The first leg of the 22-mile Rubicon Trail is over granite boulders the size of Yugos. Springs are compressed. Spines are compressed. Axles teeter-totter wildly, wheels pawing the air. We hear scraping, crinkling, lacerating, screeching, crumbling, spurting and cursing.
After that, things turn bad.
The Rubicon begins just west of Lake Tahoe, 6060 feet up, in California's Eldorado National Forest. It takes nine hours to drive to a campsite that could be reached on foot in two. After a night in a canvas tent mountain-chilled to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, we will spend four hours crawling to a paved road and then require at least two hours to locate the nearest frame shop with an on-staff chiropractor. The trail runs red with transmission fluid. Helicopters are occasionally summoned to ferry out the dead driveshafts. In our April 2006 story "Rock-Hopper SUVs," we steered a bunch of trucks up a trail rated Category Five, and a few editors were heard crying out to their mommies. The Rubicon is rated Category 10-Plus, of which our off-road book says, "The driveway to Hell, which is paved with the Devil's bowling balls," or words to that effect.
The Rubicon would fatally charley horse a Honda Pilot and chew up a RAV4 like so much Bubblicious. The Jeep Wrangler, especially the all-rawhide Rubicon edition with its extra ground clearance, has no competitors. The stuff list includes 32-inch sidewall-reinforced BFGoodrich tires, a 4:1 "Rock-Trac" low-range transfer case, locking front and rear Dana 44 axles, and a pushbutton-detachable front anti-roll bar (for extra axle teeter-tottering). OK, the Hummer H3 is pretty adept in dirt, but its count of pushbutton, lockable, detachable doohickeys is way down on the Rubicon's.
Starting at $28,895 (or $31,180 as pictured here with the $695 removable hardtop and upgraded radio), the Unlimited is Jeep's first four-door Wrangler. Along with the expected body count, luxury goes up as well with optional power windows, another notable first for the Wrangler. Our expedition has two Jeeps, a 2005 Rubicon two-door and the 2007 Unlimited Rubicon. They are piloted by Rubicon virgins and will require constant guidance by Darren Dubey and Bart Coffman, who do the trail maybe 30 or 40 times a summer as guides for Jeep Jamboree USA.
It's a private company that has been organizing Rubicon runs since 1982 to its lavishly outfitted camp deep in the high Sierra Nevada. The camp is a cluster of canvas tents, outhouses, and fire pits around a giant outdoor kitchen serving mostly hunks of flambéed meat and canned chili. The spot has been a camp since the 1840s, when white settlers began using an old Indian trail to traverse the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada. In the 1920s the Rubicon was a graded road serving resorts on the shores of Lake Tahoe, but it was long abandoned and in extremis by the first jamboree in 1953.
One thing those first Rubicon runners discovered is that Jeep drivers can't see the wheels or underbelly. So on this preposterous course, Dubey and Coffman walk ahead of each Jeep, showing the way on foot for almost the entire nine miles. They are navigating us over and around boulders with hand motions, effusive praise, and an occasional glare that would freeze saltwater. The first time Dubey turns his back, I plow headlong into a pine tree.
As we reported from our preview drive in southern Africa, the new Wrangler is 5.4 inches wider than its predecessor. Compared with the two-door, the four-door Unlimited is 20.6 inches longer overall and at the wheelbase. At 173.4 inches, however, the Unlimited still isn't stretchy compared with, say, a Grand Cherokee (186.6 inches).
But despite the Rubicon package with its bulbous tires, the Unlimited's dachshundlike frame cuts the break-over angle by a precious 4.6 degrees to 20.8 (a Land Rover LR3 has up to 27.9 degrees with its air suspension pumped up). The Unlimited thus spends more time than a two-door thrusting and gyrating on large rocks in a way that would seriously distract a passing water buffalo.
"It's really tough to get any vehicle through here without a nick," Dubey says charitably, examining the Jeep's caved-in bumper. Even with Dubey attending, the Unlimited's school-bus dimensions play havoc with the usual routings around obstacles. As the day grinds on, the Unlimited's frame rails take a pounding, rocks nibble away at its aluminum wheels, a door is etched with one boulder's signature, and even the roof gets chewed while the Wrangler is keeled over, tiptoeing through a tight notch on three wheels.
Although the Wrangler keeps its rudimentary design -- a cattle tank rolling on two pine logs would be a decent facsimile -- Jeep has softened it for 2007. Tim Brohl, a DaimlerChrysler vehicle dynamics engineer along for the ride, says the company realized that most Wranglers are city-bound, spending more time bouncing through potholes than mud holes. Adjusting the Wrangler to suit reality was a major goal of the redesign.
The spring rates are thus relaxed by 10 percent. It's noticeable, even at 1 mph in low range. Compared with the old model, the Unlimited steps more gently over rocks and shivers far less on gravel. It's significantly quieter inside, too, a fact that showed up later on our 400-mile freeway slog back to Los Angeles. This is a Wrangler that goes metro more comfortably and recognizes that the Rubicon doesn't start at the end of your driveway.
We bump down the Rubicon's boulder-filled Big Sluice section with the grace of an overturned Porta Potti. We're getting good at identifying the percussion of abuse from underneath. A metallic shriek is a dragging suspension-link bracket, and a crinkling noise like tinfoil being unrolled is the exhaust can getting squashed. A sudden pounding jolt means a frame member has been clouted, and a long, deep scratching scrape that sounds like a Lexus being dragged upside down is in fact the Wranglers skid plate doing its duty.
The front seats find their sweet spot with help from a new height adjustment, although the hard-plastic door panels get molded without a decent resting place for elbows. The Unlimited's rear bench gets a C minus. It splits -- Jeep says 60/40, but it's more like 80/20 -- and folds flat in one beautifully choreographed motion, the headrests automatically swinging back on hinges to clear the front seats. It also offers decent legroom and rises high off the floor, putting knees at a comfortable angle. But the bottom cushion is short, and the seatback is nearly vertical. It's like the back seat of a Porsche 911 with better headroom. A rear-seat recline adjuster would help immensely. Also AWOL is a latch or strut on the swing gate to keep it open. Park with any lean to the left, and the heavy steel door with its 75-pound full-size spare tire must be hauled open and held open against gravity.
The new 3.8-liter V-6 replaces an inline-six from the time of vacuum tubes. An electronic throttle that slows itself down during low-range off-roading means the Wrangler can be driven with yoga-like control over rocks. A few miles in the cable-throttle 2005 Rubicon show the difference. It lurches and jumps, more of a bucking bronco than a wrangler.
People don't buy Wranglers for speed, and at 4,400 pounds our Unlimited, spurred on by feverish shifting of the low-ratio six-speed manual, cruised through an 11.2-second 0-to-60-mph run and an 18.1-second quarter-mile. The blocky BFGoodriches, retuned mainly for better bite in the snow, moaned in exertion through the 217-foot stop.
By the time we reached pavement on the Rubicon, the Unlimited was haggard and shedding plastic trim. Did the rocks win? We'll call it a tie. The Unlimited drove everywhere Dubey and Coffman carefully directed it but left paint and metal shards in its wake as it wriggled up the trail, at times like a size-12 foot squeezing into a size-11 shoe.
This Jeep is as Jeeps always have been since 1940: tough, capable, virtually unstoppable -- but now chubbier and a bit softer. Show us a 66-year-old that isn't.