Since I started driving my 1991 Jeep Wrangler at age 15, I’ve wanted to make a pilgrimage to Jeepers’ own Mecca: Moab Utah. 15 years, a wife and two kids later, I finally got around to planning a trip out there. We pinged Jeep, thinking maybe they’d hand over the keys to a diesel Grand Cherokee or an ugly-but-maybe-good 2014 Cherokee. Instead they offered an ostensibly terrible road-trip vehicle: a Wrangler Rubicon. With a soft top.
To drive the 2650 mile round trip from Fremont to Moab in a soft-top Wrangler sounds more like a sentence than an opportunity. Maybe “mission” is the appropriate word: survive a week-long road trip camping and offroading with one and three year old kids and the wife.
It’s easy to justify a Wrangler as a toy; a fun purchase unbound by a rational explanation. Easy if you’ve got that kind of cash lying around, that is. For the rest of us, the more things a vehicle’s good at, the easier it is to take home. Then again, too much compromise leads to failure. Our trip gave us a chance to see if the stretched Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon works as a serious trail machine, family hauler, both, or neither.
As soon as our Orange Crush Unlimited showed up, I yanked out the carpets, unbolted the doors and headed to the nearest 4×4 park for some hard-core off-roading. That is, of course, a complete lie. Instead I hopped inside to play touchy-feely with the interior bits. The 2011 remodel is a welcome update over the previous interior of this Wrangler “JK” generation. There’s no luxury, but it seems less phoned in than before. I could empty the entire contents of my cargo shorts into readily available cubbies and pockets. The cutouts for aux or 12V cords in the console lid suggest someone put some thought into how things actually get used, though I’m still not used to center-mounted window switches. While you’re mocking the idea of power windows in a “hard core” Wrangler, be sure to mention the power locks, five-speed automatic and air conditioning.
I’m of the opinion Jeeps are supposed to have lousy stereos. Despite its $495 price, the upgraded U-Connect Stereo delivered, but not in the lovably tinny fashion of the stock AM/FM in my ’91 Wrangler. Instead, it sounded muffled and bass-heavy, probably courtesy of the silly subwoofer that occupied trunk space better dedicated to a high-lift jack. The navigation interface is a generation behind current systems and two behind the Google Navigation built into my phone. Conclusion? Get the base stereo and the best phone mount you can find.
The premium soft top is light years ahead of previous generations, making freeway conversations a raised voice, rather than “shout until you’re hoarse” activity. Loud fabric flapping only happens in the air wake of a semi. The tinted windows reduce the tent/plastic bag feel, too. High fives to the designers and engineers for pulling that off, but their work’s not done. Opening the back window remains a five-step affair involving reluctant zippers and grimy plastic tabs, one that dirties the hands and nearly pulls off a fingernail every time. The hardtop remains the better option for civilized use.
The rear seats are awkwardly upright, without the ability to recline or sufficient padding. Luckily that didn’t matter for my two kids, who are still in car seats. The younger’s rear-facing seat fit without forcing the front seat too far forward or upright, a rare feature in anything short of a large crossover or minivan. Additionally, there’s an unexpectedly large amount of space under the seats, enough for all of our shoes and a few soft-sided lunch boxes.
Second to the quiet soft top, the volume of the cargo area was the Wrangler Unlimited’s biggest surprise. The advertised rear cargo volume is 31.5 cubic feet, which translates to nine days worth of bags, camping gear, offroad basics fitting without blocking rear visibility. We don’t pack lightly, either. The tie-downs are nice, but moving them closer to the outsides of the cargo floor and/or up on the wheel wells would prevent them from being instantly buried by the load you’re trying to tie down. I’ll once again gripe about the subwoofer, just to drive the point home.
The 3.6L 24V Pentastar’s 285hp are best described as “very adequate”, i.e. as powerful as possible without feeling fast. In character, it feels similar to Toyota’s VZ or GR truck V6s. After 2650 miles, we drank on par with the Monroney’s 18mpg. As with every Wrangler I’ve had before, slow-moving traffic provides the best mileage and high-speed freeway jaunts the worst. It’ll cruise comfortably anywhere from 55 to 80mph, it’s just a matter of how much fuel you care to burn.
