Does the Jeep’s lovable nature outshine its quirks?

If ever there were a vehicle that could be described as “ionic,” the Jeep CJ/Wrangler would be it. It’s overall shape hasn’t changed much since the U.S. entered WWII in 1941, and neither has its off-road capability. The current version, the Wrangler JK, has been around a decade now, having debuted for the 2007 model year. By now you know Jeep is readying its replacement with the 2018 Wrangler JL – an SUV rumored to be far superior to the JK in nearly every way, both in on-road comfort and off-road ability. But before the last new JK rolls off its Ohio assembly line, I spent a week living with one of the most hard-core versions: the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock.

Now, if you’ve been living under a rock and have to ask yourself what makes a Rubicon Hard Rock, take the time to read my explanation. For the rest of us, we can explore the Wrangler’s highs and low – its loveable characteristics and loathsome traits. The Jeep certainly has both, and you’d better be fully aware of each should you purchase one, much like the 191,774 customers did in the U.S. in 2016 alone. Of course, these are just my opinions, so feel free to tell me yours in the comments below.

Continue reading for more information.

High: Off-Road Capability

2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Highs & Lows Drivetrain High Resolution
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Every current Wrangler rolls off the factory line with a part-time, two-speed transer case, solid axles, and short overhangs.

This goes without saying the Jeep Wrangler’s M.O. is going beyond paved surfaces. Every current Wrangler rolls off the factory line with a part-time, two-speed transer case, solid axles, and short overhangs. It’s this combination that lets the Wrangler hang with its iconic granddad, the Willys MB. But not all Wranglers are equal; my tester’s Rubicon Hard Rock package means it has lower gearing in its beefed-up transfer case, stronger axles, underbody skid-plating, mud-terrain tires, and steel bumpers that don’t mind some abuse.

The Hard Rock package includes more cosmetic add-ons, like the vented hood, some interior features made standard, and the steel bumpers (though they’re functional, too). The real hardware comes standard with the Rubicon package. That’s what swaps the Dana 30 axles for beefier Dana 44s, upgrades the transfer case to the Rock-Trac gearbox with 4:1 gears, adds the BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A KM tires, the electronic locking front and rear differentials, the electronically disconnecting front sway bar, and the underbody skid plates and premium rock rails.

Knocked down into 4WD Low with both differentials locked and the sway bar disconnected, the Wrangler is seemingly unstoppable. While I hardly tested its limits, the deep sugar sand and muddy ruts I traversed felt more like a smoothly grated dirt road than a challenging, up-hill climb that would swallow any lesser vehicle.

Low: On-Road Trade-Off

2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Highs & Lows Drivetrain High Resolution
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Of course, the trade-off for the outstanding off-road capability is a rather compromised on-road driving experience. It starts with the steering, which has tons of on-center play. The solid front axle also transmits bumps and road imperfections into the wheel. The Rubicon’s knobby, mud-terrain tires further amplify the issue with their squirmy feel under hard turns and braking. The 3.6-liter V-6 might have 285 horsepower, but the throttle feels excessively heavy and requires an extended push to elicit an increase in revs. It requires even more for a downshift in the five-speed automatic transmission. Combined, this makes the V-6 feel underpowered and sluggish – something the Pentastar isn’t typically known for.

Interestingly, the Rubcion’s so-called “Performance Suspension” provides a surprisingly stiff ride on pavement. This is counter to that idea of a soft, floaty ride typical of most hard-core off-roaders. Thankfully, the firm ride isn’t abusive and helps keep the Jeep upright around corners. In the dirt, the suspension somehow feels softer, helping smooth out rough trails.

High: Removable Body Panels

2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Highs & Lows Exterior High Resolution
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There’s nothing more fun than cruising around with the doors and top removed.

