Click for Coverage
Due to the EU’s Global Data Protection Regulation, our website is currently unavailable to visitors from most European countries. We apologize for this inconvenience and encourage you to visit for the latest on new cars, car reviews and news, concept cars and auto show coverage, awards and much more.MOTORTREND.COM
  • JP Magazine
  • Dirt Sports + Off-Road
  • 4-Wheel & Off-Road
  • Four Wheeler

2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Trail Test

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on December 1, 2002
Share this
Contributors: Jon ThompsonLaura Thompson
Photographers: Laura Thompson

No question, naming a vehicle after northern California's infamous Rubicon Trail is a bold move. Car-company marketing people throw names around like confetti, but in this instance, if you're going to name a vehicle after one of the country's most difficult and challenging trails, you'd better be certain that the vehicle is actually capable of covering this trail.

For that reason, Four Wheeler's road test of the Wrangler Rubicon is a trail test. We took delivery of a Rubicon in Los Angeles, and then we drove it to northern California, did the Rubicon Trail, drove out to Lake Tahoe via Cadillac Trail, and then drove home to Los Angeles, a total trip of about 1,200 miles.

The Rubicon is Jeep's top-of-the-line Wrangler. It comes equipped with the familiar 4.0L six, either a five-speed manual or a new four-speed automatic, a new NVG241OR transfer case that sports a 4:1 low-range ratio, Dana 44 axles, 4.10 rings-and-pinions, and air lockers built by Tochigi Fuji Sanjyo-when the rear diff isn't locked up, it's a limited-slip. So there's plenty of traction here, and plenty of gear reduction-with the 4.02:1 ratio of the manual's first gear, the crawl ratio pencils out to 65.92:1. Topping off this package are disc brakes all around, rock rails, 31-inch Goodyear MT/R radials and 1330 U-joints.

The Rubicon is powered by the familiar 4.0L inline-six. Nice and torquey for trail work, it's noisy on the highway, and not particularly powerful.

Our test vehicle came to us wearing all the bells and whistles, including air conditioning, a hardtop, and locking hard doors. This suited us just fine, as our travels called for the security the hardtop provided. Packing through the Wrangler's swing-out tailgate was a cinch, as the rear seat folds easily and, when folded, provides almost as much space as completely removing the seat would provide. The front-seat news isn't quite so good. We found that out on the highway, when you're in static positions for long stretches, the seats provide just minimal support. As a result, they're not as comfortable as they should be.

Thanks in part to interior upgrades made necessary by new safety standards involving head protection, the '03 Wrangler is very quiet and civilized at highway speeds, with minimal wind noise coming, as expected, from the mirrors and A-pillars.

Even with its low gearing, the Rubicon thrums along nicely at highway speeds thanks in part to the new-for-this-year four-speed automatic trans, turning about 2,000 rpm at 65 mph. But this Wrangler isn't for the highway, it's for the trail-and as a nod to that purpose, it contains, in addition to its hard-core hardware, some thoughtful detail touches-for instance, the odometer reset button is dustproof, and the engine air intake is nice and high to minimize the dangers of liquid ingestion during water crossings.

PhotosView Slideshow

With its limited-slip rear diff and quality tires, the Rubicon can be coaxed along quite nicely in rough country unlocked in two-wheel drive. Eventually, though, you've got to stir that transfer case, controlled by a lever on the left of the center console. Just pull it up through a dogleg and you're in 4-low. Instantly, you're at the helm of a crawling monster-in the case of our automatic-transmissioned tester, further helped by the gear reduction from the torque converter. The combination of all this hardware means that you can roll along, where you need to, at speeds well below a walking pace, juggling momentum by modulating gas and brake, smoothly picking your lines over the toughest obstacles. The brakes feel powerful and sensitive, so are easy to modulate. What it all means is that with the Wrangler Rubicon, difficult trails just got easier.