It’s been seven years since the 4.0L was laid to rest, but every Jeep reviewer is obligated to mention it, a diesel, and “just dropping in a Hemi” when discussing powertrains. In order, here we go: the 4.0L would be hopelessly outmatched if saddled with the JK’s extra 1,200lbs. A diesel Jeep seems like a great idea, but I’d rather have an extra $4,500 and the ability to drop to 2nd gear, rev to 6,000rpm and pass someone on a grade. Lastly, a HEMI…actually makes sense in the Unlimited. Assuming the drivetrain were up to snuff, a torque-focused, cylinder-deactivation-equipped HEMI would give more power across the board, a bump in towing capacity, and probably similar highway mileage.
Our Unlimited tester has front and rear locking differentials, push-button front sway bar disconnect, 4:1 low range gearing in the transfer case, legit mud tires, and functional rock rails (that like to catch pebbles). Prior to the Rubicon Edition’s introduction in 2003, this was the first $5,000 you’d spend on a Wrangler for serious off-roading. I had two concerns taking ours to a hardcore trail in Moab: the pitiful breakover angle and getting in trouble due overconfidence on my behalf while out ‘wheeling alone.
Our first dirt adventure was taking the long, dusty way to and from Dead Horse Point. Without issue, we climbed 1,500 ft up in windows-up, air-conditioned comfort despite mid-80s exterior temps. In this situation, the Rubicon’s 37psi tires and robust suspension worked against us. It’s a great example of what you don’t need a Rubicon for, as we followed our guide – my Uncle Jim– in his stock Liberty with 18″ wheels and all-season tires. A sidebar on Uncle Jim: for over 20 years he’s been wringing incredible feats from stock 4x4s in off-pavement adventures all around Moab. He’s done this for fun and in the service of the US Census Bureau, where he was sent to check for new/unknown habitations in remote areas. He’s a constant counter-point to those compelled to have a “built” 4×4 before they do anything offroad.
Knowing we couldn’t leave Moab without using our Rubicon properly, we hit the Fins and Things trail literally on our way out of town. My concerns about a low-hanging middle-section were well founded, but I was pleasantly surprised by how robust and well-placed the skidplates were. Despite a couple of grimace-inducing hits to the underside, there was no damage to be found. Otherwise, the trail’s steep drop-offs and climbs presented no real challenge to the Rubicon. A less capable 4×4 with no lockers or super low-range probably would’ve run the same lines, but there’s something to be said for no-drama crawling when the whole family’s on board. With a whole day of driving left and no one to lend a tow, this wasn’t the time to find the Rubicon’s limits.
Now back to the
lecture questions at hand. Is the Rubicon Unlimited incredibly capable off-road? Yes, but if I were doing a lot of hardcore stuff, I’d go with a a small lift, 35″ tires, and maybe lower gears. Starting at $34,000 – and usually out the door at more like $37,500 – the Rubicon is nice, but likely overkill for the Uncle Jims of the world. For those who regularly hit the dirt, but aren’t looking for extreme obstacles or challenges, starting with a Sport at $25,000 and adding only what’s necessary would still give a very capable platform (as Zach Bowman can attest) while saving thousands.
Does it actually work as a family vehicle? Lest we not fool ourselves too much, remember that a Wrangler Unlimited would come in dead last in any comparison of midsize five-seat crossovers in typical real-world use. It’s loud, thirsty, and has suspension designed for Border Control agents. For AWD and and a high seating position, Kamil’s got a suggestion for you. The now-neutered Pathfinder also reminds us that while the Jeep’s high-30s price tag seems expensive for a vehicle that one might upgrade with a sawzall, it’s mid-pack for today’s family hauler options. All of that said, yes, it still works as a full-time family car. There’s tons of room, easy ingress/egress, and all the creature comforts of an early-’00s SUV. Need further proof? At mile 2,000 of 2,600, while the kids were asleep in the back, The Missus and I were having a serious conversation about whether we’d replace her Mazda5 Mom Car with a Wrangler Unlimited.
Disclaimer/Disclosure: I’m a long-time “Jeep Guy”, and will readily admit my bias over other clearly inferior 4×4 brands. We told Jeep we were going to Moab, they offered a Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited for as long as I needed for the trip.