Rubicon or Sport? - 2012 Jeep Wrangler Long-Term Road Test

2012 Jeep Wrangler: Rubicon or Sport?

April 18, 2012


Our 2012 Jeep Wrangler has been back prowling the streets of LA for a couple of days now, but I've only just been able to sit down and summarize its performance in Moab.  

The big question is this: Did we do the right thing by buying a Wrangler Sport instead of a Rubicon? I've gone an back and forth on the question in my own head, but after Moab I'm certain: For us, at least, a Wrangler Sport was the right move.

The first issue is price, of course. The MSRP of a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Sport with a manual transmission like ours currently stands at $22,045. The 2-door Rubicon version goes for $29,995, almost $8,000 more. Add about $3,500 to each to get 4-door prices.

Lower payments never suck, and a lot can be done with that extra $8,000. A Wrangler Sport owner can spend some of it or none of it, at whatever pace suits their paycheck and priorities.

Of course their are interior cabin differences between the two, and the hard top, but I'm focusing on off-road equipment, the Jeepy stuff I'm assuming is particularly important to anyone considering a Rubicon.

Here's my take on each of the major differences.


TIRES: The Rubicon comes with bigger tires than a base Sport, but from what I saw in Moab few folks who take their Rubicons off road consider the OE tires to be big enough. 33-inch tires seem to be the unoffical minimum size and many Jeeps wore larger shoes than that. The ledges and steps of the Moab terrain favor bigger-than-stock rubber and the approach angle and clearance benefits they provide, but I think that's true in a lot of rocky places.

Also, I think Jeeps attract the sorts of buyers that like to personalize their wheels and tires whether they go off-road or not.

Advantage Sport -- If you're going to change the tires (and probably wheels) anyway, you might as well start off with throwaway steel wheels and skinny tires and save money.

2012 _Jeep_Wrangler_Modjeska_Peak_cloudy_f34_2.jpg  

SUSPENSION: I don't think I saw any stock-height Rubicons in Moab -- or Tierra Del Sol for that matter. Two- or Three-inch lift kits were everywhere, including the rental Jeeps. And Mopar tells me that lift kits are the number one hardware accessory they sell in terms of volume. It was certainly high on my list, after tires and wheels. 

Advantage Sport -- See tires, above. If you're going to lift it anyway, why pay more going in for something you're going to ultimately strip off and set aside?

At this point I'm not counting our tires, wheels or suspension lift against the $8,000 price differential because I'd have made those mods if I had started with a Rubicon or not. But I can't say that about the rest of my list.  

FRONT AXLE: Rubicons come with a beefier Dana 44 front axle, while the Sport and Sahara come with a Dana 30. All of them have a Dana 44 in back. The front axle difference can't be denied, but this is not a change that must absolutely be made before you head out. Oldtimers tell me that a Dana 30 will hold up just fine in skilled hands and a measured appraoch to difficult obstacles in vehicles that produce stock horsepower. I've been advised to not worry about it unless and until I get absolutely serious about going to tough spots often. 

Advantage Rubicon -- But Dana 44 upgrades are readily available for those of us with a Sport. If it turns out I need it, this is where a couple of that $8,000 could be directed. As for serious rock crawlers, they may want reinforced axles that are even MORE robust than a Dana 44, in which case the Rubicon axle advantage evaporates and this switches to a Sport advantage.




AXLE GEARING: Our Sport 6-speed comes with pitiful 3.21 gearing, and that was part of the reason why I couldn't creep as slowly as I wanted. These fuel economy specials are also a bit too tall when combined with the 33-inch tires we're now running; our 6-speed essentially drives like a 5-speed. Manual-equipped Rubicons come with 4.10 axle gears.

Thing is, we could have paid just $50 for 3.73 gears on our Sport if we had checked that box on the option sheet. In hindsight our failure to do that was a major mistake because it's going to cost me way more than $50 to get to that gearing now.

Advantage Rubicon -- A mere $50 for 3.73 gears in a Sport dilutes the case for the Rubicon on a pure axle gearing basis, but the Rubicon manual does come with 4.10 gears. Whichever ratio I choose, I'm going to have to spend some of my $8k savings here. If I had paid the $50 bucks up front for the 3.73s on our Sport I'd stand pat and be satisfied. 


TRANSFER CASE GEARING: A Rubicon comes with a 4-to-1 reduction in the transfer case. The Sport and Sahara come with a 2.72-to-1 reduction. This is huge. Of all the things I've listed so far this is the biggest deal. Low range is engaged whenever the going gets rough, and the difference between 4-to-1 and 2.72-to-1 is far more significant, percentage-wise, than the difference between my 3.21-to1 axle ratio and the 3.73-to-1 axle ratio I missed out on.

