Exclusive: 2020 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon first drive review
It's telling, really, that in the six months since the new-generation Wrangler JL came out in India, Jeep has managed to sell more than half the number of Wranglers it's sold since the previous-gen JK came out nearly three years back! The new Wrangler is just that good. We're even told, like in international markets, most owners don't keep them stock, which is a huge surprise and that most owners do regularly use them for what they're known for. What comes as no surprise then, is that India finally gets the most off-road capable Wrangler there is, the mighty Rubicon.Also known as the Wrangler that's ready to decimate trails right from the showroom. Which is exactly what we did.
What separates the Rubicon from the Sahara?
If you're familiar with the new Wrangler JL, you'll know that the Rubicon also benefits from the all-new frame, engines, aluminium doors and hood, and excellent cabin. Visually, you'd spot the black fenders on the Rubicon, instead of the body-coloured ones on the Sahara, the Rubicon decals on the hood, lack of side steps for better off-road clearance, smaller 17-inch wheels, and the larger 33-inch BF Goodrich KM2 rubber, an off-roader's favourite world over.
The Rubicon sits about 10mm higher, with laden ground clearance rated at 217mm, or 2mm more than the Sahara. Don't worry about that yet though, since the Rubicon's aces up its sleeve are the heavier-duty Dana 44 front axle, electronically-locking differentials front and rear, and the trickest of them all electronically disconnecting front sway bars. This gives each of the front wheels up to 25 per cent more articulation! The Rubicon also runs much lower gearing when its transfer case is locked in 4L, a 4:1 ratio, versus the Sahara's 2.72:1, as well as an improved 77.2:1 crawl ratio. All this apart from the marginally improved approach, departure and break-over angles, courtesy the increased clearance, and uprated shock absorbers.
So, it looks pretty much the same?
Not that there's anything wrong with the Wrangler's iconic looks, but the Rubicon definitely looks meaner. Maybe it's the fact that the Rubicon we were driving was in Jeep's signature Firecracker Red but it was getting mobbed by smartphone-wielding bystanders everywhere we parked. We've never seen this reaction with the Sahara, so maybe it's the colour or the fact that the Rubicon's stance with it's Mad Max-like tyres just seems more hardcore. Plus the fact that it's a Rubicon, which means a fair bit in the right circles.
What about the cabin?
Internationally, the Sahara is the most luxurious Wrangler you can buy, and the Rubicon is specced-out with all the same creature comforts and features. The differences being the red inserts on the leather-wrapped dashboard, and the leather upholstery. Except, now there's no side step to help you climb into the cabin. But, hey, jumping into and out of your Rubicon just solidifies the experience.
The overall feeling is of a cabin that's exceedingly well put together, and the various Jeep logos you'll find remind you that you're driving something special. Out on a trail, you really appreciate the Wrangler's spot-on driving position, and the excellent visibility all around. Not to mention the pings from the parking sensors all around the Wrangler, which help give you an idea of how much clearance you have when you're tackling tough sections. The system can be turned off once you're more comfortable with what the Rubicon can do, so that's a plus. And always a cool feature to see are the dedicated off-road pages on the 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system, which tell you just how far you're pushing your Rubicon.
Out in the blazing sun, another plus point is just how effective the air conditioning turned out to be, even at lower blower speeds, though it does get pretty noisy when cranked all the way up. More quibbles? The driver's footwell is narrow, so if you want to rest your foot, you will have to pull it back, and the rear seats are too upright to be comfortable over a long journey. That being said, the Jeep experience is still intact. The Wrangler doesn't have a great safety record with a 1-star NCAP rating, despite its 4 airbags. But then again when you can fold the windscreen, remove the roof, and the doors, there's not much space left for airbags. We do wish the India-spec cars did come with the extra assurance of the forward-collision alert, and adaptive cruise control available in some markets.
What's it like on the road?
You wouldn't expect a Wrangler to push you back into your seat and put a smile on your face, but that's exactly what it does. With the excellent 2-litre direct injection turbo petrol under the hood packing 270PS and 400Nm of torque, the Rubicon should come quite close to the surprising performance we tested with the Sahara, with a 0-100kmph time of just 8s. There's a split second of hesitation when you put your foot down, before the Wrangler picks up and shoots forward, accompanied by a healthy dose of turbo whoosh. Driven regularly, you barely hear the motor, which is as refined as they come.
And the 8-speed automatic judges situations well enough to never feel like you're in the wrong gear. The only time we actually ended up using the manual mode of the gearbox was in the twisties, when that slight hesitation meant the difference between making an overtake, or not. Given how narrow and traffic-infested the roads were, we barely got a chance to get over 100kmph, but at those speeds the Rubicon does want to wander in a straight line a little, given its chunky tyres. And the roar from those massive buttons trapping air at those speeds will have you reaching for the volume button pretty soon. As for how it rides on the taller tyres and revised suspension, there's a bit less control to how the Rubicon handles its rebound over potholes. Over uneven road surfaces, the ride can get bouncy but it does even out when speeds rise. Far from being a corner carver, the aggressive M/T tyres still show admirable levels of grip if you hold on past the lean into corners.
Finally, how is it off-road?
Turning off the main road onto the trail that will take us to the good stuff, I'm reminded of just how easy it is to place the Wrangler on even impossibly narrow paths, despite the huge front bumper and wide fenders. But it's when we clunk into 4H (selectable on the go, at up to speeds of 72kmph) at the start of a steep, rocky incline that we realise just how much less effort it seems, no doubt thanks to the unbelievable traction from the tyres.
With not even the slightest sign of slip over everything we clambered over, the tyres may be the single best upgrade for the Wrangler. That is until you hit the innocent looking button marked 'sway bar'. With it, you can disconnect the end links to the front sway bar to allow the wheels to stay in contact with the surface, on angles well beyond what is considered normal. And you only need to pause on a flat surface to do it, with the sway bars staying disconnected at speeds up to 29kmph. With it disconnected, the Rubicon can hit terrain meant for modified off-roaders, because it essentially can put one wheel in a deep rut and still find a way out. The locking differentials almost seem like the very last line in the Rubicon's armoury, and we just couldn't find terrain technical enough to need it. That's truly saying something for a stock car.
While there's no escaping the fact that the Wrangler Sahara is itself far too expensive for its own good, there is also no alternative for someone with deep pockets who wants a new off-roader that can take a beating. We estimate the Rubicon to be about Rs 10 lakh more expensive than the Sahara. And considering the extra kit you get, it amounts to less than what you'd need to sink into aftermarket modifications to get the same level of capability. Between the two, the Rubicon seems like the better bet. And, it comes with ultimate bragging rights.
Photography by Ram Shrikhande
Starts Rs 53.9 Lakhs