❝TAKE THE PROG­ENY OF A MOUN­TAIN GOAT AND A SPI­DER, MECHANISE IT, ADD SEATS❞

RICHARD LANE RE­VEALS JEEP’S TOP-SE­CRET FOR­MULA FOR CRE­AT­ING THE WRAN­GLER RUBICON

Autocar - - THIS WEEK -

This is the equiv­a­lent of a hot lap of the Nür­bur­gring for those of a knob­bly tyred dis­po­si­tion

You’ll know La­guna Seca: the glo­ri­ous Cal­i­for­nia race­track whose legend is built on turn eight – aka the Corkscrew. A freak­ish left-han­der taken blind, it plunges car and driver al­most six storeys with a vi­ciously steep sweep to the right. Dis­tort­ing and with end­less scope for er­ror, it’s nev­er­the­less done, dusted and be­hind you af­ter a few in­tense sec­onds. At least un­til the next lap.

Now imag­ine driv­ing a Tar­ma­crip­per up and down the Corkscrew ev­ery day for a week, then sprin­kling the track with knee-high gran­ite rocks. Some of th­ese rocks are sharp with dark, flinty edges but oth­ers are glass-smooth and slip­pery. Many are damp, and all are spread out in­con­sis­tently atop a shift­ing soup of smaller stones and mud. Re­place the azure sky with a gloomy canopy of aro­matic Dou­glas fir. Nar­row the breadth of the track from five car­widths to barely one and spo­rad­i­cally es­ca­late the down­hill gra­di­ent to a stom­ach-churn­ing de­gree. For­get about phone re­cep­tion – you’ve had pre­cisely noth­ing for hours. There’s no quick and easy way out of here, so try to re­lax into the emul­sion of sun cream and dust daubed across your face, neck and arms. Take a deep breath, then ease off a brake pedal sus­pend­ing two tonnes of metal, plas­tic and BF Goodrich rub­ber.

Wel­come to the Rubicon Trail. The pedal in ques­tion is at­tached to the lat­est, Jl-gen­er­a­tion Jeep Wran­gler – gen­tly tweaked, sub­stan­tially im­proved but, to every­body’s re­lief, fun­da­men­tally un­al­tered from be­fore – and what you’ve just imag­ined is a stretch known as Cadil­lac Hill. In essence, this is 15 sweaty-palmed min­utes of war­ily man­ag­ing grav­ity in such a way that ma­chine isn’t un­nec­es­sar­ily dam­aged or beached en­tirely by your own in­ep­ti­tude. It’s one rea­son why the trail as a whole is re­garded as the tough­est off-road chal­lenge in the world – a hot lap of the Nür­bur­gring for those of a knob­bly tyred dis­po­si­tion – and were it any eas­ier, it’d be a dis­ap­point­ment. The prospect of axle-break­age looms large here. More so if you’re driv­ing a Land Rover, say some par­ti­san but pleas­ant lo­cals we encounter. Be­cause of the re­mote­ness of this point, an hour’s drive south of Reno in the El Do­rado moun­tain range, even mi­nor mal­adies can mean an overnight stay be­fore a ‘trail re­pair’ can be made. Like many a wilder­ness, it is spec­tac­u­larly pretty at times,

but it’s equally bru­tal all of the time. Jeep’s as­so­ci­a­tion with the place goes back to 1953. It was then the first or­gan­ised tour left Ge­orge­town, a tiny set­tle­ment es­tab­lished a cen­tury ear­lier as a camp for hope­ful gold rush­ers. Dur­ing two days of what must at times have felt like an in­tol­er­a­bly hard slog, more than 50 ‘CJ’ Jeeps – pop­u­lar among Sec­ond World War vet­er­ans – ini­ti­ated an an­nual tra­di­tion that ex­ists to this day in the form of the Jeep­ers Jam­boree. Modern-day tours can num­ber 400 cars, each sub­tly re­mould­ing the trail with ev­ery turn of their wheels.

To­day it’s our turn, and our ma­chin­ery is in­ter­est­ing for two rea­sons. First is that we’re deal­ing with the Wran­gler Rubicon, which is the lat­est, most hard­core model you can buy in fac­tory spec. The stan­dard car is enor­mously ca­pa­ble but here you get Dana 44 solid axles (not just stronger than be­fore, but also wider, so the turn­ing cir­cle is fam­ily-hatch tight), mas­sively flared arches for 33in all-ter­rain tyres and an ul­tra-low-range gear­box. Jeep says this is the only car in the world that’s ca­pa­ble of tack­ling the trail in stan­dard form. Suzuki may beg to dif­fer. Mercedes, too, al­though one of our col­leagues – a 4x4 spe­cial­ist from a re­spected Ger­man ti­tle – con­cedes you’d dis­cover a G-wa­gen’s un­pro­tected sills in a ter­ri­bly sorry state come the end of the day.

