When the Rubicon-edition Wrangler was released to the general public in late 2003, it represented a triumph of the lunatic fringe over the bean counters and suits inside Jeep Corporation. Of course, all of us dyed-in-the-wool Jeep enthusiasts and buying public loved the idea and in the 8 years since have snapped up just about every one that Jeep has made.
The Rubicon package boasts a stronger transfer case with a lower low range and front and rear Dana 44s factory-loaded with locking differentials and lower gears. The package also offers some additional rocker protection and off-road-oriented mud-terrain tires.
The Rubicon package embodies what a Jeep should be: uncompromisingly off-road capable. It does this so well that even people who will never use low range or the lockers flock to the Rubicon because it is the quintessential Jeep.
That said, the uncompromising nature of the Rubicon might mean that it won't do what you specifically need it to do. In some situations the lower gears in the T-case and axles can be limiting, the factory tires are specially designed for NVH compliance with skinnier and shorter tread blocks, and the factory lockers can have their own shortcomings too. So, what is right for you-the Rubicon or non-Rubicon? That is really a question only you can answer, but here is how our esteemed editors approached the question.
When my girlfriend was Jeep shopping in late 2005/early 2006, I steered her away from the Rubicon-edition Jeep. Sure, the beefier T-case would have been nice, but realistically she didn't need to spend the extra money for the lower gears she didn't really need. Besides, if we were ever to lift it, we would have just needed new carriers to regear it anyway, and the factory lockers would have had to go away.
Today, the gear companies have stepped in with thicker ring gears for the 4.56 and 4.88 crowd so that you can still run your factory lockers with deeper gears. It is one of those if I knew then what I know now kind of things. To complicate matters, at the time she was shopping for a Jeep she wanted 35s, but by the time we had it up on 33s, she was happy with both looks and off-road performance.
She didn't get a Rubicon, and now we both wish she had. What it comes down to is if you plan on running 33-inch tires or smaller, the 4.10 gears in the axles will work great. But then, the 4:1 in the T-case is really only useful if you are wheeling heavy rocks. For sand and regular trail runs the 4:1 is just too low and 1:1 is usually too high, leaving you high and dry with no decent solution.
Then let's talk axles. The Dana 44s are really more like Dana 39s. They don't have the 1/2-ton strength that a Dana 44 should have. The front axle shares more parts with a Dana 30 than a Dana 44, and the TJ rear axle will bend into a smiley face with just a little abuse. I have seen the lockers in both the JK and TJ die horrible deaths where comparable aftermarket units would have lived. The parts for the lockers and the lockers themselves just aren't easy to come by.
The 1-inch-wider flares on the TJs are nice, especially if you live in a state where you aren't allowed to modify fenders or fender flares. The rocker protection is better than no protection, but if you use the Jeep as the T-case gearing demands, you'll destroy the factory rocker guards in short order.
At the end of the day, I guess it comes down to how much more money the seller (whether new or used) is asking for a Rubicon-edition Wrangler and what you are going to do with it. If you are going to put 35s or bigger on it and beat it, the odds are good that the factory axles won't live long anyway and you are really paying for the T-case. In that case you'd be better off in the long run saving the money up front and springing for axles that are built to handle the abuse you plan on dishing out. However, if you are going to run a 33-inch or smaller tire then I could in good conscience suggest a Rubicon to you, that is, if the 4:1 T-case won't crimp your off-road style too badly. Clear as mud? Yeah, me too.
Mr. Practicality: Hazel
As both the Technical Editor for Jp magazine and the guy who fields all the Your Jeep questions, I'm asked the Rubicon versus regular Wrangler question at least once a week. My answer always begins, "Well it depends on what you want to do with your Jeep." If you want big tires with beadlock wheels and plan on doing crazy rockcrawling and hardcore trail work, buy a regular Wrangler. If you buy a Rubicon you'll be throwing away good components you already paid a premium for. The same goes for if you just want a cool Jeep to cruise around town in and infrequently-if-ever plan on taking it off-road. Then you paid a lot of money for components you'll never get any use out of.
Let's run through a theoretical build for a rockcrawling TJ Rubicon on 37s. First, you'll want a 4- or 6-inch long-arm suspension. The Rubicon comes with a slip yoke eliminator on the rear of the NVG241OR T-case, but a taller, long-travel lift will necessitate upgrading to a longer rear shaft with more travel in the splines. Depending on the lift, you may also have to lengthen or upgrade the front shaft as well. The TJ Rubicon wheels are 16x8, so to run some decent tires you'll need to step into a 15- or 17-inch rim. There go your Rubicon wheels out the window. Your rocker armor will need upgrading because the factory diamond-plate rockers won't survive repeated and brutal bashings. The factory 4.10 gears won't cut it and the TJ Rubicon Dana 44 shafts will need to be bumped up with some aftermarket alloy parts. You just spent a ton of money to upgrade a set of Dana 44 axles with weak tubes and lockers that most likely won't survive long with 37-inch or larger tires.
Where a Rubicon does make sense is if you're looking for a multi-use vehicle that you can drive on the street and then hit moderately difficult trails with on the weekends. Again, using a TJ Rubicon as an example, you can toss in 2-inch coil spacers and longer shocks on the suspension, install a 1-inch body lift and a set of 1-inch-lift motor mounts, and have plenty of clearance for some 33-inch-diameter 285/75R16 tires mounted on the factory wheels. Add an upgraded steering linkage setup for strength, some off-road bumpers, and a winch, and you've got a vehicle you can take down virtually any popular trail in the country without spending a fortune on aftermarket parts or negatively affecting the on-road drivability. A similarly built regular Wrangler would require upgrading the T-case with a slip yoke eliminator, buying a CV rear driveshaft, swapping axle gears and adding lockers, and adding rocker armor.
The Wrangler Rubicon is the most capable production vehicle ever offered. But a Rubicon only makes sense for someone who uses it mostly in the rocks or on other slow crawling trails. As both Hazel and Trasborg mentioned, some of the major features are a hindrance for other kinds of off-road use.
A new Wrangler Rubicon costs about $6,000 more than a similarly equipped Sport model. I'll admit that at that price all the Rubicon features are a bargain-if you keep and use them. However, it doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense to start chucking components like the Rubicon wheels and tires, 4.10 axle gears, and rocker guards when you start to modify your Jeep. And if you plan on installing tires that are larger than 35 inches and actually take it off-road, you're better off starting with a non-Rubicon. It will probably cost you less in the long run because those stock Rubicon axles won't hold up forever with 37-inch tires.
Personally I think that the non-Rubicons make better all-around 4x4s. The standard 2.72:1 low range ratio found in non-Rubicons is way better for sand, mud, snow, and general off-roading. The 4.1 transfer case found in the Rubicon is really only any good for rocks since the top speed in low range is only about 25 miles-per-hour.
For the same money as a Rubicon, I'd pick up a Sport, add a lift, 35-inch tires, wheel spacers, rocker guards, sway bar disconnects, and a rear locker. I'd still have about $3,000 left in my pocket and arguably a more versatile, generally more capable, and cooler-looking Jeep than a stock Rubicon.