For as long as I can remember, the words ‘Jeep’ and ‘off-road’ (as in ‘vehicle’) have been pretty much synonymous — a case where the brand name has, over time, surpassed its functional description (think ‘Kleenex’ and ‘tissues’). The storied history of the Jeep dates back to 1941, when the US Army commissioned two manufacturers, Willys-Overland Motors and Ford, to produce a 4×4 based on stringent specifications and tight production deadlines to be used for battlefield transportation. After the war, the two companies continued to make civilian versions but only Willys was able to use the term ‘Jeep’ after Ford unsuccessfully sued for the rights. The first four-wheel drive versions were dubbed CJ for Civilian Jeep. Eventually, decades later, high-end manufacturers such as Land Rover and Mercedes began to try and duplicate the 4×4 success of Jeep.
Over the years the brand has had many owners. After Willys was officially granted the trademark in 1950, Kaiser Motors, American Motors Corporation, Chrysler, Daimler Chrysler AG and now Chrysler Group LLC have all had their hands on the brand. The first generation Jeep Wrangler was dubbed the YJ and production ran from 1987 through 1995. After a one year hiatus, the second generation TJ ran from 1997 to 2006 and was available in SE trim (120hp 2.5-liter 4 cylinder) as well as X, Sport, Sahara and Rubicon models (190hp 4.0-liter V6 engine). The third generation Wrangler ran from 2007 to 2011 and featured a 3.8 V6 good for 202 hp, along with a 6-speed manual transmission, removable soft top, anti-lock brakes, multistage airbags, electronic roll mitigation and traction control. This body style successfully revitalized the brand, moving it from its hardcore off-roader niche to more of an everyman’s vehicle. We are currently in our 4th generation, born with the 2012 model year.
The 2013 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4×4represents the pinnacle of the brand’s current offerings– the most capable performance along with the most expensive trim. The Rubicon separates itself from the Sport, Sport S and Sahara with larger Dana 44 heavy duty axles front and rear, a 4:1 Rock Trak part-time 4WD system, front and rear Tru-Lok locking differentials, adjustable monotone shocks, sway-bar disconnect, a raised engine intake for traversing up to 30 inches of water and 32-inch off-road tires. The only real change for 2013 is that trailer sway damping is now standard and new wheels and an auto-dimming rear view mirror are in full effect.
Under the hood (which is accessed by way of rubber latches on the front just above the wheel wells) is a Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 which produces 285hp at 6400rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm. Gaining 85hp and 23 lb-ft of torque over the old 3.8-liter engine while adding 2 mpg on the highway is a significant improvement. This mill allows the 4,535 pound Jeep to sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. This might not seem exceptionally spry but it is still 3.9 seconds faster than the 3rd generation. Other improvements include a new exhaust system with better breathability, a variable speed electric fan for better cooling, an intake snorkel for improved water fording and the migration of the alternator higher on the engine block. This new engine is complemented by a five speed transmission which provides smooth shifts and better fuel economy; the 2013 Rubicon gets 16 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. Compared to the old grunting and groaning powerplant, the new engine seems downright tranquil.
Inside, the Jeep finally comes one step closer to successfully merging form and function for the masses. You can still spray out the floors and wipe down the dash with a washcloth but the refinement now provides things like heated seats, automatic climate controls, power mirrors, and steering wheel controls to operate the Alpine-sourced audio system. The SiriusXM Satellite Radio, a Garmin powered GPS navigation, 40 gig hard drive, Bluetooth streaming audio and phone connections are adequately displayed on the 6.5-inch touchscreen display. The UConnect voice recognition system is somewhat annoying but functional thanks to its understanding of basic commands. And folks who like to plug in and hook up lots of stuff will be encouraged by the 12-volt outlet and 115-volt AC power inverter located in the dash.
Safety features include the usual suspects like 4 wheel disc brakes, electronic stability control and traction control, along with extras like hill start assistance, trailer sway damping and a tire pressure monitoring system. Of particular note is the Downhill Assist which provides electronically controlled braking so that the driver can focus on navigating the terrain ahead.
The real mettle of the Rubicon is ably demonstrated by its off-loading ability. While we didn’t have a chance to put the Jeep through its paces on any seriously rough off-road terrain, we were able to take it through some fairly heavy mud and water during one of the rare torrential downpours in Southern California. A sprinkle in our fair city (LA) slows traffic down to a crawl thanks to the skittish and apprehensive drivers desensitized to the elements (like rain). So during real rainstorm conditions, the Rubicon was an absolute blast and I looked for random things to drive through and over. It tackles virtually everything with ease. The undercarriage is shielded to protect the transfer case and fuel tank with skid plates, and rock rails further protect the body on either side. While I didn’t have an opportunity to fully test the merits of this fortification, it was comforting to know that they were in place should the need arise.
When not enthusiastically looking for stuff to run over, the Rubicon is anything but subtle. The Unlimited version is big and brawny, measuring almost 2 feet longer than the two-door version, stands almost 6 feet tall, and takes a running jump and some high-knee acrobatics to mount unless you want to spring for the optional side step or Mopar Grab Handle. The tires have a loud hum, the cabin is super noisy, the ride can be jarring at times, the .61g of grip is almost scary and the braking performance is like slowing down a runaway semi. On the highway, the Rubicon is rambunctious and maintaining center lane position requires concentration. Like all boxy vehicles, gusts of wind feel like Andre the Giant is having some fun with his toy cars. Handling is questionable and steering feedback is muted thanks to the old school recirculating ball steering. But despite all that, the Rubicon stays true to its core and for that reason, all of these issues can be easily brushed aside.
The high ground clearance, steep approach and departure angles, proven 4 wheel drive system with 2WD and 4WD low-high ratios, and powerful low-range capabilities set the Rubicon apart from the majority of the vehicles on the road. Things like the electronic sway bar disconnect, which allows generous suspension travel for rock crawling without having to physically remove the sway bars, also further differentiates the Jeep. The design is purposely simple, rugged and functional. The doors swing open on basic hinges and can come off with ease. The same goes for the roof which releases with just a couple hand screws. And that’s just the start of the possible mods. Once you tap the Mopar parts bin or hit the aftermarket, all sorts of bumpers, winches, lighting options, spare-tire mounts, replacement tops, lift kits and much more can be had.
The base price of our 2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4×4 is $34,095. And with options including a tow package, slush mats, the 5-speed auto transmission, Black Sunrider soft top and Uconnect system with nav, our model topped out at $38,630 including the destination charge. This may seem expensive for something that is as unrefined and rough around the edges as the Rubicon, but what you’re getting is unparalleled functionality, a sturdy behemoth that loves challenging terrain, and a driving experience that provides great fun and, on occasion, thrills. Just keep in mind that your nice, quiet upscale sedan operates in an alternative reality.