Advantage Rubicon: I simply must change my transfer case. With that change I might actually be able to live with my 3.21 axle gears. The transfer case dominates the crawl ratio math, after all.

First gear is 4.46 in both versions. But the Sport's 2.72-to-1 transfer case and 3.21 axle gears peg the overall crawl ratio at 38.9-to-1. Yucky. The Rubicon's 4-to-1 T-case and 4.10 axle gears return a 73.1-to-1 crawl ratio.

If I change the transfer case to 4-to-1 and do nothing else my first gear crawl ratio improves 47% to 57.3-to-1. Conversely, if I leave the T-case alone and go for 3.73 gears instead I only get a 16% improvement to 45.2-to-1. 4.10 gears bump that up to 49.7-to-1 by themselves.

Clearly the T-case change gives me the bigger boost, so that's what I need to look at first. And I only have to change one transfer case as opposed to two axles. 

If I still need or want more I can add the 3.73 gears after I change the transfer case and bump the crawl ratio up a bit more to 66.5-to-1. I'll also recover some highway driveability with this change.

LOCKING DIFFERENTIALS: Clearly, front and rear factory lockers are a Rubicon advantage. On the other hand, lockers can be overused and they aren't something that's automatically required for a given trail. Automatically locking up at the merest bump in the road can take the challenge out of things.

I'm the guy who drives as far as he can in 2WD before selecting 4WD, then goes as far as possible before engaging low range. Same for lockers (when I have them) and stabilizer bar disconnects. Trail running of this sort is supposed to be a challenge, a puzzle. Lockers should be looked at as a last resort feature to help out in a particularly tight spot.

But if you're going to have them it is nice to have factory ones integrated into the vehicle. 

Advantage Rubicon: I can retrofit lockers in my differentials using some of my $8,000. I'm thinking a rear locker is all I'll need at first. I can add one to the front later on if it becomes necessary.



FRONT STABILIZER BAR DISCONNECT: Another built in Rubicon feature that is convenient. Still, I can disconnect my end link with a pair of 18 mm wrenches in less than two minutes and achieve the same result. It's easy. And it turns out that at trail's end we're all waiting around for each other to air our tires back up to highway pressure with tiny compressors anyway. There's plenty of time for me to work my wrenches without holding anyone back. 

Advantage Rubicon (I suppose) -- But wrenches don't bother me and several low-price manual disconnects that employ a quick-release pin are out there. The electro-mechanical device on the Rubicon doesn't represent a lot of value for me. And though I don't share their views, I actually met a couple of Jeep conspiracy theorists that doubt the factory disconnect fully severs the stabilizer bar after all. Unable to see the workings inside the housing (see photo above), they installed manual pull-pin disconnects on their Rubicons just to make sure!

ROCK RAILS: Rubicons come with small, nicely integrated rock rails at the lower edge of the body, but many Jeepers prefer something more substantial. Aftermarket bolt-on rock rails are common and they only cost a couple of hundred. I'll have no problem eclipsing the OE Rubicon rock rails for two or three hundred bucks.

Advantage Sport -- The Rubicon OE rails are OK as far as they go, but beefier ones can be had in the aftermarket for cheap.


All of the above is based on my personal desire to tinker with my machine. I enjoy it. I like the idea of making something that suits me, and I don't like paying for (and making monthly payments on) parts I'm likely to discard early on such as facotory tires, wheels and suspension bits. 

I do like going off-road, and the terrain in my neck of the woods tends to be rocky, so the clearance, tires and low range gearing are important to me. On the other hand, my need for lockers is not absolute. I can see myself getting by without them. Well, two of them, anyway. I'm pretty confident I can get the running gear hardware I'm targeting for far less than $8,000. 

If all of this sounds like too much hassle, time or calories, by all means the Rubicon is a very capable machine that includes a lot of well executed and well considered off-road hardware. It's a great vehicle on its own and a great modding starting point if you don't mind spending the extra upfront money. I saw plenty of Rubicons running around quite capably with nothing more than bigger tires and a lift kit. 

There are no wrong answers here. Jeep's Wrangler lineup truly does have something for everybody. I'm still happy we went with a Wrangler Sport.

I just wish we had spent the extra $50 for 3.73 axles in our Wrangler Sport, is all. How did we miss that?

Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 14,432 miles  

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