In high school, the coolest kids all had off-road machines, big-body Broncos, Toyota 4-Runners and of course anything with a Jeep badge on it. Those machines are so carnal, so simple; like a race car stripped down for track performance, they are pure in function and design. The 2015 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock ($40,195) outfitted with a heavy-duty transfer case, locking differentials, rock rails and 17-inch wheels is the American icon of these purebred machines. I spent a week hauling laundry, strollers and groceries and then hit the road in search of snow and some wide-open muddy fields in hopes of getting a better understanding of this off-road romper.
The Jeep was born during World War One, when the US Army asked for a versatile durable vehicle, and since then its design has barely changed. My Rubicon arrived in a fittingly named “tank” green, and the exterior color complimented the functional hood vents, the front and rear red tow hooks, polished semi-gloss black wheels and tinted windows. At about $13,000 over the base model, this fully loaded version brings a level of street presence worthy of Samuel L. Jackson, and leads one to ask: Is this America’s answer to Land Rover’s coveted Defender 110?
Is this America’s answer to Land Rover’s coveted Defender 110? Possibly.
Possibly. Part of the roof comes off, it has skid plates, the doors come off, the floorboard has drain plugs so you can wash it all out with a hose, and the all-weather slush mats resemble tire tread. Yet it also has heated leather seats, an Alpine sound system with a subwoofer and cruise control. The boxy shape creates optimal leg- and headroom for tall people, but that same shape kills the fuel economy with 18 MPG combined. Lift up the rear glass panel and the door holding the spare tire reveals loads of room for luggage, and it managed to fit a stroller, snow gear and a car seat. The hardtop above the driver and passenger seats pops off then stores in a carrying case in the trunk, making open-top driving convenient. It’s worth noting, however, that the top is quite heavy and tough to manhandle alone.
Under The Hood
Engine: 3.6-liter V6
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Torque: 260 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 8.0 seconds
Top Speed: 114 mph
But enough about how this affordable post-apocalyptic machine looks; one buys a Jeep because of the way it performs. Even though we didn’t embark on a sub-Saharan adventure, we did get it off road for no other reason than to get it dirty. With a touch of a button the driver can engage the hill descent control, disconnect the sway bar and even lock the axle.
The major downside to a purpose-built off-road machine is that it is not very good on road. Sure, around town it was fine — though I experienced around 14 MPGs in city driving, but after hitting 75 mph on the freeway, the steering became very light. Those wonderful soft shocks meant to soak up gullies and climb boulders and fallen trees all of a sudden made the whole car feel a little too loose for my comfort. The 285 horsepower 3.6-liter V6 felt a little weak for such a heavy vehicle, which is why 0-60 mph happens at 8.8 seconds and the brakes feel soft as well. I had to be mindful of my following distance.
Jeep as a brand is full of passionate enthusiasts who wave to you in traffic simply because you drive one. With this kind of fan base comes a bit of panache and swagger — and while some cars say “you have arrived”, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Hard Rock conveniently says “you are leaving on an adventure.” Driving one brings a sense of security that you can handle whatever happens, wherever it happens and that’s a feeling you only get when behind the wheel of America’s purest off-road vehicle — just keep the speed down on the freeway.