Destination: Marseilles, Illinois in the 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: May 16, 2018
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I am now a One-Percenter.

No, I didn’t win the lottery or sell Rides & Drives for the billions of dollars I’m sure it’s worth. I’m a member of an elite cadre of people who have actually driven a Jeep in the environment for which it was designed, off road.

Actually, this isn’t the first time. Back when American Motors made Jeeps and I was a lowly intern at Car and Driver Magazine in 1979, I borrowed David E. Davis, Jr.’s CJ-7 that had been tricked out with fancy wheels, Recaro seats, a Momo steering wheel, and Cibie lights bolted all over the place. He affectionately dubbed it “The Pig of Bronze” after its porcine hood ornament. Ostensibly off to run an errand for the magazine, I was driving past an empty lot just outside of Ann Arbor that had trails running through the trees and a fairly steep hill at its center. I couldn’t resist. I pulled onto the main trail, got out, locked the hubs, and threw the transfer case into 4 Low. It wasn’t long before I had clambered over a few rocks and fallen branches and found myself at the top of the hill. I pointed the CJ down its steep face, the shift lever in second, hoping to control the speed of my descent.

Everything was going fine until I hit some sand about halfway down and felt the Jeep slew sideways at which point I saw my nascent automotive journalism career crashing prematurely as the Jeep threatened to roll onto its Levi’s branded denim top. Fortunately, through a proper (albeit lucky) application of the clutch and steering wheel, I managed to straighten things out, found myself at the bottom of the hill on all four wheels, my heart trying to crowd my tonsils out of my throat and the metallic taste of adrenaline blending with the flavor of the tacos I had consumed just 30 minutes earlier. Yum. The Pig of Bronze was none the worse for wear though I did get a few questions about how it got so dusty. Lesson learned.

Fast-forward to one of the few nice days in the spring of 2018 at a facility outside of Chicago called The Cliffs Insane Terrain Off-Road Park, and there I was behind the wheel of a brand new four-door Wrangler Rubicon ready to take on rivers, hills, logs, rocks, and – thanks to yet another late season snowfall the previous day – mud. Lots and lots and lots of mud. It was the kind of wet, sloppy, gooey mud that would steal your boots if you happened to wade in just a bit too deep. Thus, it was the perfect place to determine if this latest Jeep still lived up to its “Trail Rated” badge.

I needn’t have worried. The Jeep team from FCA in Detroit didn’t bring me here to watch their newest baby fail. As challenging as conditions were, they were no match for all the technology and capability that’s baked into the grandson of the vehicle that almost ended my career before it got started.

Located just outside the sleepy river town of Marseilles, The Insane Terrain Park is an oasis of hills and trees in the otherwise pancake-flat, prairie landscape that makes up most of northern Illinois. Open on weekends throughout the year, it’s a place where owners of 4X4, quads, and dirt bikes come to test the capabilities of both their machines and themselves. To ensure we got the most out of this experience, FCA brought in experienced guides from their signature event, the Jeep Jamboree. They gave us a lot of great pointers which my friend and co-driver for the event, Jerry Perez, wrote about on The Drive.

The beauty of off-roading is getting out in nature and putting ruts in it. And the new JL (the letter designation for this latest platform) Jeep Rubicon is ideal for doing that. Two engines, a naturally aspirated V6 and a mild-hybrid I4, are your current power options in the Wrangler, with a turbodiesel V6 on the way. With the V6, you have a choice of an 8-speed automatic and 6-speed manual which you should really get because, you know, Jeep and stuff. If you go for the hybrid, you can only get the automatic. There are all kinds of electronic wizardry at play distributing the power to all four wheels wherever it’s needed most regardless of which way it’s geared. Important for this task were locking differentials front and rear that make sure both wheels keep turning if one loses grip.

Another remarkable piece of engineering in the new Wrangler is the electronically detachable front sway bar. The sway bar is an essential part of making the Jeep drivable on the road. It helps control body roll by keeping the wheels level. When you’re trying to get your right front tire over a two-foot boulder, however, level is the last thing you want your wheels to be. So for years, off-roaders have crawled under their Jeeps and unbolted the sway bar to allow the left and right suspensions to operate more independently, adding a lot of additional travel to the front wheel, while keeping the others planted on terra firma. Now all you have to do is press a button. Ain’t technology a wonderful thing?

Tires make a big difference when you’re running over rocks and through the mud. The beefy BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain tires that come standard on the Rubicon provided remarkable grip, even when the skid plate was dragging in the mud through a particularly rutted section of the trail. One watch out. If you’re trying to negotiate tight corners, you might need to disengage the diff locks. Having the wheels turn at the same rate means a wider turning radius. Like everything in life, there’s a tradeoff. What you gain in grip, you lose in maneuverability.

Because the primary mission of Jeeps is now to get the kids to soccer practice instead of soldiers to the front, they’re a lot nicer inside than they used to be. If you opt for the more on-road oriented trim package, the Sahara, things get damn near luxurious. Even in the Rubicon, you can get heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and an upgraded infotainment system that includes an 8.4-inch touchscreen, Alpine premium audio, satellite radio, navigation, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. Though you won’t confuse it for a Rolls-Royce, it’s not a bad place to spend some time.

On the road, the Wrangler Rubicon has reasonable manners as I found out on the drive to the hotel. If you plan on visiting The Insane Terrain Off-Road Park, I highly recommend staying in nearby Ottawa. You can get a clean, comfortable room at a number of chain hotels there and when you want to fill your belly and tell lies about all the gnarly terrain you conquered that day, dinner at The Lone Buffalo and washed down with a beer from its attached microbrewery will do the trick.

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Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, Pursuitist.com. His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

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