But that is a group test for an­other time. Right now, the JL gen­er­a­tion feels a lot slicker than its pre­de­ces­sor. Drop­ping the wind­screen f lat his­tor­i­cally al­lowed the Willys and Ford-built Jeeps to be shipped more eas­ily to con­flict zones and it’s al­ways been a hall­mark of the model. It was al­ways fid­dly, too, and al­though ours is erected to help stave off end­less plumes of dust, fold­ing the thing is now a mat­ter of re­mov­ing a mere four bolts in­stead of 28. Like­wise, peel­ing back the can­vas roof (a hard-top is avail­able) isn’t quite MX-5 easy, but it’s close. We have it drawn over for shade. The car’s spa­cious in­te­rior still uses bulky switchgear but the ma­te­ri­als are now much nicer, and there’s some proper ‘con­nec­tiv­ity’, too, along with an 8.4in touch­screen.

The sec­ond rea­son is more sub­jec­tive, and it’s why we’re out in the Cal­i­for­nian wilds in the first place. In Europe, the Wran­gler is mostly a style state­ment. Driv­ing one on the same soil Jeep uses for de­vel­op­ment pur­poses re­minds us that were we to take the prog­eny of a moun­tain goat and a spi­der, then some­how mechanise and add comfy seats, this is what you’d be left with. Like pluck­ing a mid-en­gined Fer­rari out of Lon­don’s con­ges­tion zone and de­posit­ing it at Fio­rano, not only does such a sin­gle-minded car make much more sense out here, it’s duly blow­ing our minds with its pro­fi­ciency.

What we don’t have are doors, and out here that’s just lovely. Use­ful too. There are sec­tions where the rock banks are so threat­en­ingly nar­row that side­wall brushes stone and

We’ve cov­ered 7.4 miles at less than walk­ing pace with an av­er­age econ­omy of 5.6mpg

you could eas­ily peel an arch open. Tilt­ing your head out helps you bet­ter guide the car’s lad­der chas­sis and ap­pre­ci­ate the vast wheel ar­tic­u­la­tion on of­fer – vaster still if you’ve pressed the but­ton that dis­con­nects the front anti-roll bar. The trick is to meet larger rocks with wheel rather than un­der­car­riage – 44 grate­fully re­ceived de­grees of ap­proach an­gle per­mits this – and, if nec­es­sary, let the so-called rock rails take the blow. They screech and scrape aw­fully, but fail­ure to pro­ceed in this man­ner leaves one Jeep jacked up on an air cush­ion so the guides can crawl un­der­neath and re­move a rock crimp­ing the trans­mis­sion-coolant line. Sim­i­lar to track driv­ing, you’ve got to let the car do the work, which in this case comes cour­tesy of a 2.0-litre tur­bocharged petrol with 268bhp and 295lb ft. It’s all sent through an eight­speed au­to­matic and au­to­matic – but switch­able – lock­ing diffs, which we en­gage for the steeper, dustier stretches when wheel­spin crops up. Do that and you may as well be rid­ing a trav­e­la­tor, so ef­fort­lessly does the Jeep haul it­self on­ward and up­ward.

By force of road-test­ing habit, I re­set the trip com­puter in the morn­ing. Ar­riv­ing at Rubicon Springs – an eerily still and quiet idyll, not­with­stand­ing the oc­ca­sional black bear – the fig­ures tell their own story. We’ve cov­ered 7.4 miles at less than walk­ing pace with an av­er­age econ­omy of 5.6mpg. It’s been ex­haust­ing, the phys­i­cal de­mands out­weighed by the men­tal drain of plot­ting the per­fect course inch by inch. But it has been colos­sal fun. In fact, even for some­body more ex­cited by Cup 2s than crawl ra­tios, it’s not dif­fi­cult to see why you might in­vest heav­ily in the hard­ware to go nowhere in par­tic­u­lar at a glacial pace. Es­pe­cially so when the hard­ware is as iconic as a Wran­gler, and the nowhere hap­pens to be this ex­tra­or­di­nary cor­ner of the High Sierra.

The nights are cold, es­pe­cially with no doors

Rock, dust and mud: all in a day’s work for those beefy 33in tyres

Smooth stretch of Tar­mac comes as a blessed re­lief

Lose the can­vas roof to feel even closer to na­ture

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