America's most iconic off-roader faces America's most challenging trail
A pair of hands pokes up over the hood, as if two moles were sticking their heads out of the dirt. I can barely see them pointing to the left and then to the right, with the deep blue sky in the background and the long shadows of pine trees on me. A quick glimpse at the TFT display reveals my current pitch angle—21 degrees up. As the Wrangler’s nose begins to level down to its normal position, my spotter relaxes his arms. He looks like a poker player, expressionless as he waits for the next Rubicon to go over the rocky obstacle.
Of course, he has seen it all. Multiple times. Just a few days before, more than 200 Jeeps crossed the Rubicon Trail as part of a Jeep Jamboree—an event that takes place on trails across the U.S. where off-road enthusiasts participate with their Jeeps. This time, the Jamboree guys are helping a small group of journalists who are here from all over the world to enjoy and test the capabilities of the iconic off-roader: the new 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon.
Located west of Lake Tahoe, the Rubicon is a 22-mile (35-km) trail. Over the 12 or so miles (19 or so km) that traverse the El Dorado National Forest, four-wheel-drive is needed. The rocky terrain, imposing obstacles, and narrow pathways have classified the Rubicon Trail as one of the most challenging in America. Yet it’s also the Wrangler Rubicon’s home turf.
My two-day adventure started with a 15-minute chopper ride to the beginning of the trail’s off-road section, where about 20 Rubicons and half a dozen spotters were waiting for us. A four-door Wrangler Rubicon propelled by the 285-hp 3.6-liter V-6 was my chariot for the day. Equipped with the eight-speed automatic transmission, front and rear lockers, a disconnecting front anti-roll bar, and a two-speed transfer case, the 2018 Rubicon was ready to tackle every obstacle in its way.
Our caravan started moving shortly after we disconnected the front anti-roll bar and engaged the 4×4 Low Range mode. These Rubicons were completely stock; they weren’t lifted, and each was outfitted with the same 33-inch BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires. In fact, tire pressure wasn’t even lowered.
The first two hours on the trail seemed swift for both the Wrangler and its driver. The 260 lb-ft of torque coming out of the 3.6-liter engine feels a little skimpy for the Wrangler. I found myself gently pressing the throttle until I got the wheels where I wanted them, but several times I had to step on the brakes quickly because the torque delivery wasn’t as smooth. Engaging the front and rear lockers is easy, but I kept pressing the same switch to unlock them—instead of the dedicated unlock button located to the left.
Loud bangs and long squeaks could be heard as we continued to roll. The expressionless spotter, who minutes before was only moving his hands, rushed uphill to help a two-door Wrangler after it got stuck in rocks bigger than sofas. Nestled on its rock rails, the Wrangler couldn’t gain traction even when both lockers were on. Soon, two more spotters came to help. They started pushing the Wrangler sideways as the driver slowly got on the throttle to gain as much traction as possible. Seconds later the Wrangler was free, and our caravan continued to move at a very slow pace.
It’s hard to tell you how slow we were moving, but the first time I was here, the spotters walked the entire trail and got to camp before we did. This time was the same.
As with pretty much every off-road-oriented vehicle, the Wrangler’s underbody is protected by rocker panels. We hadn’t suffered any body damage, but the screeches and bangs were getting louder and louder as the trail got rougher. Yet the spotters seemed not to care about the bangs. My carefulness with the brake and throttle caused me to lose sight of the rest of the group. Although the trail was marked with cones in sections where it widens, I missed one of them, which caused me to divert the rest of the group to the wrong part of the trail.
“Oh, great!” I said to my copilot as I saw the front part of the group go through the correct part of the trail. I was on top of a 10-foot rock with nowhere to go except backward. The two Jeeps behind me didn’t make it all the way to the top of the boulder, yet they still needed the help of my copilot to guide them down the 22-degree incline. All I could see from the side mirrors and the rearview camera was the granite rock getting close to the sheetmetal. Thankfully, with my copilot’s help, I was able to get back on the trail with no damage.
As we approached Buck Island Lake, we got to a part of the trail with rocks the size of beds. The screeches and abrupt smacks made the cabin move side to side, but it’s part of the experience, it seems. Most of the Rubicons would make it without body damage, yet a quick look at all the exhaust tubes showed that they wouldn’t make it home untouched.
After more than seven hours of driving, Rubicon Springs waited for us with cold beers and a nice dinner. We would camp for the night and tackle the rest of the trail the next day, including the monstrous Cadillac Hill.
The chilly temperatures woke me up early, and the only way to warm up was to grab a cup of coffee and sit next to the firepit. As the sun started to warm up the campground, I looked for a different Wrangler to drive on the second part of the Rubicon Trail. A Mojito Green two-door Wrangler was the chosen one, this one with a 2.0-liter turbo-four engine. Its doors had been removed, and the electric soft top was down for a real Jeep experience.
Cadillac Hill is known as the most challenging part of the Rubicon Trail, with a dramatic drop to the right and many obstacles to overcome. Its narrow switchbacks lead to Observation Point, the spot that marks the end of the most difficult obstacles of the trail. At Cadillac Hill, the two-door Wrangler felt more like a capable golf cart than the four-door Jeep I’d driven the day before. Its wheelbase is 21.6 inches shorter, it’s about 300 pounds (136 kg) lighter, and it has better approach and breakover angles (44.0 and 27.8 degrees versus 43.9 and 22.6 degrees, respectively).
The 2.0-liter engine’s low-end torque made a big difference on the trail; I just let go of the brake, and the Wrangler would go over the boulders. If needed, only a gentle touch of the throttle was enough to propel the Jeep over a rock, and the torque delivery was much smoother than the V-6’s. I didn’t even need to put the eight-speed transmission in manual mode, as it automatically switched between first and second gear depending on the conditions.
With its 96.8-inch wheelbase, the two-door Wrangler had less cabin movement and fewer screeches on its underbody panels. It was doing everything swiftly, and once we reached Observation Point, where the El Dorado National Forest shines like nowhere else, the Rubicon had achieved its goal.
The rest of the trail is composed of mostly dirt and smaller rocks, and given the lack of doors, our bodies—and the Jeep’s interior—were breaded in dust. No vehicle was left behind, and almost all of them returned home with no body damage.
After we reached the pavement, we still had a 40-minute drive to the hotel, and we did so without even looking at the tire pressure.