2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4×4 Review
By Roger Boylan
This test of a 2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4X4–it’s quite a mouthful, so let’s call it “the Rubicon” for short–was my second week-long association with a Wrangler. Back in November of ’08 I tested an Unlimited Sahara, the next trim level down in the line-up (six versions and counting, from base Wrangler Sport to top-of-the-hill Rubicon), and cheaper than the Rubicon, which can run you a theoretical $37K, fully loaded. I stress that theoretical, because I doubt that anyone in all of history has ever paid that kind of money for a Jeep Wrangler, however well-equipped. Mind you, even at that price point it’s a lot cheaper than a Range Rover, Toyota Land Cruiser, or Hummer, the other obvious rugged but family-friendly 4x4s (but on par with less upscale Toyota FJ Cruisers or Nissan Xterras).
Fortunately, the Rubicon Unlimited starts at a more reasonable $32,800 (the two-door, non-Unlimited model is cheaper), and, as its name suggests–honoring not the Rubicon of ancient Rome, the one fatefully crossed by Caesar, but the Rubicon Trail of California’s Sierra Nevada–it’s the Jeep model for serious off-roading. (The “Unlimited” moniker denotes four doors and a 116-inch wheelbase, which adds more than 20 inches to the traditional two-door Jeep Wrangler body that harks back to Omaha Beach, General Patton, and Bastogne.) To the standard Wrangler array of equipment the Rubicon adds 18-inch alloy wheels, massive gnarly 32-inch tires, an electronic stabilizer bar disconnect feature, electronically locking differentials front and rear, a toughened-up front axle, low-range transfer case, an Infinity stereo with subwoofer, Sirius Satellite radio, cruise control, foglamps, tow hooks fore and aft, an onboard compass and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. For high-tech diehards, the Sahara and Rubicon offer an optional navigation system with a hard drive, digital music storage, iPod interface, and Bluetooth connectivity. More importantly, all Wranglers feature antilock brakes, stability control, rollover sensor, and hill-start assist; front-seat side airbags are optional, but I wouldn’t leave home without them. Thus equipped, the Wrangler earned a perfect five stars in frontal-impact protection in government crash testing, and the it a rating of “Good,” the highest, for frontal-offset impacts, but only “Marginal” in side-impact crash tests, even with the side bags. Still, take it from me, you’ll be a lot safer with than without.
The Rubicon, like all current Wranglers, comes with a tried-and-true 3.8-liter pushrod V6, borrowed from the previous-generation Dodge Caravan. It puts out 202 hp and 237 lb.-ft. of torque, not much in a world of 400-horsepower pickup trucks and 300-horsepower family sedans; but I have to confess, after criticizing the ’09 model’s lack of oomph in my previous review, I was pleasantly surprised by the ’10 engine’s apparent greater punch. Not that it couldn’t use another 20 or 30 horses, but it’s the same engine as in the ’09, so, unless I was imagining things, the 4-speed automatic transmission must have taller gearing in the new model, or I had a perpetual tailwind. Either way, I got from standstill to 60 in 9.5 seconds: not exactly Ferrariesque, but not bad for a hulking 4,500-lb. utility vehicle with the aerodynamics of a brick. In fact, I was surprised all over again by how much fun this thing is to drive. The steering is a tad twitchy, but precise. The transmission could use another gear, but shifts smoothly, and hunts less than did the tranny on the ’09 I drove. (Wranglers also come with six-speed manuals, if you like shifting for yourself.) Said aerodynamics contribute to considerable buffeting and wind noise at speed, especially with the soft top, which my Rubicon came with: you know, the Baja-beach convertible look that lets you show off your long tanned legs and flowing blond hair. Not answering to that description myself, I’d get the hard top, no question. The “Freedom Top,” optional on all Wranglers, is a three-piece modular unit, with a rear window defroster and wiper and tinted windows. My ’09 test Sahara had it, and as I recall the wind noise was considerably diminished.
Of course, it’s when the pavement goes away that the Rubicon excels. About ten miles from my house in the Texas Hill Country, off the spectacular Devil’s Backbone mountain pass, is an ideal off-road testing ground deceptively named Serenity Drive, which is no drive, and definitely not serene, but which my Rubicon happily made short work of, in and out of 4-wheel drive (you shift the lever into 4-High or 4-Low, as needed: primitive but effective) and various potholes and ditches, and up and around boulders and rockfalls. The 10.2 inches of ground clearance, and steep approach and departure angles, make the Wrangler the off-road champ. If you want, you can disconnect the sway bar at speeds less than 18 mph in 4WD low, which allows you to crawl and creep about like a great big cockroach. I won’t say our progress was especially comfortable, but it was well-controlled, and I heard nary a creak or rattle, apart from whatever lay loose in the cabin. All in all, the Jeep impressed my wife, who rode along (and who isn’t easily impressed by cars), as having the robustness and solidity of “a mini-tank”; and indeed, there’s something deeply reassuring, especially to a Jag owner such as I, about being behind the wheel of a rugged, no-worries machine that couldn’t care less if it’s pouring rain or snowing or whether the mud up ahead’s just mildly adhesive or the consistency of glue. And on the Rubicon you have three skid plates protecting your vulnerable underbelly, a reassuring thought, not just on the trail but on the highway, too, where “gators” and other debris lie in wait for the unwary.
Fuel economy? Not really, although I’ve seen worse. The Rubicon is EPA-rated at 15 mpg city and 19 highway. The tank holds 22.5 gallons, so it gets you through about 380 miles before you have to start looking for the bright lights of a filling station; I averaged 18.1 mpg in an uneven combination (about 60/40, respectively) of highway and city driving, with that jaunt up Serenity Drive thrown in. Something above 20 mpg would be nice, certainly, but this in itself wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, certainly not these days, with regular gasoline at reasonable prices.
Inside, the Rubicon’s pretty basic, but much more comfortable than in days of yore, or than its two-door sibling. Bear in mind this is, after all, a utilitarian vehicle. Although plastic abounds, the instrument panel’s well laid out, with clear and easy-to-read instruments, including the compass and temperature gauges. Controls are basic and intuitive. The steering wheel is a bit too big, but it’s comfortable to hold, and boasts a Benz-like cruise-control stalk on its right side. The seats, cloth in my test car, are well padded, and the seating position is, ultimately, very comfortable, although my wife was disconcerted at first by the intrusive transmission hump that takes up a good part of the front passenger footwell. After a while, though, she had found a cozy perch, and had nothing but good things to say about our mud-spattered Rubicon as we scooted about the Hill Country. Rear passenger space is excellent, and a colleague who rode back there compared it favorably to the space and comfort in her ’09 Subaru Forester. Fold the rear seats down and you have 86 cu. ft. of cargo space (compared to 68.3 in the Forester, if you were wondering).
Yeah, I’d get one, not instead of a family car but alongside it. I’ve always been partial to Jeeps and the Jeep heritage, and to cars generally that are distinctive and get the job done while retaining some real personality, however rough-hewn. After all, I’m no blushing violet myself.
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