Solid Axle Slugfest
Some of the greatest battles have never been fought. Mr. T versus Chuck Norris, a grizzly bear versus a lion, the Millennium Falcon versus the USS Enterprise; the Michelin man versus Frosty the Snowman, King Kong versus Godzilla (actually, Kong and Godzilla did battle in a 1962 film, but you get the point). The reason for this diatribe is to set the scene for one of the greatest battles for off-road supremacy of all time. (Please reread that last sentence in your boxing announcer voice to get the full gist of where we are heading.)
Our 30th Anniversary 4x4 of the Year test took on a bizarre dreamlike aura as two of the greatest 4x4s ever built came to blows. Both vehicles have front and rear locking differentials, big aggressive tires, proper trail gears, and similar power-to-weight ratios. One is a nimble zippy featherweight with quick, agile performance: the ’12 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. The other is a heavyweight bruiser with deep axle gears, big V-8 power, and 3⁄4-ton parts to back it up: the ’12 Ram Power Wagon.
If you are wondering where your other favorite 4x4 is, let us remind you that our test is for those vehicles that are new or that have been considerably redesigned or reengineered in a way that would affect off-road performance. The Jeep has a new engine, the Power Wagon a new six-speed transmission. With so few contenders you would think a test like this would be easy—in reality it’s just the opposite. It was one of the best yet toughest 4x4 of the Year trials we’ve ever run. Contending are two trucks with almost all the hardcore off-road requirements we have ever begged the OEMs to install—and now we had to pick just one as the best! Turn the page to see what happened.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is in its ninth year of production, and the 2012 model is the most powerful one yet. The Jeep model that changed the playing field for affordable, showroom-sourced trail wheelers just keeps getting better. The Wrangler received a substantial interior redesign in 2011, but the big news is the more powerful Pentastar 3.6L V-6 engine for 2012. Where the prior 3.8L V-6 was ho-hum under the JK’s hood, the new V-6 is dropping 285/260 horsepower/torque numbers, an improvement over prior models of 40 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Other upgrades over the past year are improved sound deadening, fuel economy, and acceleration.
Our two-door test vehicle came in a yellow/orange paint called Dozer with a soft top, six-speed manual transmission (one of the few available in a midsize SUV), and 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrain tires. With a window sticker just shy of $30,000 the Rubicon definitely outshines its competitor in the cost arena, but what about value for those greenbacks?
A Jeep Rubicon like ours is not for everyone. If you’ve never owned or ridden in a soft-top Jeep, you may be surprised at what Jeep enthusiasts will put up with. Though quieter and better riding than any open-topped Jeep in the past 70-some years ,the Wrangler is not as civilized as most cars. In fact, the Power Wagon downright trounced it for driver comfort. However, driver comfort is the side salad of our test. Off-road performance is the meat.
The Jeep’s solid front and rear Dana 44 axles, 4.10 gears, selectable lockers, coil-link suspension, and 4:1 low-range transfer case ratio are what Jeepers were dreaming of 15-20 years ago, and for good reason. The Jeep is a fun toy in everything but high-speed desert runs, always leaving a smile on the driver’s face.
Rockcrawling is a point-and-shoot affair with twice the forward visibility of the Power Wagon. However, while rockcrawling in low range we did notice the engine would idle up at times, leaving us wishing for slower progress. Applying brakes didn’t seem to slow the Jeep as we hoped. Other times—on the hillclimb, for example—we felt the new engine wouldn’t always lug down as slow and low as we would prefer.
The more aggressive tires outperformed the Power Wagon’s All-Terrains in the mud. The slightly better power-to-weight ratio clinched the mud, sand, and acceleration titles for the little Jeep. High-speed desert runs were fun for sure, but unstable, skittish, and on the edge of control—definitely showing the short wheelbase’s limitations. Of course, that wheelbase allowed exceptional maneuverability both in town and on tight trails.
Underneath, the Jeep had fewer skidplates, but also less belly length to protect than the Ram, though neither Jeep nor Ram protect their transmission or oil pan at all. We did prefer the simple rock rails of the JK over the unprotected sheetmetal of the Ram.
The Wrangler did have certain pitfalls we’d like to see improved, such as the locker and sway bar button location and functions. First, their location is difficult to see. Second, the locker switch is confusing: down for rear on, again down for front on, again down for front off, and finally up for rear off. How about two simple switches we can see for the lockers and a third for the sway bar?
Small and frisky make the little Jeep a contender with great power for the package, a recipe that has been working since 1941.
• Fun power
• Great turning radius
• Short wheelbase at speed
• Loud and rough on road
• Lack of skidplates