- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

There are lots of sport utility vehicles pitched as dual-use, on-road/off-road vehicles Jeep's newest edition isn't one of them. Named after a California trail legendary for its ornery disposition, the Wrangler Rubicon is Jeep's most hard-core off-road machine.

Jeep designed its Rubicon by taking the things that serious off-roaders might retrofit onto their own vehicles and adding those features in-factory. The process yields a package with extreme versatility, right off the showroom floor. One stop, hard-rock shopping.

The Rubicon's purpose-built nature is evident in the list of standard equipment. Frame-mounted skid plates protect transfer case and fuel tank from rocks or stumps. Diamond plate sill guards wrap around the rocker panels for body shielding and structural support. Mounted on all four corners are chunky, 31-inch-tall Goodyear Wrangler MT/R tires, backed by standard, four-wheel disc brakes.

The Rubicon is powered by Jeep's 4-liter, inline six-cylinder, coupled with a five-speed manual transmission (four-speed automatic optional). It's rated at 190 horsepower with 235 foot-pounds of torque and has a healthy appetite for fuel (estimates of gas mileage 16/city, 19/highway).

The "Rock-Trac" transfer case is crawl-capable, with a low gear ratio of 4:1. The front and rear axles are beefy Dana 44's, with a set of stump-pulling 4.11:1 gears. A dash-mounted switch locks the rear axle and toggles on/off for the front. The 4x2/4x4 lever is just left and forward of the gearshift.

In practice, this gives the driver all of the tools needed to maximize grip where there is minimal traction. Angles of approach/ break-over/ departure measure 41.8/ 22.3/ 31.3 degrees respectively, and the running ground clearance is 8.8 inches. The Rubicon's compact dimensions (it measures just 155.4 inches long), means it can squeeze through surprisingly tight spaces. The combination of good, low-end torque; beefy tread; and heavy-duty, traction-assisting hardware make Rubicon close to unstoppable in off-road conditions. It rolls over moderate terrain with ease and will steadily chug through the toughest of trails.

Of course, anything this good off-road is bound to be a compromise on surface roads. The massive Goodyear tires chew through mud and snow like nobody's business, but they are noisy on pavement, and the added height of these tires does nothing to improve the cornering capability of the already high-profile, short-wheelbase 4x4 frame.

The Wrangler Rubicon's tall tires and ground clearance leave the vehicle's cabin higher to step into, so some drivers may want to purchase the optional side steps. All Wranglers have 2+2 seating. The "plus" depends on how large and how limber the prospective rear-seat occupants are and how long they plan on staying there.

With both seats set to carry people, there is precious little room to haul anything else. Storage space measures a meager 8.9 cubic feet. In a more typical setup, the rear bench will either be flipped forward (expanding cargo capacity to 41.5 cubic feet) or removed entirely (53.8 cubic feet).

My fully loaded ($28,030) test vehicle was fitted with the optional ($920) hard top. Hard hats for Wranglers have roll-up windows and add a bit of weatherproofing a plus during the single-digit cold snap that accompanied the Jeep to my driveway. The heater was able to keep the view clear during a snowy, sloppy patch of weather, which would be tougher in the standard soft-top model. On the other hand, although it's cumbersome to work with, the convertible top is a plus in sunny climes.

I asked Mike Gabriel, manager of Jeep vehicle development, where the inspiration came from for the Rubicon. "Primarily, it was from customer's very vocal desire to have a factory off-road rig with serious hardware."

Rubicon wasn't developed with any specific performance objectives in mind. "We knew what the vehicle could be capable of," said Mr. Gabriel, "so we said, 'let's make it as capable as we can without changing the vehicle's architecture.'

The objective was to make it easier to drive on trails we've struggled on before and go on trails we couldn't before."

In a world of SUVs that mostly never stray off the pavement, the Wrangler Rubicon is an exception. The manufacturer estimates that more than half of all small Jeeps spend at least some of their time in the dirt and Rubicon buyers likely will boost that percentage. In my opinion, this one's hard core.

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