There’s nothing more fun than cruising around with the doors and top removed. It’s a simple process, too. A single bolt holds each door hinge in place, with two hinges per door. The Wrangler even provides storage slots for these bolts under the cargo floor. Once removed and the windows rolled down, a quick-disconnect wiring connection (for Wranglers with power windows and mirrors) is undone and the door limiting straps (that prevent them swinging wide) are slipped off. At that point, the doors just lift vertically off. You might wanna hit the gym before attempting this, though. The doors are fairly heavy. I’ve read the front doors with power windows and mirrors weight 62.5 pounds. The rear doors are a bit lighter, weighting roughly 46.4 pounds.

The Wrangler’s three-piece Freedom Hardtop is simple to remove, too, at least the front two panels. Best of all, no tools are required. Two hand bolts hold the rear of the T-tops to the sound bar that spans between the B-pillars. From there, it’s only levers that hold the plastic tops in place.

2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Highs & Lows Exterior High Resolution
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Removing the rear section of the hardtop is a bit more involved.

Removing the rear section of the hardtop is a bit more involved. First, the power and washer fluid connections must be undone. Both are located above the left taillight inside the cabin. Torx-head bolts then hold the hard top to the body. Once everything is disconnected and unbolted, the top lifts up, then rearward off the Jeep. You’ll definitely need a strong helper for this job.

Storing both the doors and hardtop can be a challenge. For Wrangler owners, there are a ton of aftermarket solutions for the garage. I’ve even seen overhead pulley/winch systems that make removing and storing the hardtop a one-man job. Doors are often stored on wall-mounted hooks through the open window.

Get past removing everything, and the Wrangler transforms into a open-air fun machine only bested by a motorcycle. Heck, even the windshield folds flat across the hood, though that’s not an easy job.

Low: Thirsty for Fuel

2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Highs & Lows Drivetrain High Resolution
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A thick ladder frame, solid axles, heavy skid plates, and mud tires aren’t a recipe for good fuel economy. Also not helping is the ancient five-speed automatic. As such, the EPA estimates the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited with the automatic gets 18 mpg city, 20 mpg highway, and 18 mpg combined. My week-long average was only 16 mpg. Ouch. Things don’t get much better for the six-speed manual transmission, either. It only improves the EPA’s highway estimate by one mpg. Even the two-door Wrangler is thirsty, scoring 17/21/18 mpg regardless of transmission type.

High: Customizable

2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Highs & Lows Exterior High Resolution
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2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Highs & Lows Exterior High Resolution
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The Jeep Wrangler is perhaps the most customizable vehicle sold today.

The Jeep Wrangler is perhaps the most customizable vehicle sold today. Aftermarket companies and even FCA’s Mopar division offer replacement and upgrade parts for practically every nut and bolt within the Wrangler. Just to scratch the surface, popular items include wheels, tires, suspension systems, bumpers, grille inserts, exterior lighting, fenders, hoods, mirrors, doors, seats, tops, spare tire carriers, underbody protection, axles, gearing, transfer cases, and even full engine swaps – all buy clicking “Buy Now” or calling a 1-800 number.

The result is every Jeep owner has the ability to completely customize his Wrangler down to the smallest detail. It’s like throwing gasoline on the fire of vehicle ownership pride. Of course, there’s the functional side to customization, too. Anybody can modify a base-mode Wrangler Sport into a outrageous rock-crawler with off-the-shelf parts and a big bank account.

Conclusion

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The Jeep Wrangler is a special vehicle. It’s an old-school holdout in an industry that prides itself on innovation and the latest, high-tech gadget. Sure, it’s not the most comfortable thing to drive across country, but it will make you smile the entire way. Regardless of how much regular unleaded gasoline you’ll be buying, the Jeep provides an experience unlike anything else. On the road, the Wrangler’s driving dynamics are almost endearing and become old-hat and accepted in short order, while the off-roading aspect always remains surprising. It’s simply amazing how well the Jeep handles itself where the pavement ends – especially a well-equipped model like the Rubicon Hard Rock.

References

2017 Jeep Wrangler
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Read our full review of the 2017 Jeep Wrangler

2018 Jeep Wrangler Exterior Exclusive Renderings Computer Renderings and Photoshop
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Read our speculative review on the 2018 Jeep Wrangler

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