Driven: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

Long an American icon, the Wrangler is starting to make its presence felt among the UK’s offroading community, writes Carlton Boyce.

Despite being an all-new vehicle, the new fourth-generation ‘JL’ Wrangler is still instantly recognisable as a Jeep. In fact, it’s so recognisable that it’s probably one of only half-a-dozen vehicles that everyday folk could name. It’s a shape in which form follows function of course. No-one would ever call it pretty but there’s a brutal sense of purpose that is, to my eyes at least, very attractive.

Three trim levels are available: The Sahara is the entry-level model. Available with both a petrol and a diesel engine delivering 272bhp and 200bhp respectively, prices start at just under £45,000 for the two-door version, and just over £46,000 for the four-door. There is no premium for the diesel engine, although Jeep expects to sell more with a petrol engine under the bonnet than an oil burner.

The Overland is the luxury model with premium features such as a leather interior, extra active safety equipment, body coloured wings, and snazzy alloy wheels. It is aimed at those drivers who spend most of their time on the road and may only venture into the rough stuff occasionally, or want to keep mobile during adverse weather.

The Rubicon, on the other hand, is aimed squarely at the hard-core off-roader thanks to its simple black plastic, scratch-resistant wings, front and rear differential locks, a front anti-roll bar that can be remotely disconnected, and a heavy duty electrical system to power accessories like a winch and auxiliary lights. The Overland and Rubicon Wranglers both cost just under £47,000 for the two-door model, and just over £48,000 for the four-door.

Again, the diesel and petrol models cost the same to buy and will probably be broadly similar in running costs, too as the diesel should return about 30mpg overall, while the petrol should manage about 25mpg. The diesel is very torquey, especially at low revs, which is handy when you’re picking your way through an obstacle off road, while the petrol is quieter and revs more freely if fast road runs are your thing.

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Fuel choice is inevitably as subjective as it is objective but if it helps I was very happy with the diesel. I spent two weeks ambling across the Sahara Desert in one and came away mightily impressed, not least because I still was able to power through Europe at an easy 70mph while still eking out an average of 32mpg.

All Jeep Wranglers are fitted with an automatic ‘box in addition to a low-range gearbox for off-road, low-speed use. All UK vehicles also have a three-piece roof that can be completely removed – as can the doors – in under half-an-hour for genuine al fresco fun. I tried it out in Morocco and found it to be an incredibly clever system – and Jeep even gives you a place to store all the screws and bolts you’ll be left with when you take the roof and doors off.

The bulk of the Sahara Desert is hamada, a mixture of compacted sand and small rocks. It’s hugely variable in its composition, so you can be hurtling along at 80mph in places and then be forced to a crawl in others and the Jeep Rubicon I was driving handled it all with aplomb. Crawling my way along and across dried-up river beds was just as straightforward; with the low-range gearbox selected and the front anti-roll bar disengaged to give extra front axle articulation, it simply pottered across terrain that most other off-road vehicles would have struggled with.

Faced with a vast network of sand dunes to cross, we simply let the tyres down to about 15psi to increase their footprint, engaged front and rear differential locks, and powered our way through. Driving in sand dunes is the polar opposite of crawling over rocks, and has more in common with skiing that traditional off-road driving. Power is the key, along with riding the side slopes. It’s enormously addictive, and few cars are more fun in this environment that a Rubicon.

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Irritations are few; the three-door’s boot is tiny but then if load carrying is your thing then you would buy the bigger-but-uglier five-door version. Interior storage space isn’t brilliant, but even that is casting around for faults rather than something that is a genuine problem.

My only concern is the finish isn’t always to the sort of standard that you’d expect of a nigh-on £50,000 vehicle. While the quality of the interior and exterior fittings is pretty good, there was a lot of welding spatter along the top of the front door frames, right at the point where you naturally place your hand to steady yourself. This was an issue on all of the four vehicles I examined, so it’s clearly a widespread problem.

That aside, the new Wrangler is an enormously accomplished vehicle. If you’ve got £50,000 burning a hole in your pocket then I can’t think of anything that offers the same duality of purpose as it does; I’d be just as happy crossing Europe in one as I was crossing the Sahara Desert.

And while the Suzuki Jimny offers the same tough-but-fun persona – and costs £30,000 less – I wouldn’t fancy crossing a continent in one. For that reason, the Jeep Wrangler is in a class of its own, both figurately and literally.

 

Thanks to Unity Expo for the loan of the Jeep. Unity Expo’s guided tour of Morocco can be undertaken in your own four-wheel-drive vehicle or in one of theirs.

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Happiest in the snow, Carlton is an ex-police officer and prison governor who has migrated to the world of adventure travel via motoring journalism. Carlton drives boats and pickups with more enthusiasm than skill, and is currently working on his first novel in addition to his prison memoirs.