For the preview of the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon to the automotive press, Jeep chose the La Salle Mountains, which lie directly outside of Moab, Utah. For those unfamiliar with this particular terrain, imagine the mountains of Mars, only more desolate, craggy and isolated. In the context of this imposing landscape, Jeep's latest product completely defied all of my preconceived notions of what a commercially sold vehicle is capable of. This praise is considerable coming from someone who has never previously appreciated the commercial application of Jeeps.
To put things in perspective, we tested the Unlimited Rubicon on a trail named "Hell's Revenge," which is operated by the Utah Bureau of Land Management. Surrounded on all sides by towering, petrified sand dunes, and pitted with jagged, "desert-varnished" canyons, the course that Jeep had set up for us more than lived up to its name. The company brought paramedics along for the ride, and it is a testament to the impeccable off-road capabilities of the Unlimited Rubicon that we didn't need them.
The preproduction vehicles that Jeep provided allowed us to crawl over mounds so steep that at times, I could only see the sky above me while driving. The engineers made much of the fact that the Unlimited Rubicon can negotiate 15 inches of water at 5 miles per hour. Indeed, we painlessly crossed innumerable gulches that John Wayne would have thought twice about traversing on horseback.
At one point, the engineers decided to show off the Unlimited Rubicon's full potential by straddling up two twin precipices which were elevated at about a 45-degree angle. This particular bit of the course was appropriately designated as "The Gates of Hell," and Jeep could not have paid me enough money to even sit in the backseat of the vehicle during this exercise.
Sure enough, the vehicle began to lose its footing about three-quarters of the way up, and many of us present were flabbergasted when the Unlimited Rubicon finally reached the party of gawking journalists at the top. Even though I later learned that this bit of tension was staged for dramatic effect, it did little to dispel the impression of true-blue ruggedness that the car made on me.
Pointing out the fact that the Unlimited Rubicon is difficult to get into and not at all comfortable to ride in seems beside the point. This car occupies a unique niche in the market and therefore has to be judged on its own terms.
The Unlimited Rubicon actually combines two separate Wrangler models — you guessed it — the Rubicon and the Unlimited, or as the people at Jeep were telling us, "chocolate and peanut butter." The standard Rubicon, introduced in 2003, was the most formidably equipped Jeep to date, with all sorts of features that provided a greatly enhanced off-road experience. The long-wheelbase Unlimited, introduced in 2004, added 15 inches to the standard Wrangler's overall length, resulting in greatly improved interior space.
With sales of the Rubicon up 30 percent last year, Jeep has apparently yielded to the most sordid fantasies of both its engineers and customers. In addition to the space increase of the Unlimited, the Rubicon hardware includes incredibly sturdy Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires, along with Dana 44 front and rear axles, a Rock-Trac transfer case and Tru-Lok locking front and rear differentials. In addition, the 4.0-liter Power Tech inline six, rated for 190 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque, is standard equipment.
Engineering Supervisor Jim Repp, who has a Jeep tattooed on his right bicep, describes the Rubicon Unlimited as his company's "image vehicle." Careful research revealed to the Jeep production team that serious off-roaders were adding up to $9,000 worth of aftermarket parts to enhance the performance of their Wranglers. The company decided to offer many of the most popular additions in a package that is much more consistently assembled than any custom job and is mass-produced to lower the overall cost.
With an MSRP of $28,825, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon comes in about $4,000 more than the base Unlimited and about $800 more than the standard Rubicon. In Jeep's mind, going for a factory-built Rubicon would save the average buyer several thousand dollars compared to outfitting a Jeep through the aftermarket, not to mention the time and energy involved in getting it all done. Needless to say, this vehicle could set a lot of mountain men's hearts ablaze when it appears in showrooms this December.
As you would expect, mileage isn't the Rubicon's strong point. The Unlimited Rubicon has an EPA highway rating of 18 miles per gallon and a 14 mpg city figure. Obviously, this is not the sort of vehicle that most sensible people would choose as their primary vehicle. But then again, I could only imagine a Utah park ranger or perhaps the "Crocodile Hunter" driving one of these on a daily basis.
Also, while you're wasting plenty of money on precious fuel when picking up the dry cleaning, you're guaranteed a choppy ride. In order for a car to perform as well as it does in death-defying situations, though, a lot of basic amenities have to be sacrificed. I, for one, would rather entrust my life to the Unlimited Rubicon in a treacherous situation, over any Bentley or Maybach. While bumpiness characterizes this particular sort of beast, the Unlimited Rubicon is certainly not a car intended for the faint of heart or sensitive of stomach.
When it comes to a Jeep's strengths, which are both plentiful and entirely singular, nothing can touch the Unlimited Rubicon. It more than defied my expectations in terms of its off-road capabilities and the ability to bring me from the "Gates of Hell" back to the hotel in one piece.