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2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon - Moab Rim Trail

Posted in Features on September 1, 2002
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Contributors: Mark Nobles

Current theories of evolution advance the idea that, rather than being a continual process, evolution actually occurs in sudden, sporadic bursts followed by long periods of stasis. In essence, things tend to stay the same until some cataclysmic event forces change.

Consider The Jeep
This is a vehicle that was born out of war. By necessity, it was a tough, simple design whose mantra was sheer survival. With the coming of peace, the military Jeep evolved into the CJ series of vehicles, which went on to establish a long and venerated history. After decades of very little change, the CJ bowed to the inevitable and stepped aside in favor of the Wrangler YJ, a more modern, more technically advanced vehicle than its predecessor. Yet, the YJ lasted less than 10 years before being forced from the scene by a vehicle that, in many ways, revolutionized the four-wheel-drive market: the Wrangler TJ. Equipped with a four-link, coil spring suspension, the TJ was unlike anything most four-wheelers had ever seen. And they loved it.

Now, four-wheelers are faced with another small burst of evolution: the Wrangler Rubicon. This time, the changes they find should come as no surprise; this vehicle is everything they've been asking for since the TJ debuted in '96: front and rear Dana 44s, a 4:1 T-case, a four-speed tranny, air lockers, rocker skids, and Goodyear MTRs. If you're wondering whether this means the standard TJ is about to slip into the annals of history, the answer is no. For now, the Rubicon will remain a special-edition vehicle with an initial production run of about 8,000 units.

While at the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, this year, we had the opportunity to spend a full day testing the Wrangler Rubicon. Between playing around with all the new equipment and taking in the envious looks we got from other four-wheelers out on the trails, it was a great day.

We started off by running the Moab Rim trail. This was the first time in several years that we'd done Moab Rim in a stick shift, but with the new 4:1 transfer case in Low, we never had to bother with feathering the clutch to get up and over any of the ledges. We just shifted into First gear, then sat back and let the Jeep crawl. We have to say that out of all the upgrades the Rubicon has undergone, we love the 4:1 T-case the most. It made crawling up steep obstacles a breeze and meant that we didn't have to ride the brake coming back down.

Of course, the new air lockers didn't hurt either. To keep things simple, the Jeep engineers decided to use a single toggle switch to engage both front and rear. Click the switch once and the rear locks up; click it again and the front locks up. Simple. Fully locked up and turning Goodyear MTR rubber, we had no trouble with traction. The little Jeep went wherever we pointed it.

By 10:30 that morning, we'd gone up and down the Rim trail without a hitch. So we headed across town to Hell's Revenge, which we felt would be a little more challenging. Much of this trail consists of broad, steep, slickrock hills, with a few ledges and washes thrown in for good measure. Then, of course, there is Hell's Gates, which carries a pucker factor all its own.

Essentially, we spent the remainder of the day just running up and over every obstacle we came across. However, our success on two of the obstacles really exemplified the Rubicon's prowess: Hell's Gates and the Hot Tub. The former consists of two extremely steep V-shaped crevices about 50 yards long; one takes you in, the other takes you out. The latter is basically a big hole in the ground that Mother Nature kindly provided for four-wheelers to test their rigs.

When we tackled Hell's Gates, there was really no one around to take note of the accomplishment. All four of us went down and came back up the other side without any slipping, sliding, or bullying. The Rubicon never flinched. When we arrived at the Hot Tub, though, there was a sizeable audience on hand that was extremely interested to see what these stock TJs could do. We waited until the Jeep that was in the Tub got strapped out, and then the Rubicon went to work. Honestly, it was too easy. Climbing out of the Tub took a couple of tries to get the correct line, but when the Wrangler pulled right out, the crowd went wild with enthusiasm and spent the next 10 minutes crawling all over the rigs.

After a full day of four-wheeling, we came away enormously impressed with the new Rubicon. Initially, we were a little skeptical of an OE manufacturer (even Jeep) trying to develop and incorporate the kind of hard-core parts that the aftermarket has become so adept at designing. But, what really makes it all work, from the Dana 44s to the 4:1 T-case to the air lockers, is that the engineers responsible for the Rubicon are hard-core four-wheelers themselves. This vehicle was a labor of love, and it shows.

The only new piece of equipment that we didn't have the opportunity to put to the test was the new four-speed automatic transmission. At long last, the hated three-speed tranny is being dropped from the TJ. For those who go to larger tires and lower gears, this will make those highway trips a lot more palatable.

As we mentioned earlier, evolution tends to occur in sudden bursts, and we think that the Wrangler Rubicon is going to burst onto the off-road scene to spectacular applause.

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