Review: 2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

The iconic Jeep brand has been passed around more times than - well, we won't go there. Willys, Kaiser, AMC, Renault, Chrysler, Daimler and now Fiat have all had at least some influence on the division best known for its open-top, seven slat grille off roader known today as the Wrangler.

While Chrysler's sales are, generally, in the doldrums, its strength lies in the products clearly designed and engineered by enthusiasts: The Dodge Challenger, Ram pickup and the Jeep Wrangler. Each an icon in its own way, and each offers a glimmer of hope for Chrysler.

What is it?
Last year, we sampled a four-door Wrangler Unlimited Sahara aimed more at daily drivers and occasional off roaders. To see things from the other side of the spectrum - those who use their Jeeps as Jeeps - we decided to test a 2010 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, the most capable out-of-the-box Jeep on offer.

Built at the historic Toledo, Ohio, Jeep factory, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon checks off every wish a medium-duty off roader might have on his list for a street-legal rig. Dual Dana 44 locking differentials, automatic-disconnecting swaybars, a low 4:1 transfer case, skidplates, rock rails and chunky 255/75 Goodyear Wrangler MT/R tires make this Wrangler truly Rubicon Trail-ready.

It commands a hefty premium over a base Wrangler Unlimited Sport (which was called X last year), but it brings with it the sort of out-of-the-box capability with factory-assembled sophistication long desired by serious off roaders.

In many ways, the four-door Wrangler is the spiritual successor to the boxy Jeep Cherokee that was produced through 2001.

What's it up against?
In terms of rock-crawling, mud slinging capability, the Rubicon is rivaled only by the Hummer H3, Toyota FJ Cruiser and the new Toyota 4Runner Trail model. Each of those offers a genuine locking rear differential, gobs of ground clearance and a general rough-and-tough attitude, but only the Jeep offers the predictability and durability of two solid axles.

Any breakthroughs?
Those automatic disconnecting sway bars are certainly the slickest feature on board this Swiss Army Knife on mud tires. In low range, simply press a button and the sway bar links automatically go "poof" to allow for significantly more axle articulation in the rough stuff - which helps to keep all four wheels on the ground. Cynics will point out that aftermarket sway bar disconnects are inexpensive, but once you've been treated to the button-pressing luxury of the Rubicon's system, the old way seems positively archaic.

How does it look?
The Wrangler got a bit cartoonish when it was redesigned for 2007. Big bumpers and massive fender flares help satisfy federal safety standards even if they don't do much for the looks. Fortunately, the Jeep elements are all there: Seven vertical bars in the grille - don't try emulating this one or Jeep will sue - round headlamps with a pair of nifty orange turn signals slotted just below and, of course, the upright folding windshield.

The four-door model makes the best of its 116-inch wheelbase, which adds more than 20 inches to the traditional two-door. While the shorter wheelbase Wrangler is a better rock crawler for tight spaces, the longer model offers a more comfortable ride and greater stability, not to mention space for the entire family. While the side profile might not be quite as simple and iconic as that of the two-door, the four-door manages to integrate its extra rear doors reasonably well. We like the look most with the optional hard top that we saw on our Sahara.

Our Rubicon tester's standard soft top isn't as tough to drop as you might expect. Still, plan on spending a good 15 minutes unzipping and folding to transform your Wrangler into a four-door convertible. Fortunately, for shorter trips, the Jeep continues to offer the flexibility of removing just the windows or flopping back just the front portion of the roof for a sunroof-style effect.

The Rubicon model ups the ruggedness factor significantly - this ain't no pink Barbie Jeep. The knobby tires and slightly higher suspension give it an aftermarket-esque look, but the big Rubicon badge on either side of the hood will confirm to those in the know that you've got the best the factory offers.

And on the inside?
The Wrangler continues the theme of "only what's necessary" inside, for the most part. A boomy Infinity stereo with a subwoofer, power windows and locks, navigation and mostly useless Bluetooth have all arrived, but you'll still find rock hard plastics, little sound deadening, lots of exposed metal and all the fit and finish of a Hot Wheels model.

And that's just the way Jeepers like it.

