In a world of soft-road-only car-based crossovers, the Wrangler is a tough-as-nails off-road expert. Four-wheel drive is standard, as are a 285-hp 3.6-liter V-6 and a six-speed manual; a five-speed automatic is optional. Two- and four-door “Unlimited” models are offered, both with a choice of soft or hard convertible tops. The Rubicon gets front and rear locking differentials, a 4.0:1 low-gear ratio, and a disconnecting front anti-roll bar for wheel articulation and rock-crawling prowess.
When a collection of hardcore off-road-duty parts came together in the TJ version of the Jeep Wrangler, it was as if every four-wheeler’s dream list of components had been built into Jeep’s most capable platform. And for more than a decade since, the Wrangler Rubicon has been the benchmark 4WD SUV.
Today’s Rubicon package adds hardware such as Dana 44 axles, a 4:1 transfer case for easy slow-speed crawling, and a swaybar disconnect system to free up the suspension when the Jeep needs additional suspension flex on the toughest trails. For 2015 there’s a new Hard Rock version of the Rubicon that includes blacked-out trim, tough bumpers with removable end caps, red tow hooks and rock rails to protect the sides of body tub. Also for 2015, all Wranglers receive a new Torx tool kit that includes all the tools needed to remove roofs, doors, and those bumper cap ends.
True to form—and slightly hamstrung by a green engine—this Wrangler wheezed its way to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, 0.6 to 0.8 second slower than the aforementioned Rubicons (which had the advantage of 4.10:1 axles) and passed through the quarter-mile mark in 16.6 seconds at 83 mph. Braking from 70 mph required 209 feet, five feet more than both of the Rubicons, and the most it could muster in lateral grip was 0.63 g, splitting the difference between the knobby-tired Rubicons (0.61) and a short-wheelbase Wrangler Sahara (0.65) that we also tested in 2012.
Not only are the numbers modest, but also seeking out this Jeep’s on-road limits can be rather terrifying as speeds and g-forces climb. Our test driver complained of dull, lifeless steering, copious body roll, and a soft brake pedal at our Mojave Desert testing site, all of which became more than theoretical when we struggled to keep pace with him on our journey back to civilization. Granted, we were trying to follow a Porsche 911, but the Wrangler’s exaggerated body motions, intrusive stability control, and tires that always feel underinflated by 10 psi would have made keeping up with a Toyota Sienna a white-knuckle affair. It’s probably a good thing that the stability control steps in early and often, to prevent the driver from overcooking it.
On the highway, aerodynamics and ride choppiness are issues. Getting to 80 mph requires 15.2 seconds; lifting off the throttle at 80 mph erases speed so quickly it’s like tapping the brake pedal. Add a little crosswind and steering the Wrangler becomes a busy exercise. At that speed, the ride quality borders on traumatic. At any speed over 60 mph, the cacophony renders the optional Alpine sound system an utter waste of $945.
And yet, the Wrangler remains utterly charming. The complete opposite of a sports car, the Wrangler Unlimited delivers fun in its own way. When driven slowly, the bouncy ride can be experienced as whimsical. Remove the roof panels, and it’s a tanning salon. Take off the doors, and it’s a new-friend magnet. Fold the windshield—not a great idea on the road but amazing off-road—and you’ll experience the great outdoors in a way only a dirt bike can approach.