The last time we tested a Jeep Wrangler — and gave it a not-so-flattering review — the wrath of the Wrangler community came down on our heads. Many suggested they would like to take us off-roading to some distant spot — and leave us there.
Here we are again, testing what has to be the most extreme Wrangler ever created, the 2003 Rubicon model. Rubicon is a reference to the treacherous California trail that is widely considered to be America’s most famous off-road playground. Like the Wrangler name, Rubicon is an icon to longtime Jeep enthusiasts.
Jeep boasts that this Toledo-built, limited-production Wrangler is an industry first for an automaker, since the vehicle has an off-road capability usually reserved for highly modified vehicles.
The Rubicon’s extra content is reflected in the price — a whopping $27,760 when you add amenities like a hard top, metal doors with roll-up windows and air conditioning.
She: I don’t think anyone would argue that the Wrangler Rubicon is ready for the trail, right out of the box. But I think our critique has to center on the claim made in the Rubicon’s press material that says, “As the four-wheel drive leader, the Jeep Wrangler is not only fully capable off-road, but is as fun to drive on-road.” I suppose the idea of fun starts right in your driveway, especially if you’re determined to do an impression of John Cleese from Monty Python doing the “Silly Walk” skit. I know it sounds superficial, given all the Rubicon’s impressive hardware, but it’s probably easier to ford a river in the Wrangler than haul yourself up into the front seat.
He: Well, lemme run right over to the river and try that, honey. Oops, I’m guessing you didn’t mean the Detroit River, which is difficult to Ford, er, ford. And you’re right about the Wrangler being less than user-friendly for everyday driving. As we’ve observed before, that appears to be part of the appeal. Only it seems that with the new Rubicon model, you’re paying even more for the privilege of driving one of the most primitive vehicles on the road today. Doesn’t matter. If you’re out in the woods or up in the mountains, and really want to reach that otherwise inaccessible cabin or stream, nobody does it much better than Jeep. Just don’t make me drive that Wrangler on the highway.
She: As far as looks and appeal to its audience, the Rubicon is a winner. I can always tell by the reaction of the local cops. One of the younger guys came by on a snowy morning and parked in our driveway for half an hour, mooning over the Wrangler. He was really taken with those massive 31-inch tires. They have a distinctive tread pattern that wraps around the sidewall to help grab ledges along the trail, according to Jeep. They are the largest tires offered from the factory on Wrangler, and off-roaders will be happy to discover they add an extra half-inch of ground clearance over the 30-inch tires. The Rubicon body graphics are fairly understated, but that Inca Gold exterior color will stand out like a beacon in the forest.
He: If you’re a serious off-roader, the Rubicon comes with lots of the right stuff — locking front and rear differentials, Dana 44 heavy-duty axles and a 4:1 low-range transfer case for gearing down to negotiate those really serious boulders and tree trunks. Skid plates protect the fuel tank and the transfer case, and front and rear tow hooks will help get you — or the other guys — out of trouble. That big 4.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine is pretty gutsy, too, delivering 190 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque through a five-speed manual gearbox.
She: I think there is more to the Wrangler’s appeal than just the hardware. It makes me think of the TV show “Survivor” and all of its spin-offs about overcoming the wilderness. Like “Survivor,” the Rubicon must touch some deep spiritual need in people that is unmet in contemporary society. How can you put a price tag on satisfying that sort of need?
He: You say “spiritual need,” I say “primordial urge,” especially when you consider how many teenagers still look at the Wrangler as a hot property. I think that’s what disturbs me most. This is still the last vehicle I want my kid driving — unless, of course, he or she is somewhere out in the woods traveling at something less than 20 miles an hour. This is not a good combination for younger, inexperienced drivers on the freeway or even bopping around town — not when our $27,760 test vehicle lacked side air bags, anti-lock brakes and other basic safety amenities to offset its short wheelbase, high center of gravity and relative lack of sheet metal to mitigate side impacts.
Off-highway, the Rubicon is a winner. On the road, it simply doesn’t measure up.
2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Type: Front-engine, four-wheel drive, four-passenger sport-utility vehicle
Price (Includes $610 destination charge): Base, $24,385; as tested, $27,760
Engine: 4.0-liter I-6; 190-hp; 235 lb-ft torque
EPA fuel economy: 16 mpg city/19 mpg highway
Key competitors: Chevrolet Tracker, Kia Sportage, Nissan XTerra, Suzuki Vitara, Ford Explorer Sport
12-month insurance cost (Estimated by AAA Michigan. Rates may vary depending on coverage and driving record): $1,395
Where built: Toledo, Ohio
Paul’s Vehicle rating: Subpar
Likes: Exceptional off-road capability for extreme conditions. $920 hard top cuts down on road noise. 5-speed heavy-duty transmission. Lots of character.
Dislikes: 4.0L I-6 sounds and feels coarse. Bouncy, uncomfortable ride. Not terribly civilized for everyday driving. Virtually no storage space. Little room for rear passengers. Some tire steer. Handles like a Jeep, requires delicate cornering. Visibility concerns with thick center pillar.
Anita’s Vehicle rating: Acceptable
Likes:Classic, rugged styling. Beefy 31-inch off-road tires, Rubicon graphics and diamond-plate sillprotectors. Simple, easy-to-use controls. New standard four-wheel disc brakes for improved stopping distance. Better seats with taller seat backs. 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty.
Dislikes: Jeep quality at BMW prices. No power adjustment for side mirrors. Ridiculously tall step-in height. Minimal safety features — no side air bags, no anti-lock brakes. Short on features — full metal doors with roll-up windows, air conditioning are optional.