Off-road test: Jeep's Wrangler Rubicon slings some serious mud

Colin Smith
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Photos / Colin Smith


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Talking about off-roaders can be a lot like discussing fast cars. How fast is really fast, and how dirty is considered off-road? They have different meanings to different people.

Modern SUVs come in all strengths from urban pretenders to an elite handful of intrepid explorers. And it’s easy to place exactly where the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon belongs in that pecking order.

In the new vehicle market, anything more capable than the Rubicon requires scouring through the 4x4 aftermarket catalogues and websites for hardcore off-road componentry and embarking on some modifications.

When Jeep offered a chance to road test the new JL generation Wrangler I asked if it would be possible to try it off-road. That was a good call because it led to a very enjoyable day of driving.

Jeep U-Connect sat-nav led me up Auckland’s northwest motorway while listening to chunky tread tyre noise but pleasantly surprised by the Wrangler’s settled highway ride and wide tyre stance. Stopping for coffee at Waimauku revealed a slow turning circle.

Highway and shopping centre compromises weren’t my focus on this day. I headed to Auckland’s wild west in search of the Rubicon’s happy place.

The navigation was locked and loaded for the Auckland off-road Adventure Park in the Woodhill Forest. It’s a 1000-hectare section of the west coast production pine forest and sand dunes which has a dual role as the regional home for off-roading.

About 100km of trails network the park, ranging from main forest access roads with a gravel base to steep hill climbs, soft sand, clay tracks and mud bogs that challenge 4x4 club members and their tough vehicles.

The park caters for leisure driving, driver training, corporate events and 4x4 competitions. Night time runs are a popular attraction. My guide for a few hours was park operator Roger Winslade who developed the 4x4 facilities at Woodhill over the past 10 years. We headed on to tracks with high ratio four-wheel-drive selected, and mud terrain tyres biting into the sandy forest roads.

I wanted to knock some of the rustiness off my too-long-idle off-road driving experience: go places an owner could reasonably expect to tackle with minimal chance of damaging their Rubicon.

Heavy rain about 48 hours earlier hadn’t had much effect on the main tracks. But some of the clay areas were extra slippery and there had been plenty of water running down some of the steep, narrow, rutted tracks.

When they got steeper it was time to stop and engage low ratio. We didn’t go anywhere that required the front diff to be locked but I did lock-up the rear diff on a deep rutted hill climb section and made use of the electronic front sway bar disconnect to provide a little more axle articulation on a rutted descent.

It’s easy to nudge the gearshift lever across into manual model and lock it into first for maximum -geared control on steeper descents.

In the rough stuff the Rubicon had several advantages over popular double cab 4x4 Utes — notably its solid front axle and locking front diff along with much less rear overhang. It crawled over some steeper terrain where I expected the rear to make contact, but clearance was maintained.

There are clever electronics at work. A couple of times I could feel a wheel in the air and momentum being lost and applying more throttle initially only provided wheelspin. The electronic traction control took over and secured some bite which kept me moving forward.

The specific hardware that separates the Rubicon from other Wrangler models includes the Rock-Trac 4x4 system, True-Lock front and rear differentials, heavy duty Dana axles, lower gearing and the sway bar disconnect system.

The Rubicon has more ground clearance than other Wrangler Unlimited variants, along with rock protection side rails and it rides on 17in alloy wheels with 255/75 R17 — or 32in tall — BF. Goodrich Mud Terrain tyres. There’s also a winch-capable steel front bumper and the addition of a 240-amp alternator and high capacity 700-amp battery. Power for all JL Wrangler variants is provided by the familiar 3.6L Pentastar V6 petrol engine with 209kW output and 347Nm of torque.

New for the JL generation is a smooth-shifting and responsive eight-speed automatic transmission which provided excellent response on the motorway and the low gearing to crawl across the rough stuff at a touch above idle with immediate response when a burst of V6 grunt is needed.

Towards the end of my Woodhill exploration I got a chance to run the Rubicon around a lap of a newly opened 3.6km sand loop, popular with UTV enthusiasts.

In New Zealand the JL Jeep Wrangler line-up includes short wheelbase (two-door) versions of the entry-level Sport S and high-grade Overland while the four-door, long wheelbase Unlimited body style is offered in Sport S, Overland and Rubicon grades.

Pricing starts at $67,900 and the Rubicon in four-door Unlimited configuration tops the range at $92,900.

A Rubicon luxury pack option costing $4000 adds leather seats and trim, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel and body colour fender flares.

When the Woodhill experience was over, I shifted the Rubicon back into rear-drive and turned back on to Highway 16 heading south again.

I had experienced what any Rubicon owner could confidently attempt, with some expert advice, and returned home with a vehicle requiring only a good wash.

The Rubicon is the Wrangler of choice for any adventurous rough stuff with an impressive ability to transition from showroom shine to filthy trailblazer anytime you stop to open the forest gate and engage four-wheel-drive.

Click here to view all Jeep Wrangler listings on Driven

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