When Jeep introduced the LJ Wrangler Unlimited in mid-2004, it was only a matter of time until the Rubicon version became available (heck, we're complete idiots, and even we suspected it was less than a year away). But some other cool features were brought forth for the '05 model year of the Wrangler Unlimited.
First of the noteworthy is the NSG 370 six-speed manual transmission that replaces the five-speed NVG3550 manual (the 42RLE four-speed automatic remains an option). If you think back to the '0411/42 LJ intro ("More Wrangler," June '04), you'll remember it was only available with an automatic transmission. Jeep reps later told us they didn't want to go through the hassle of adapting the NVG3550 to the Unlimited chassis since the five-speed tranny would be replaced with the six-speed less than a year later. So, those of you who bought the '0411/42 Unlimited dreaming of the Rubicon model and a manual tranny ... sorry, ya got screwed.
Underneath the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon you'll find the same hard parts as what's under its shorter brother, the TJ Rubicon. Sturdy disc-braked, 4.11-geared and selectable-locked Dana 44 solid axles front and rear, 31-inch Goodyear MT/R tires and a 4:1 low-geared Rock-Trac NVG241OR transfer case are all standard meat and potatoes. However, you get a 10-inch longer wheelbase and way more storage room than the short TJ.
On- and off-road, the longer wheelbase dictates a smoother ride and more climbing capability. Like the original Wrangler Rubicon, the Unlimited version sports the same easy-to-use toggle switch for the lockers and a real shift lever for the transfer case. For us, the front locker was only needed for really rough or steep sections of trail. We had it off most of the time and were able to travel where we wanted with only the rear unit on.
The new NSG 370 manual is a great addition. Matched with the 4.0L, you'll find yourself shifting more often but, interestingly, having more fun driving. It's hard to pick the wrong gear with the close ratios and torque of the inline. Finding all six gears may take a little getting used to, especially if you've spent time behind the NVG3550 manual. The shifter feels a little rubbery, but it self-centers between Third and Fourth when shifted to Neutral. This is helpful in finding where you're at if you miss a shift. The 4.46 First gear in the six-speed is slightly lower than that in the old five-speed (4.04:1), providing an impressive 73:1 crawl ratio. Picky car owners may notice a considerable amount of gear slop in the Rubicon version of the Unlimited with the manual transmission in First and the transfer case in low range. However, this is a real 4x4 with real hard parts, so you shouldn't complain about such things if you are a true Wrangler buyer. Get used to it or buy a Liberty. Like the standard Unlimited, towing capacity for the LJ Rubicon is 3,500 pounds - 1,500 pounds more than the short TJ.
For a mere $1,000 you can step up from a Wrangler Rubicon ($27,825 base) into the longer, more comfortable and family-friendly Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon ($28,825 base). That screams, "Deal!" to us. So how could the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon be even better? Glad you asked. Tipping the scales at an awfully porky 3,800 pounds, we think the LJ Rubicon is in serious need of a V-8. Don't get us wrong, the 4.0L inline-six is a great engine, but in a smaller Jeep. We're also a little disenchanted with the 42RLE four-speed auto tranny behind the 4.0L in all Wranglers. It really doesn't enhance or work well with the power output of the 4.0L. The 4.0L is certainly on the chopping block for 2006 or 2007; however, we suspect a pathetic V-6 replacement is in the plans. We'd rather see a V-8, at least as an add-on in the heavier Wrangler Unlimited models where the 2.4L four-cylinder isn't even an option.
Perhaps the 5.7L Hemi found in WK Grand Cherokees would be a good candidate, especially since it's rumored to be easier to manufacture and less expensive than the older 4.7L V-8. Also, how about a three-speed transfer case? The 4.0:1 low range is nice, but we really like having the standard 2.72 low range for sand-dune and mud-hole whumpin'. So what if you run the 2.72:1 planetary and stack it in front of a 4:1 planetary? This would give us the option of low and really low. A 2.72:1 and a 1.47:1 are another possibility, as long as they can be shifted simultaneously for a combined 4:1 transfer-case low range.
All in all, the '05 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is extremely capable right out of the box. It's a welcome hardcore addition to the Jeep family tree that seems to be growing more on the softer side with vehicles like the Liberty and WK Grand. For now, the Wrangler and its derivatives (Unlimited, Rubicon and Unlimited Rubicon) are the only easily modified Jeep vehicles available for the 4x4 enthusiast market. If ya like 'em and want one, don't wait too long - they may be gone in a few years.