But only up to a point. All the high-end hardware with which our test vehicle was equipped worked flawlessly, but there was one problem that none of it could help. It's that the Rubicon needs altitude. We 'wheeled this rig to a constant cacophony of bonks and scrapes as the fuel tank, rear bumper and transfer-case skidplate contacted rocks, seemingly on every obstacle. When it was over, a measuring tape showed that even with careful attention, we'd bashed the fuel tank about 31/44-inch flatter than it was when it was spankin' new. We were aired down to 18 psi, and that no doubt cost some clearance. But aired down or not, the Wrangler Rubicon still needs more clearance.

That issue aside, however, the Rubicon just went wherever we pointed it, and went there easily, aided in part by a nice, tight turning circle that made it easy to squeeze through tight places that caused other vehicles to back and fill. Any concerns about forward progress were solved by toggling on the front locker with the dash-mounted switch.

It seems clear that Jeep has a winner on its hands here. In fact, even before pricing was announced, the company already had received 3,300 orders for Rubicons. Pricing has been set at a base of $24,995. Factor in a seven-year, 70,000-mile warranty and a total production run of just 8,000 units, and it seems safe to predict that Jeep will indeed sell every Rubicon it will build. So if this sounds good to you, better step up now.

Check It Out If:
You like the idea of owning the most capable Jeep ever built.

Avoid It If:
You're a roll-yer-own kind of 'wheeler.

PhotosView Slideshow


Vehicle model {{{Jeep Wrangler}}} Rubicon
Base price $24,995
Price as tested $27,{{{740}}}
Options as tested $610 destination charge;
smokers group, $30; floor mats, $30;
four-speed automatic transmission, ${{{825}}};
temp/auto-dim mirror, $220; theft deterrent,
$75;A/C, $895; cruise control, $250;
AM/FM/CD, $125; seven speakers with
subwoofer, tweeters, $295.
Type OHV I-6
Displacement (liter/ci) 242/4.0
Bore x stroke (in.) 3.88x3.41
Compression ratio 8.8:1
Intake EFI
Valve actuation Pushrods
Mfg’s power rating @ rpm (hp) 190 @ 4,{{{600}}}
Mfg’s torque rating @ rpm (lb-ft) 235 @ 3,200
Mfg’s suggested fuel type 87
Transmission 42RLE four-speed auto
First 2.84
Second 1.{{{57}}}
Third 1.00
Fourth 0.69
Reverse 2.21
Axle ratio 4.10:1
Transfer case NVG241OR
Low-range ratio 4:1
Crawl ratio 65.92:1
Engine rpm @ 65 2,000
Frame steel ladder
Body steel
Front Dana 44, coil springs, tubular shocks,
antiroll bar
Rear Dana 44, coil springs, tubular shocks
Type Recirculating Ball
Turns (lock-to-lock) 3.4
Ratio 15.2:1
Front 11.0 vented disc, single-piston calipers
Rear 11.2 solid disc, single-piston caliper
Wheels (in.) 16x8 cast alloy
Tires LT245/75R16 Goodyear MT/R
EPA city/highway 14/18
Actual combined,  
city/highway/trail 14.65
Weight (lbs.) 3,437
Wheelbase (in.) 93.4
Overall length (in.) 156.1
Overall width (in.) 68.2
Height (in.) 70.8
Track f/r (in.) 57.6/57.8
Minimum ground clearance (in.) 10.2
Turning diameter, curb-to-curb (ft.) 36.7
Approach/departure angles (deg.) 45.1/34.4
GVRW (lbs.) 4,550
Payload (lbs.) N/A
Maximum towing capacity (lbs.) 2,000
Seating 4
Fuel capacity (gal.) 19.0
0-30 (sec.) 428
0-60 (sec.) 13.25
30-50 (sec.) 5.55
50-70 (sec.) N/A
Quarter-mile (sec. @ mph) 19.54/69.95
Braking 60-0 mph (ft.) 183.61

Connect With Us

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to the Magazine

Browse Articles By Vehicle

See Results