Since you’re reading Petersen’s 4-Wheel & Off-Road you prize one thing above all else when it comes to new off-road vehicles: function. Does it drive, perform, survive, and wheel better than what came before it and what is offered against it? We recently had the chance to drive Jeep’s newest JL Wrangler over the Rubicon, not only to get intimately acquainted with all the revisions to Wrangler’s flagship Rubicon platform but also to see if we thought any areas were improved over the JK Wrangler, a vehicle that has proven so wildly popular since its introduction in 2007. Here is our take on 10 things we loved about the Wrangler Rubicon JL.
While there are no drastic differences in the suspension architecture of the JL and JK Wranglers, we found the off-road ride and handling of the JL Wrangler Rubicon much improved. We’re betting that the overall vehicle weight reduction has a bit to do with it, but irrespective of that, the spring rate is bang on, and more importantly the shock valving is very dialed. The compression is smooth and controlled. And most importantly, the rebound valving is increased so there’s no bouncing or pogoing after you come down off a rock. Even with full street pressure (38-40 psi) in the tires, the ride was smooth and driver-fatigue-inducing head toss and harsh impacts were vastly minimized.
2. Engine Options
Wrangler in North America is no longer limited to just the 3.6L Pentastar V-6. While the mythical diesel variant of the JL has yet to show itself here in the USA, we did have quite a few turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder variants to test. Compared with the 3.6L’s 285 hp and 260 lb-ft, the 2.0L’s 270 hp and 295 lb-ft is very nice, especially on the road with the Rubicon’s 4.10 axle gears. Granted, modulating the throttle in the 2.0L during slow rockcrawling takes some getting used to because it has different throttle tip-in characteristics than the old familiar 3.6L, but the 2.0L Jeeps feel lighter and more nimble. When the throttle is goosed, the 2.0L accelerates with as much, if not more, ferocity than the 3.6L. We don’t have in-house mileage numbers for you yet, but the torque delivery from the 2.0L is super-usable on the street with low-end grunt down low that is reminiscent of a small diesel.
3. Axle Upgrade
The Rubicon JL models feature next-generation Advantek Dana 44 axles front and rear that claim 11 percent stronger centersection forgings, a much stronger 2 3/4-inch-diameter axletube, and improved support for the ring gear. The Rubicon axles are wider than the pedestrian JL Wrangler axles by roughly 1 1/2 inches, which not only helps with stability but also pushes the tire/wheel combination out farther away from suspension components. That should be a bonus when owners up the tire size to 35s or 37s.
4. Heat, Hood & Grille
For starters, the JK grille has always been something of a disappointment to most Jeep devotees. The JL grille by comparison is flat-out gorgeous, evoking memories of early CJ vehicles. The Rubicon hood is big and bulgy, and features decorative vents on top, but what aren’t decorative are the vents in the front fenders behind the flares. They draw out engine heat while the vehicle is running and allow hot air to exit even during slow rockcrawling.
There was much ado in the Jeep company when it came to retaining the fold-down windshield that flatties, CJs, and Wranglers have historically featured. The easy solution would be to omit the fold-down feature, but then it really wouldn’t be a Jeep to most true devotees. Not only is the JL windshield frame foldable, but it’s ridiculously easy to fold. Just remove two bolts and pull the wiper arms, remove four Torx-head bolts at the top of the windshield frame, and down comes the windshield. Plus, the windshield is completely removable by taking out the four Torx-head bolts that hold it to the brackets. From start to finish you can have the JL windshield folded in under two minutes and completely removed in under three. And the best part is the rollcage is not completely independent of the windshield, allowing the soft top to be kept closed with the windshield folded or removed. It’s awesome!
6. Reduced Weight
To meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards, the JL Wrangler made copious use of lightweight materials. And while decreased fuel consumption is nice, lighter weight translates into a vehicle that feels more airy, flickable, and nimble on- and off-road. The JL features aluminum doors, hinges, hood, and fenders as well as a magnesium swing gate. Aluminum construction continues to the engine, engine mounts, and steering gear. Lighter is better.
7. Real 33s
Although we are somewhat confused that the JL Rubicon comes with an all-terrain tire instead of an honest mud-terrain, the tire size has been upped to a generous 285/70R17. Yes, a 17-inch wheel. In an age when every OE manufacturer is trying to reinvent the wheel (literally) to increase flash and decrease tire sidewall heights, we are very pleased to see the JL Wrangler retaining an excellent sidewall ratio to help absorb bumps, aid in tire conformation around obstacles, and increase survivability. Want to plug holes in your sidewall or install a spare with great frequency? Run some 33-inch tires on 20-inch wheels. Want to hit the trail aired down and have an awesome time? Keep your wheel sizes limited to 17-inch-diameter options and hit it hard.
8. Bigger Flares
For starters, the shape of the JL fender flares is just nicer than the weirdly angled and dihedral’d JK flares. The JL is just a vastly better looking and designed vehicle in our opinion. But not only are the JL flares better looking, with the fronts incorporating the side marker and directional, but their generous opening look like they would easily accommodate a 35-inch tire with no cutting or trimming and might even squeeze a 37. That means you’ll be able to keep your lift heights lower to run a given tire size. Also, since the JL suspension works out of the box, not messing with it right off the bat is a nice option for the JL Rubicon owner who wants to run meaty tires.
The JL Rubicon can be ordered from the factory equipped with steel front and rear bumpers that can take a rock hit without falling apart. Much like the JK front bumper only available as an aftermarket add-on from Mopar, the front JL Rubicon bumpers feature removable ends and can be made winch-capable with the addition of only a winch plate. The rear bumper features steel ends, so gone are the days of the JK’s plastic rear bumper “boxing glove” endcaps that dented on contact with anything harder than a marshmallow. Furthermore, the high-clearance design of the bumpers gives the Rubicon a 44-degree approach angle and a 37-degree departure angle.
10. Interior, Dash & Doors
The JL interior is so much better than the JK that we don’t even know where to begin. For starters, despite the windshield’s increased rake for fuel economy, the interior actually feels roomier. The dash is flatter, which not only evokes memories of an early CJ but also increases the space between driver and dash. The Rubicon locker switch is anodized red and very simple to use, with a wide, fat engagement button and huge “off” button you won’t mistake for a power window switch. The shifters are chunky, and the gear shifter features a red trigger that’s awesome to handle. The bulky rollcage padding has been replaced with impact-rated plastic, which is not only cleaner but smaller in diameter than the goofy cloth-covered foam of old. The gauge cluster and infotainment system is bright and features killer graphics. Last but not least, there are multiple power ports sprinkles throughout.