If you’ve ever noticed that some Jeeps carry a subtle Trail Rated badge on their fenders, it’s actually there for a reason. No, it’s not some kind of marketing hype, but indicates that the particular Jeep model has met five standards of performance established by Jeep engineers. These include traction, water fording, maneuverability, articulation, and ground clearance.
While Jeep tests their vehicles all over the world, one of the most grueling and challenging places they put their Trail Rated Jeeps through their paces is the infamous Rubicon Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The trail’s history goes back to the late nineteenth century when it was used as a stagecoach route.
Since the 1950s, Jeep enthusiasts have been using the trail to test the limits of their off-roaders and even accessing the trail requires more than a four-by-four. Rather, if you want to see the unparalleled beauty of the Sierra Nevada, you need to be driving something with legitimate off road chops.
There’s nary a stretch of the Rubicon Trail that allows for speeds over a few miles an hour because it’s an endless series of obstacles – steep climbs and descents, boulders to be clambered over, sand, gravel, and even water to be forded – all in the lowest gearing possible. Enthusiasts know it as one of the toughest, if not the single most difficult off road trail anywhere around the globe.
While serious off roaders will build their own rides to tackle the Rubicon Trail, from lightly modified Jeeps to out of this world tube-framed customs, we’re going to attempt to traverse the Trail with a brand new, factory original, Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
There’s no question that this latest Wrangler is the best iteration Jeep’s ever produced, but developing this all-new model for 2018 was a potential minefield for both designers and engineers. For any vehicle, regardless of its pedigree or raison d’être, there is always pressure to make it more fuel-efficient and modernize it, and for Jeep, it’s even more perilous. If they stray too far from the Wrangler’s core character, they’ll be hearing from Jeep’s rather large and loyal customer base.
The Wrangler’s always been designed as a capable off roader first and with creature comforts being a distant secondary consideration. Among all modern vehicles, the Jeep Wrangler is something truly unique and this all-new JL (that’s what the cool kids call the 2018+ generation Wrangler) strikes the perfect balance across off-road performance capability, safety enhancements, on-road usability, improved fuel consumption, passenger comfort, infotainment, and maintaining that elusive Wrangler character that customers love.
In fact, it looks so much like a Wrangler that you have to look carefully to discern this latest model from one of the previous generation. In that way, it’s not too different so that it pleases the faithful, but it has all of the right improvements that everyone can appreciate – things like a backup camera, passive and active safety systems, a massively improved turning circle. It’s easier to drive around town and has more modern electronics, including Jeep’s latest infotainment unit, which remains one of the best and easily accessible systems in the business.
For those who like the open air experience a Wrangler provides, the doors come more easily and there are roof options that suit a range of needs, but all you really know is that you can go from buttoned up to fully topless and doorless in a matter of minutes.
Still, the base model Wrangler does all of the things it’s supposed to do, and it does them much better than the old JK. There’s more ground clearance and more overall clearance for off-roading – those important approach, breakover, and departure angles – as well as the ability to ford thirty inches of water.
We’ve already tested the new Wrangler and you can learn a bit more in our first drive story.
The Rubicon has always been the most off-road oriented Wrangler available and it takes the improvements of the JL and optimizes the Wrangler for more serious off road performance. While the engines remain the same (there’s the familiar 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 along with an all-new and quite excellent 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder), the Rubicon has a two-speed transfer case with two-high, four-high, and four-low ranges. Front and rear axles are lockable by way of a dash mounted switch and, in that same vein, the front sway bar can be disconnected by the push of a button.
Naturally, there are robust skid plates like all Wranglers have, but the Rubicon has a set of tough rock rails to protect the rocker panels. You can also identify a Rubicon by its red tow hooks and 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 tires. In all, it’s not too different from any other Wrangler and still very livable on road.
Over two days of traversing the twelve-mile Rubicon Trail, I drove two different Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicons, the difference being the style of roof. My preference is for the Sky One-Touch top, which is a powered, full length, canvas retractable roof panel. It’s best for day-to-day driving simply for its ease of use. Both Rubicons had their doors removed, which is easy since they’re made of aluminum now, and replaced by a basic pair of mirrors that bolt through the door hinges. Clever.
Dropping the top and doors creates a motoring experience unlike any other modern vehicle and that’s core to the joy of driving a Wrangler. There’s a sense of freedom and the exposure to the elements that makes each drive more of an occasion – which is in complete contrast to rolling around in an air-conditioned, leather-lined, mall-spec crossover.
But when you’re off-road and it touch with the elements, you get to experience the scenery directly and the Rubicon Trail has some epic views – particularly once you arrive at the top of a mountain, ridge, or cliff, after a grueling climb.
There are incredible ascents and descents filled not with simple rocks, but rather what you’d consider boulders, and more than once during the trip across the trail, you’d think that some of them were Jeep-sized.
The Wrangler’s Hill Descent Control, sort of like off-road cruise control, can be useful, but here on the Rubicon Trail, the conditions are so gnarly that there were very few sections that had consistent surfaces where the system could be used. The Trail is so littered with huge rocks and drops—from large sections of granite jutting out of the earth to massive sections of boulders—that even hiking it on foot would be an ordeal.
To crawl up the endless rocks and steep climbs—whether it’s another boulder or a rough, vaguely marked trail up the side of a mountain—and then creep down the steep drops on the other side, tests the full capabilities of the Wrangler Rubicon. Four wheel low range and first gear is standard operation procedure, and when the Trail gets difficult, a simple push of a button disconnects the front sway bar, and the flick of a switch allows you to lock the rear or front and rear axles.
Plenty of times along the trip, a section of the Trail looked absolutely insurmountable, but yet with careful judgment of tire placement and taking advantage of the Wrangler’s capabilities, its raw traction has it climbing over some of the most unimaginable passes. Some of the sections are so daunting, that you think there’s simply no way a straight-out-of-the-showroom Wrangler is going to climb that house-sized pile of rock…and yet it does.
Still that’s not to say the Rubicon Trail is a gimme for the Wrangler because it’s unfathomably difficult. There are plenty of challenging passages along the Trail where I’ll scrape skid plates or drop my Rubicon Unlimited onto another boulder and, well, add some character lines onto the Wrangler’s rock rails or steel bumpers.
While I try to take some pride in minimizing the dents, dings, and gouges gathered along the way, it was truly impossible to avoid them. And to be honest, I’d rather drive a Wrangler that’s been properly thrashed on an impossibly difficult route like the Rubicon Trail, where each scar is a reminder of a wonderfully rewarding trip off the beaten path.
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