The 2015 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock is noisy, inefficient, floaty and bouncy — but like an ugly puppy, you can’t help but love it.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most iconic vehicles on the road today. Even though this latest model shares no parts with the original Willys Jeep that helped the Allies win World War II, the shapes, the mission and the image of the Wrangler remain the same: Go anywhere, anytime.
There are few vehicles in the world that can do what a Wrangler can do – take you to nearly any corner of the wilderness and navigate rush-hour traffic without undue stress. Even fewer can do it for the Wrangler’s sticker price. But as good as Wranglers are in the mud and on trails, do they work as daily drivers? Hundreds of thousands of people own and love them, but is buying one setting yourself up for disappointment?
For 2015, Jeep tweaked just a couple of things in the Wrangler, adding an optional nine-speaker Alpine sound system and changing out a few paint colors (compare the 2014 and 2015 models here). I spent a summer week with a new 2015 Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock two-door — Jeep’s top off-road-ready rock-crawler — to see what life with the dedicated 4×4 is like.
Park a Wrangler next to an original Jeep, and the resemblance is clear. The design has gotten significantly larger and safer over the years, but like the Porsche 911 and Volkswagen Beetle, there’s no mistaking the current Wrangler if you’ve seen its forebear.
My test model was a two-door Rubicon Hard Rock, the top-spec off-road model. As such, it had some cosmetic differences from lesser Wranglers: a winch-ready steel front bumper with red tow hooks; black rocker panel guards; a “power dome” hood with functional heat-extractor louvers; and unique wheels with chunky off-road tires. It looks like a Tonka toy, with oversized features and scoops and flaps. In other words, it looks fantastic — exactly how every Jeep should look.
The proof of the Rubicon Hard Rock’s style came during my brief visit to a dealer. While trundling through the parking lot, top down and doors off, a family with a young boy stopped and stared. The boy sported an ear-to-ear grin, pointed and declared: “THAT’S the one you should get, Dad!”
Unlike some small SUVs — which look the part of off-roaders but are actually modified, tall-riding compact cars underneath — the Wrangler behaves exactly as it looks. It’s a true go-anywhere 4×4 machine.
What does this mean on the street? It’s loud, with tire noise from the chunky mud-ready tires, wind noise (because it’s about as slippery through the air as a box of Kleenex) and road noise through the cabin combining to create a highway cacophony that’s impressive, in a sense. Put the top down or drive around with the doors off, however, and you won’t care in the slightest.
The handling characteristics are best described as “approximate,” meaning the truck steers approximately where you want it to. The soft off-road suspension and beefy Dana 44 solid axles, front and rear, give an acceptable ride quality. The body, however, dips and squats when accelerating and stopping, then dips again with each gear change of the long-throw, six-speed manual transmission.
Highway directional stability is awful, with the Wrangler wandering all over the lane and requiring constant adjustment. The off-road tires don’t help, either, meant as they are for traction in dirty, muddy conditions instead of tarmac.
The steering behavior is also unusual. There’s very little return-to-center motion, meaning that after completing a turn you’ll need to center the wheel instead of just letting the truck straighten itself out. The four-door model, called the Unlimited, smooths out a lot of these rough edges; its longer wheelbase adds considerable stability to the formula.
All the qualities that make the Wrangler awful to drive on the street make it amazing in the rough. The SUV can scale hills you’d have trouble walking over, blast through deep water and thick mud — you name it. But know that if you’re considering one as a daily driver, it comes with compromises.
One area that has improved dramatically over previous Wranglers is the engine. Since 2012, the Wrangler has come only with a fully modern 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine. That’s the same one found in nearly all V-6-powered Fiat Chrysler Automobiles products these days. It puts out a healthy 285 horsepower but doesn’t feel like it, as the Wrangler is geared for better off-road traction, not on-road snap. So while it has plenty of guts and not a lot of weight, it’s not what anyone would call quick (unless you’ve driven the previous six- or four-cylinder Wrangler; then it will seem speedy).
A six-speed manual transmission is standard, while a five-speed automatic is an option. The four-wheel-drive system is part-time only, with a transfer case shift lever that you use only when you’re in situations that call for it: namely, slippery conditions that let the front wheels spin a bit. Use it on dry pavement, and you risk damage to the axles. The Wrangler’s isn’t an on-demand all-wheel-drive or full-time four-wheel-drive system like most modern SUVs have.
The big benefit of the new engine comes in fuel economy. The new Wrangler is rated 17/21/18 mpg city/highway/combined (manual and automatic), a significant improvement over previous generations. My week of testing included a good mix of city and highway miles, but I had the top down and doors off more often than not, adding considerable aerodynamic drag to an already bad situation (a Kleenex box with holes in it?). As such, my week with the Wrangler netted about 16.5 mpg on average. This likely would have been improved with the automatic transmission, as the temptation to keep the Wrangler in a lower gear for better acceleration is eliminated.
Pop open one of the Wrangler’s free-swinging doors (they’re restricted only by a fabric strap door check without détentes like a normal car door) and climb up and in. You’ll be greeted by a very upright, very old-school driving position.
The steering wheel is close to both you and the dash, but there’s some thoughtful and logical arrangement of everything in the truck. The audio and climate controls are located high in the dash, making for easy operation while driving but also keeping sensitive electronics out of the danger zone in case you decide to ford some deep water.
There’s all-weather carpeting in the Wrangler, with drain plugs in the floor in case you need to hose out your rig – something you can actually do, if you’re careful about where you spray.
Because you’re sitting up so high and the Wrangler has nearly vertical body surfaces, outward visibility is quite good. It’s even better when you take the doors and top off, producing arguably the most open-air vehicle you can buy short of a motorcycle.
