Review: 2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Jeep\'s Wrangler is an oldie but a goodie.

From Bozeman to Beijing, there is not a more recognizable vehicle on the road than the Jeep Wrangler. This modern interpretation of the classic military Jeep shares nothing at all with its predecessor—except, that is, an outlook on life.

A new Wrangler, the kind of thing that comes about once every decade, is in the works, but this final incarnation of the current model offers plenty of reasons to pony up the hefty price of entry, as we found out during a recent evaluation of the range-topping Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock model.

What is it?The best-selling body-on-frame SUV in the United States, the Wrangler sold today has only been mildly updated since hitting the market in 2006 as a 2007 model. Sure, today's Wrangler has a different engine (Chrysler's corporate 3.6-liter V6) and a better interior than the Daimler-mandated Lego junk installed a decade ago, but they're basically the same thing underneath.

That means that the Wrangler is distinctly dated in every possible way. It utilizes an optional five-speed automatic in an industry that has otherwise moved toward 10 forward gears. Its audio head unit choices were mediocre five years ago and haven't gotten better. And its interior is awash in hard plastics.

All this is somewhat forgivable for under $30,000, but our tester was loaded up to $43,325. The big buck item here is the Hard Rock appearance package, which bundles a bunch of convenience and styling goodies for $4,800. The aforementioned automatic was joined by Jeep's nifty three-piece Freedom Top hardtop, and $1,195 worth of navigation. Note that the Wrangler is the only car we can think of to make side impact airbags an option.

Value isn't why people buy Wranglers: It's because they go off road really, really well. Or, at least they look like they do.

What's it up against?In its two-door configuration, Wrangler is now in a class of its own. Opt for the pricier four-door Wrangler Unlimited and you should cross-shop the nearly as capable but more refined Toyota 4Runner.

How does it look?Like a Jeep, what else? The trademark seven slat grille is, as expected, flanked by a pair of round headlamps. Big fender flares, painted on our range-topper, cover 285/75-17 BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain rubber, the kind of tire that would make the NVH folks at any other carmaker shudder.

Our tester's Hydro Blue paint was a little bright and flashy for our eyes, but there's nothing subtle about a Wrangler. Opt for the Hard Rock package and you'll get what Jeep calls a "power dome” hood (not that there's any extra power on tap), red tow hooks, a front bumper with removable end caps, and special graphics.

Even though the Wrangler looks basically the same today as it did in 2007, it remains a head-turner. It's one of those rare cars that you can't help but like, even if it does look a little cartoonish (and massive) up against an old CJ-7.

And on the inside?Given what Jeep engineers had to work with, the Wrangler really isn't bad inside. A high seating position helps avoid the bathtub feel of Wranglers of yore, and most controls are about where you'd expect them. Only some secondary buttons are tucked in below the already low climate control knobs.

The dashboard and doors remain awash in hard plastic that at least has been finished in a low-sheen grain. The same is true for the Hard Rock's leather seats, which are of the washable hide variety more than they are the Bentley variety. The rear seat is, as you might expect, not easy to get into. But if you've bought a Wrangler short wheelbase, you should expect this. After all, that's why Jeep offers the Wrangler Unlimited.

Creature comforts are in fairly short supply, especially considering the base price. A boomy stereo and fiddly navigation controls mean we probably would skip the $1,195 audio upgrade in favor of a trip to your local stereo shop.

Behind the folding, single piece rear seat bench (not the 50/50 variety that would be convenient) is enough room for a few duffel bags or small suitcases.

One thing to note: Jeep now offers an optional insulation kit that attaches to the available hardtop in order to cut down on road noise and to provide better insulation.

But does it go?Our tester's 4.10 rear axle ratio added $695 to the bottom line but was worth every penny over the standard, more miserly 3.73 ratio. It helped offset the Jeep's hefty 4,100 pound-plus curb weight and its box-it-came-in aerodynamics by making the most of the 285 horsepower on tap from the 3.6-liter V6. Torque checks in at 260 pound-feet, but it comes high in the rev range, meaning the Wrangler really needs to be throttled when climbing hills.

Despite spending plenty of time in the upper reaches of the rev range, not to mention a lot of off road miles, our tester averaged about 18 mpg in mixed driving. That's right on par with the 17/21 mpg city/highway the EPA says to expect.

Shod with that off road rubber, our Wrangler's handling could best be described as "acceptable.” It leans heavily in corners and turning its steering wheel is like churning butter. Still, it never feels unsafe, and it's actually quite maneuverable in town thanks to its 164-inch overall length (and that includes the spare tire).

Of course, it's when the pavement ends that the Wrangler comes into its own. Tug its transfer case lever into 4-high and it only takes seconds to understand that "It's a Jeep thing” sticker festooned to so many Wranglers. We pushed our tester up some loose hill climbs and it merely egged us on. An unobtrusive traction control system and terrific ground clearance help all Wranglers, but the Rubicon's exclusive locking front and rear differentials and pushbutton sway bar disconnects put it in a class of its own off road.

It'll take you just about as far as you'd ever want to go on a forest road, but that doesn't stop most buyers from spending hundreds, if not tens of thousands, on aftermarket equipment. Stock just isn't good enough for them, apparently.

Leftlane's bottom lineThis is as good as the current Wrangler is going to get—and that's no bad thing. Straddling the line between simplicity and capability, the Wrangler is an old school crawler that's generally tame enough for your daily commute.

The next Wrangler will bring with it a host of tech upgrades, but its price and complexity will climb as well. Buy this one now.

2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon base price, $32,695. As tested, $43,325.Hard Rock package, $4,800; Automatic transmission, $1,350; 4.10 axle ratio, $695; Freedom Top, $1,595; Navigation, $1,195; Destination, $995.

Photos by Andrew Ganz.

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