CRISS-CROSS THE RUBICON

The coming teak-tough Wrangler tack­les its name­sake Cal­i­for­nian trail

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Front Page - CRAIG DUFF

The crunch of rock meet­ing metal re­bounds through the cabin as we drop off a me­tre-high ledge. Im­pacts like that are typ­i­cally chas­sis­crack­ing, yet the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon doesn’t flinch. We do that on its be­half, then wince at the squeal of scrap­ing skid pans as the four-wheel drive res­o­lutely inches its way along the in­fa­mous Rubicon Trail.

The boul­der-strewn track tra­verses 35km of the rugged Sierra Ne­vada re­gion on Cal­i­for­nia’s eastern fringe. It is a rite of pas­sage for all trail­rated Jeep Wran­glers to assess their abil­ity to clam­ber over ob­sta­cles that would leave most 4WD ve­hi­cles drip­ping flu­ids.

The Rubicon vari­ant of the new JL Wrangler is an ab­so­lute ma­chine in this en­vi­ron­ment, whether in two or four-door guise. Ev­i­dence of Jeep’s faith in its abil­ity is the fact 24 mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ists — many with min­i­mal off-road ex­pe­ri­ence — are crawl­ing along the route.

The stats are in­sane: 280mm of ground clear­ance, an ap­proach an­gle of 44 de­grees, break-over an­gle of 27.8 de­grees (22 de­grees for four-door ver­sions), de­par­ture an­gle of 37 de­grees, wad­ing depth of 760mm and a crawl ra­tio of 77.2:1 (the pre­vi­ous model made do with 59:1), cou­pled to lock­ing front and rear diffs and elec­tronic sway-bar dis­con­nect.

With stan­dard un­der­body bash plates, side rock rails and steel front and rear bumpers, the Wrangler Rubicon is pur­pose-built to ne­go­ti­ate the mas­sive gran­ite steps and ex­posed tree roots we en­counter ev­ery few me­tres.

Our run cov­ers about half of the trail. It’s the easy half, though easy is a rel­a­tive term when you en­counter Cadil­lac Hill, named af­ter the rust­ing pan­els of a Caddy that plunged down the slope more than 80 years ago when the trail was a main­tained road lead­ing to a ho­tel at Rubicon Springs.

For the first new Wrangler in 11 years, Jeep has fo­cused on ex­tend­ing its ca­pa­bil­ity on the bi­tu­men and in the bush — and it has suc­ceeded.

The lad­der-frame chassis and live axles have been re­tained, though the Wrangler is now lighter, more aero­dy­namic (the kink in the grille slop­ing back to the bon­net helps with a 9 per cent im­prove­ment in aero) and more fuel-efficient.

The JL Wrangler is due in Aus­tralian deal­er­ships early next year and while there’s no of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment on which en­gines and trans­mis­sions we’ll get, lo­cal en­gine op­tions are tipped to be an up­dated 3.6-litre V6 or new 2.2-litre four-cylin­der turbo diesel, both ex­clu­sively pow­ered by an eight-speed auto.

In the US, en­gine op­tions are a 2.0-litre four­cylin­der turbo and a 3.0-litre V6 turbo diesel. They would add to the price and are not likely for Aus­tralia.

Equally, the six-speed man­ual isn’t ex­pected to be on the ta­ble for right-hand drive vari­ants. The UK is keener than Aus­tralia to get three­pedal ve­hi­cles but will miss out.

Chief engi­neer Brian Leys of­fered a “right” when queried whether that re­stric­tion ap­plied to Aus­tralia. Make of that what you will — non­com­mit­tal or af­fir­ma­tive.

Fiat Chrysler Asia-Pa­cific boss Steve Zan­lunghi is aim­ing for all Wran­glers to adopt au­ton­o­mous emer­gency brak­ing and blind-spot mon­i­tor­ing, which will keep ANCAP happy.

ON THE ROAD

I’ve driven light trucks with bet­ter bi­tu­men be­hav­iour than the out­go­ing JK Wrangler, which would wan­der around in its lane as soon as it en­coun­tered cam­ber or even a strip of rub­berised road sealant. Con­stant small steer­ing ad­just­ments were re­quired to keep it toe­ing the line and that quickly be­comes tir­ing and tire­some on longer jour­neys.

The elec­tro-me­chan­i­cal steer­ing on the new model goes a long way to­wards fix­ing the prob­lem without ri­valling a soft-roader SUV. The steer­ing is more di­rect just off cen­tre and the ten­dency to wan­der in the lane has been di­alled well down, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the Rubicon rides on 32-inch tyres.

Sealant, road joins and small dips still trans­mit back into the cabin but big­ger lumps are sim­ply ironed out as the sus­pen­sion starts to travel. That’s an ac­cept­able com­pro­mise when you con­sider how adept the Wrangler is as soon as you turn up a dirt road. If you are se­ri­ous about tack­ling the great out­doors, we’d rec­om­mend the Mopar 5cm sus­pen­sion lift kit us­ing Fox dampers.

Jeep Aus­tralia has yet to set a price for this ac­ces­sory but it costs $US1500 plus in­stal­la­tion in North Amer­ica; we’re guess­ing it will come to about $2500. If not, buy it on­line and ship it here for about $225.

The in­te­rior pack­ag­ing in­cludes an 8.4-inch in­fo­tain­ment screen with smart­phone mir­ror­ing.

FIRST DRIVE

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