Front seat comfort isn’t bad at all, with decent-sized, supportive chairs. Backseat room is acceptable, as well, but does require a bit of twisting to climb into the space. Legroom is at a premium in back. That’s ameliorated by the longer Unlimited, but at a price premium.
The Wrangler is truly at its best when you can make the outside your inside, however. Lowering the top and removing the doors takes a little practice, but it’s not as convoluted or difficult as it has been in previous-generation models. The Sunrider top even lets you fold back just the portion over the front seats for a big sunroof effect. Dropping it entirely requires you to unzip and remove the rear window, as well as both left and right side panels. You then either store them in the backseat or leave them at home.
Obviously, the ability to gain access to the inside of your Wrangler by simply unzipping a window means you shouldn’t leave anything valuable in the truck, ever, unless you opt for the marginally more secure three-piece hardtop. Accidentally leaving the center console unlocked while the doors were off resulted in someone stealing the tool kit that contained the door bolts I’d stored inside it.
Removing the doors is also simple: Just unclip the electrical wiring harness (if you have power windows), use the included tool kit to undo two Torx hinge bolts per side, lift it off and store it somewhere safe. The feeling of driving around without doors, while likely horribly unsafe in the event of a side-impact crash, is a thrill unrivaled in the motorized world, save anything with only two wheels. A few blocks in a completely open Wrangler can immediately make you forget all the truck’s ills and foibles. You’ll find yourself grinning like an idiot and saying to yourself, “Y’know, this really ain’t bad at all!”
Not much has changed in the Wrangler in recent years with regard to electronics. The gauges still incorporate old-style, dot-matrix LCD displays, and the stereo head unit is still last-generation Chrysler corporate, as are the climate-control knobs. It all works just fine, but doesn’t look as updated as it could.
Jeep has updated the audio system, however, with a standard eight-speaker stereo or an optional nine-speaker Alpine premium sound system. The Alpine system relocates the subwoofer from the side of the rear cargo area (where it was in the 2014 model) to the floor. How wise it is to put a speaker grille at the bottom of a cargo area is uncertain, especially in a vehicle likely to get sandy and dirty in normal use, but the quality of the Alpine system is undeniable. It’s the first sound system I’ve ever heard in a Wrangler that sounds good, top up or down.
Given that the Wrangler is not physically all that big inside, you have the choice of carrying people or stuff, but generally not both. Space behind the rear seat is a limited 12.8 cubic feet, but that rear seat can be folded forward or even removed, making for a much more usable 55.0 cubic feet of space. That said, doing so leaves you with just a two-seat SUV, so if you need to carry more people when you get where you’re going, that could be a problem. The four-door Unlimited is much more spacious, featuring 31.5 cubic feet of room behind the rear seat that’s expandable to 70.6 cubic feet in total. It’s more suitable for people who regularly need to haul people and stuff together.
If you think you can make up for the lack of cargo room with a trailer, well, you won’t be able to haul all that much, either. The two-door Wrangler is rated to tow only 2,000 pounds, while the four-door can tow 3,500 pounds. That’s a very, very small pop-up camper or a Jet Ski, but the Wrangler’s relatively short wheelbase prevents it from safely towing anything too heavy.
The Wrangler has been crash-tested, and the news isn’t good. For some reason, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has rated the Wrangler only for rollover protection, where it earned three out of five stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has tested the Wrangler more extensively, and the results are mixed (see full results here). The Wrangler scores good (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor) only in the moderate overlap front test, which is admittedly a tough one. But it goes downhill from there, with the Jeep earning a marginal score in the small overlap front test and in the head restraints and seats test. It earned a poor rating in side-impact protection (the tested vehicle wasn’t equipped with the Wrangler’s optional side airbags).
There is no available electronic forward-crash detection system, blind spot warning, automatic braking, parking sensors or even a backup camera. The backup camera would be welcome to mitigate the Wrangler’s terrible rear visibility, due in part to the full-size spare tire mounted directly behind the rear window.
See what few safety features can be had on a Wrangler here.
So the Wrangler is primitive, loud, bouncy, inefficient, not terribly crashworthy and offers hellacious amounts of fun. It’s also expensive. A base Wrangler Sport starts at $23,990 including destination fee, but you’ll never find one on a dealer lot anywhere close to that price. That Sport comes with a manual transmission but without air conditioning, which can be added separately or as part of the better equipped and much more common Sport S option package.
Next in line is the fancier Sahara model for $29,990, including considerably more standard features, body-colored fenders instead of black plastic, an optional body-colored painted hardtop, 18-inch wheels and more. The top of the line is the Rubicon, which starts at $33,190 and includes a host of off-road upgrades, such as a dedicated off-road suspension, beefier axles front and rear, 32-inch mud-terrain tires, a stronger 4×4 transfer case, electronic sway bar disconnect and more.
My test model was a Rubicon with the Hard Rock Package, which includes a combination of cosmetic changes, like the power dome hood, and option bundles like air conditioning and USB connectivity. My as-tested price was $38,835.
That’s a lot of coin for a truck as primitive as the Wrangler, but it costs that much because Jeep can charge that much for it and get it. The reason? There are no direct competitors to the two-door Wrangler. The closest in abilities is the Land Rover Defender 90 (not sold in the U.S.), the super-expensive Mercedes-Benz G550 or possibly a Nissan Xterra Pro-4X. Most of those, however, are four-door SUVs and considerably more expensive, and few have the provenance and fanatical following the Wrangler commands.
Xterra drivers don’t wave at each other like Wrangler owners do. There isn’t a massive nationwide G-Class enthusiast group that organizes three-dozen off-road events around the country, like the Jeep Jamboree network. And on none of these can you take the top and doors off.