I recently spent a week with a 2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4X4. Introduced for the 2007 model year, the Wrangler Unlimited is a standard JK two-door with 20.6 inches added to its wheelbase and two additional doors bolted to its passenger compartment. While Jeep offers the Unlimited in seven different trim levels, the desirable Rubicon is the most capable when the pavement ends, as it boasts a slew of hardcore off-road tools including front and rear electronic locking differentials and a front sway bar that can be disengaged at the touch of a button for improved articulation. My I-Look-Like-A-Traffic-Cone test model started with a base price of $34,095 (plus $995 destination). Options including a five-speed automatic transmission, Uconnect, tow package and a premium soft top, drove the bottom line up to $38,630.
- On one hand, it would be difficult to find a new vehicle less competent on pavement. Despite its many improvements over the years, handling is still very sloppy, with initial turn-in delayed and mushy. The brakes felt strong, but stopping distances seemed long. Most of the blame is aimed at the aggressive BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain T/A tires. The rubber is excellent for post-apocalyptic travel, but the tire's large tread blocks squirmed uncomfortably when tasked with changing direction on pavement. (To allay any concerns, stability control bundled with electronic roll mitigation is standard, so it would take real effort to actually get a wheel off the ground.)
- On the other hand, few vehicles on the market are as competent off-road – and none are at this price point. Exploring Hungry Valley SRVA, an off-road park north of Los Angeles, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon was all but unstoppable. I drove effortlessly through deep, soft sand, climbed steep hills like a mountain goat and danced through sticky mud. Generous approach and departure angles allowed the Jeep to go where other rigs only dream, and the electronic sway bar disconnect system allowed the live axles to articulate at obscene angles.
- Thanks to its strong Pentastar V6 (new for 2012), the Rubicon had plenty of power. The off-road park is up near 5,000 feet in elevation, but the 3.6-liter pulled strongly and never felt out of breath. Fuel economy isn't impressive, but that is what Jerry Cans are for.
- The ride quality of the long-wheelbase four-door is predictably better than on the two-door. My passengers found the second row fairly comfortable compared to the rear accommodations in a compact SUV or CUV. Some occupants, especially younger ones, complained about the lack of running boards as the step-in is high (in Jeep's defense, the low-hanging protrusions just get in the way off-road), and everyone complained about drafts from the soft top. Of course, it was nothing but smiles when the truck was flinging muddy water all over itself – kids love Jeeps.
- I really enjoyed the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon when used as its engineers intended, and this recent engagement put me in the camp of true believers. Even so, it's important to mention that hardcore off-roaders should consider the standard two-door model for its greater agility on trails. The extended wheelbase on the Unlimited becomes an Achilles' heel, as it increases the turning radius (by about three feet) while reducing the truck's break-over angle.