear; a 4:1 multiplier is used in low gear, for maximum mobility. The sway bar disconnect (for increased wheel travel at very low speeds) and axle lock buttons were bright and visible at the bottom of the stack, next to the hazard flashers. Disconnecting the sway bar took the Rubicon's score on a 20-degree RTI ramp from 484 to 644, so it's a useful feature for rock climbers who need maximum suspension travel.
The corporate stereo is used, with an optional navigation system and music-holding hard drive in our test vehicle; UConnect (cell phone integration) controls are built into the stereo head unit. Those in the hinterlands may appreciate the optional satellite radio, integrated into the system and providing over a hundred channels of high-quality music and standard-quality talk. Sound reproduction is far better than in the prior generation, with a pair of tweeters poking out of the dash to provide stereo separation, and the woofers once again in the roll bar; but frankly, once you're over city speeds, sound reproduction is an issue because of the ambient noise. The sound is balanced for front row seats, and those in the rear may not like what they get as much. A problem we noticed in 2007 with satellite radio signals disappearing frequently seems to have been fixed.
The navigation system stereo unit has a built in hard drive, which is a great convenience, like taking an iPod Classic along with you everywhere; for some people, it can store an entire music collection. However, this option came with just one physical knob, so that changing anything requires numerous glances off the road and at the buttons. Soft buttons are pretty to look at, but you do have to look at them; you can't just brush around with your hand until you find them. (Though soon you will.) We believe that the cost of this stereo in eyes-off-the-road distraction is higher than its merit and suggest going with the standard unit, which integrates satellite radio.
As with past Jeeps, it's easy to get any computer error codes for troubleshooting; just move the key back and forth three times and they'll show up on the odometer. For fun and to check bulbs and gauge functions, you can also turn the key to the on position while holding down the trip odometer button.
Storage includes small map pockets in both front doors, the glove compartment, a big, deep center console, primitive cupholders in front and rear, and a compartment underneath the cargo area. There's also the cargo area itself, a decently sized area behind the rear seat; the seats flip and fold easily, creating a fairly huge, mainly flat cargo bay in back (the headrests automatically swing away to help the seats fold without pushing the front seats all the way forward.)
Jeep doors are designed to be removed easily, and have not, in the past, had power locks or windows. Our test car had power locks and windows, but keeping the traditional simple hinge with the traditional fabric "stop" to prevent the doors from opening all the way and hitting the fenders. Jeep simply put a plug into the wiring so it can be detached and kept the manually adjusted mirrors. The wiring is clever in that it is incorporated into the fabric door travel limiter, which has an extra hook to avoid damaging the wiring; but taking the doors off is by no means as simple and easy as in the past. That's probably not a major issue, since most people never take them off, and for good reason.
Getting to the cargo bay requires opening the rear door, swinging it open – noticing that it swings in a way that blocks you from loading anything from the sidewalk – and flipping up the rear window, making sure you remember to flip it down again before shutting the door. (Obviously when the top does not have a rear window, that step is unnecessary.)
Several roof combinations are sold; the most fun and biggest pain is the standard fabric, which is not easy to take off and put back on, but is easier than it was in past years. Visibility is decent enough with the optional hardtop, with a smaller than usual pillar blind-spot; the spare tire adds another, albeit small, blind spot. The fabric roof has, ironically, a larger blind spot. Headlights are quite bright; the rear view mirrors are fairly large, but there is no remote adjustment for either one and the glass is stiff and hard to move.
Our test Wranglers had the "Freedom" roof: a removable hardtop, with roof sections above the driver and passenger seats that can be removed and stored in two segments. Removing both parts takes less than a minute; putting them back on can take the same time if you remember which goes where and line it up just right, so that the screw goes back in (I suspect most owners will eventually keep the screws in the glove compartment since the roof seems to stay on without it). The freedom top sections can be stowed behind the front seats, if the back seats are flipped and folded. One nice feature of the hardtop roof is the far superior sound insulation it provides; and vehicles equipped with it still come with a fabric top, which awkwardly takes up space in the cargo area. Wind and other-car noise is obviously far higher with the fabric (or no) roof.
Removing the hardtop roof is possible but someone time consuming, and of course you need a place to store it. Wiring must be removed, the rear glass removed and stored, and Torx screws taken out; it's not a horrific job and presumably most people will only do it once a year, to switch over to winter driving.
Front and rear wipers are the traditional tiny size, which helps the blades to last a long time without losing effectiveness, and also increases their ability to deal with snow and ice on the nearly (but not quite) flat windshield and rear window. The rear window has a defroster with a special heating element underneath the wiper blade; in the front, there's no special wiper defroster, but probably none is needed.
Sun visors have been greatly improved; swinging them out now works with the hard roof, they are larger than before, and they don't seem to get in the way when you take off the Freedom Top roof segments. Also new to us is the ability to pull the visors on their mount so you can slide them towards you and block the sun as needed.
The rear seats have plenty of room for kids and the LATCH loops are right in the open. Once inside, the seat belt - mounted a good distance behind the rear seat - may be hard to get on (even for adults), and tends to go into "lock mode" easily. That said, getting into the rear seats is easy for adults, with wide-opening doors.
The hood has an unusual external-latch system which no doubt contributes to the aerodynamic drag of the car, but is valued by some; there's no hood lock, you just undo the two hinges and the safety catch and it's open.
The 2010 Wrangler Unlimited starts at $24,160 (rear wheel drive), but the Rubicon model lists at a full $32,800; that includes four wheel drive, normally sold at a $2,000 premium. The extra cash goes mainly to off-road gear; we're talking Dana 44 heavy-duty front and rear axles, transfer case with extra low gear, skid plates and shields, locking front and rear differentials, front and rear tow hooks, padded roll bars, removable soft top, swing-away mirrors, electronic roll mitigation, front sway-bar disconnection, rock rails, 255/75R17 off-road tires, fog lights, and a full-size spare mounted on the rear.
Fancy-pants, frilly, flatlander stuff includes air conditioning, power doors, windows, and locks, stability and traction control, cruise control, SentryKey, variable intermittent wipers, height-adjustable driver's seat, folding rear seat, 368-watt stereo with seven speakers (plus subwoofer) and audio jack (iPod) input, tachometer, tilt wheel, metal doors, extra 12-volt power outlet, leather-wrapped steering wheel, split folding rear seat, tinted windows, and covered storage. The Rubicon comes with a soft top standard; it's easy to remove, if a bit time consuming to put back on again.
The power locks and windows with alarm were optional in 2007; once sold for $800, they are now included with the Rubicon, along with deep tinted windows (once $300) and satellite radio (once $200).
Our test vehicle two options. One was the Dual Top (hard roof and fabric roof) at $1,625; it includes a rear wiper/washer and defroster. The other was the fancy stereo, a $1,550 option that included a 30 gigabyte hard disk for holding over 4,000 songs, a 6.5 inch touch screen display, a wireless phone system, navigation system, and traffic alerts/automatic trip rerouting. This jacked up the price to $35,975 including destination.
Jeep Wranglers are made in Toledo, Ohio, their traditional home; the transmission, presumably a Getrag, is German, but the engine is made in the U.S., and 79% of the content is from the U.S. and Canada. The Wrangler got five star front crash test ratings, was not side-crash tested (side airbags are optional), and got three stars for rollover resistance.
The Rubicon is a great off road machine, but if you didn't immediately said “wow!” at the ability to disconnect the sway bar, we think the standard Wrangler Unlimited Sport 4x4 will make you much happier. Just get it with a stick-shift...that's the way a Jeep should be.
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