Other than a few additional buttons to control the differential locks and sway bar disconnects, the Rubicon doesn't vary much from a bog standard Wrangler Sport or Sahara. To that end, you'll find a quirky driving position, chair-height seats and a livable, but not luxurious, second row of seats. The cargo area is nicely sized given the trim exterior proportions, but it's difficult to access since you need to unzip and roll the rear window up to load anything taller than grocery bags.

Our test Rubicon exhibited more interior squeaks and rattles than we find acceptable, especially given it was a relatively green press vehicle.

The thin soft top and sparse sound deadening combine with a characteristically blocky shape and knobby mud tires to transmit as much road noise inside as possible. Chrysler's great Bluetooth system is useless in the Rubicon unless you're slogging along at a snail's pace in traffic.

But little of this matters to most Rubicon buyers, who are willing to accept the interior trade-offs for the off road capability.

But does it go?
Approach a nearly vertical, rock-strewn path, tug the balky - but manly - transfer case lever back into four low, turn on the locking differentials, disconnect the sway bars and the Rubicon starts to make all the sense in the world. The gas and brake pedals are rendered almost useless thanks to the transfer case's low gearing, and on the rare occasion that the Goodyear MT/R tires slip, the locking differentials take over in a mere fraction of a revolution.

The Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon was unstoppable on our off road test course. It climbed every rock and slogged through every mud puddle all the while beckoning us to take it further. There are some limitations, of course; the long wheelbase does have a tendency to scrape the underbody when climbing over Volvo-sized boulders, and we eventually ran into a stream too deep to consider fording. Overall, however, the Rubicon package makes the already rugged Wrangler into an off road beast.

Technically, the Wrangler Rubicon is limited to ascending no grades of no more than 45 degrees and it will start to float away should you try to mosey through more than 30 inches of standing water. As adventurous as Jeep owners are, we don't think many will want to push their brand spankin' new Rubicons to this sort of level.

Slip the transfer case back into two high and climb back on the street and the Wrangler's obvious limitations begin to manifest themselves. We'll let it slide for its laughably sloppy handling, buckboard ride and the aforementioned earplug-requiring road noise. Given the level of capability on hand with the mere press of a button and tug of a lever, the Wrangler Rubicon is positively Lexus-like in its on-road refinement. Where we won't be so soft on the lovable rogue is in its powertrain.

The 3.8-liter minivan engine - cribbed from the Grand Caravan, for Pete's sake! - is grossly under matched to the hefty, nearly 4,500 lb. Wrangler. Boasting just 202 horsepower and 237 lb-ft. of torque, the slow-to-rev, lumpy engine is clearly out of place here. We're not suggesting for Jeep to reproduce its legendary 4.0-liter straight six (which, deserving or not, has a star on the automotive walk of fame), but rather to raid the Dodge camp and grab the Nitro's 260-horsepower V6 and five-speed automatic.

Our tester's four-speed automatic shifted promptly enough through the gears and turned low rpms on the highway, but it was forced to downshift at even the slightest hint of a hill. At altitude, where many Wranglers love to play, this powertrain would be downright unacceptable.

Since the engine has to work so hard, there's no real payoff in fuel economy. The Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is rated at 15 mpg in the city and 19 mpg around town and we saw about 16 mpg combined over a week of varied driving.

Why you would buy it:
The Rocky Mountains are in your back yard - or at least in your dreams.

Why you wouldn't:
Your idea of roughing it means erecting the built-in tent that sticks out of the tailgate of your Pontiac Aztek.

Leftlane's bottom line
That the Jeep Wrangler continues to appeal to consumers comes as little surprise to us. While virtually every other new car's sales have tanked this year, the Wrangler remains more or less flat. It will always appeal to a certain demographic that values its go anywhere, do anything capability - silly TV ads notwithstanding.

It's reasonable to debate the Wrangler Rubicon's value. At over $36,000 as tested, a do-it-yourselfer could probably start with a basic Wrangler Sport and custom-tailor their own serious rock crawler by perusing numerous aftermarket catalogs. But for those who want a properly engineered daily driver-capable Jeep, the Rubicon still represents a heck of a value.

2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon base price, $32,050. As tested, $36,195.
Red Rock Crystal paint, $225; Trailer tow group, $270; Side impact airbags, $490; Automatic transmission, $825; Engine block heater, $35; Navigation, $1,550; Destination, $750.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.