Driven: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 2.2 CRD AT8
I do believe the car is the greatest liberator of man (and woman) ever, the most important general-purpose invention from that era. Henry Ford democratized the automobile with the introduction of the Model T, then Volkswagen launched the Beetle in extremely different circumstances but with the same purpose as Ford three decades earlier. The German people were enticed by the dream of owning a car on a different level as well thanks to the Autobahn conceived by the Weimar Republic back in the mid 1920s.
Coincidence or not, the United States Numbered Highway System was also founded in the ‘20s as the more comfortable and faster alternative to early auto trails. But wait a second, don't these road networks limit our driving options? The answer to that is yes, and for me, it’s not exactly liberating to drive behind fast-lane hoggers or listen to Lil’ Something on the radio while stuck in the daily traffic jam in the exhaust fumes of others.
But on the other hand, certain types of automobiles aren’t limited to driving exclusively on the blacktop. While I do refer to 4x4 utility vehicles, I am certainly not alluding to what the British call green laning. The concept of a go-anywhere vehicle for everyone came to be as a result of War World II and the Willys–Overland Motor Company.
Once the second-largest automobile manufacturer in the United States, Willys had to adapt its business model after government orders started to run dry towards the end of the war. The MB military jeep morphed into the CJ series, and although it didn’t sell well, these two did cast the mold for future utility vehicles.
If it weren’t for the MB and CJ, overlanding icons such as the Defender, Land Cruiser, Patrol, and Samurai would’ve never existed. The body-on-frame design soldiers on to this day, and in the case of the Wrangler we’re going to talk about, the CJ-2A was the inspiration for the headlights that cut into the signature grille’s outer slots. Very heritage, much wow!
Our tester is a 2019 model year JLU for Europe, an Unlimited Rubicon with the 2.2-liter turbo diesel that Fiat Chrysler debuted in the Alfa Romeo Giulia. A six-speed manual isn’t available at all, and that’s not much of a bummer unless we’re talking about those people who like crazy rebuilds from the ground up, Hellcat supercharged V8 engine swap and all that jazz.
The MultiJet II turbo diesel – which is CRD or EcoDiesel in Jeep talk – features an all-aluminum block with the same displacement and compression ratio for both models. Opening the hood, however, reveals a very different story in terms of packaging. The Italian sedan may feature tons of room for servicing the engine, but the Wrangler is a bit more difficult to work on.
Ample torque is available from the get-go even though the large and knobbly tires don’t help with acceleration, and like the Alfa Romeo, the Jeep is also gifted with the ZF 8HP torque-converter automatic transmission. The differences in shifting strategy and gearing, however, couldn’t be more different because the Wrangler isn’t meant to be smooth and sporty.
While the plastics may seem like an upgrade to JK owners, the JL sweetens the deal with soft-touch padding and the softness of the seats. The driving position has also been improved, and on the long haul, the only problem with driving the Unlimited Rubicon is the tire roar.
Oh yes, that noise got on my nerves in the first hour of driving, then I grew accustomed to the sound of those mud-terrains on tarmac. The sound becomes noticeable from 50 kilometers per hour or thereabouts, and as a bonus point, the sound insulation around the wheel wells keeps a lot of the tire roar outside the cabin.
Another element of surprise for the JL is the Uconnect infotainment system, which runs great while offering tons of essential information thanks to Off-Road Pages. The digital instrument cluster is fine too, yet Jeep could’ve done better with the resolution of the display flanked by two analog gauges for the velocity and revs.
The JLU in the photo gallery may seem familiar to recurring readers of autoevolution, and that’s because B 304 AIT is the star of our Jeep Adventure Day 2019 - Not All 4x4s Are Created Equal cover story. A few scratches on the black plastic bumpers and Freedom Top modular roof panels is how every Rubicon should look like, kind reminders that Jeeps are meant to go places where other crossovers and SUVs fear to tread.
Make no mistake about it; all the big boys in the industry – including the Ford Motor Company with the 2021 Bronco – want a slice of the Wrangler’s iconic status and market share.
Speaking of Bimmers, yours truly has encountered lots of X5s while driving the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon in Bucharest, Romania. Each and every single one of their drivers – I kid you not – was looking with admiration and envy at the white-painted Jeep, wishing their bee-ems were as cool and commanding as the JLU.
It’s even cooler to take off the doors and roof if you can handle the wind and cold, but do remember that it’s illegal in some countries to drive a car without the doors on. New South Wales Roads & Maritime Services in Australia, for example, will be much obliged to hand out a fine for this practice. Oh, and while on the subject, please get yourself an extra set of muscles when taking the roof and doors off because they’re not as light as some would imagine.
For testing the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon off the beaten track, yours truly decided on a scenic drive to the magnificent Tabla Butii. This mountain pass used to serve as a commercial route from Muntenia to the historical region of Transylvania made famous by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and back during World War I, some of the bloodiest battles of the conflict were fought here.
The fallen – both friend and foe - were collected from the battlefield by a priest named Ion Vasilescu who took their bodies by horse-drawn cart to a place that would become Heroes’ Cemetery Tabla Butii. Every year on August 6th, the Romanian Armed Forces honor the men and women who lost their lives on the Tatars’ Pass of the Carpathian Mountains in 1916.
While there was no need for 4L or disconnecting the sway bar on this trail, I still can’t shake off how easy it feels to off-road in the Wrangler. Dust, sand, water, mud, grass, rocks; nothing seems to phase off the Rubicon unless you’re the kind who likes to get stuck on purpose. The 37-psi standard air pressure in the BFGoodrich tires didn't pose any problem either, which is all the more impressive given that there were some spots where I expected to lose traction.
Because the bodywork is bolted onto a ladder frame, it takes some getting used to driving the Wrangler in the city and out on the motorway. The Rubicon’s steering might seem particularly challenging to those who haven’t experienced anything other than a unibody, requiring small and often adjustments at 90 to 100 km/h to keep yourself centered in the lane.
Even though the Euro NCAP rated the Wrangler one star for standard safety equipment, I must highlight that a well-equipped configuration comes with all the latest driver-assist systems on offer. Be warned that the audible alert for the automatic emergency braking will scare the hell out of you, coming on louder than your phone’s alarm set at maximum volume.
Safety highlights further include the blind-spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, Rear Cross-Path Detection, Enhanced Accident Response System, brake-throttle override, electronic roll mitigation system, an energy-absorbing steering column, just about the whole nine yards.
For me, the most impressive takeaway about the JLU is how similar the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon feels to the Ranger Raptor when driven fast on unpaved surfaces. The bi-turbo diesel pickup truck from Ford Performance may have a looser end in the twisties because there’s little weight over the rear axle, but the Jeep is willing to break traction as well if you’re feeling very, very brave.
Serious off-road enthusiasts should opt for the two-door JL because the shorter wheelbase aids when off-roading, but customers who would mostly daily the Wrangler are better off with the JLU. The four-door body style also happens to be sufficiently spacious for the tallest of adults in the rear, and the trunk isn’t too shabby either in terms of volume and access.
Each and every Wrangler is supplied with a removal tool kit as well, and that’s a nice touch if you remember that previous models weren’t treated to a branded ratchet, a pair of Torx bolts, and a socket for removing the nuts off the windshield wipers.
While not perfect, the Wrangler didn’t alter into just another SUV. Land Rover is the biggest offender in this regard with the all-new Defender, which changed from off-road utility vehicle to unibody luxobarge with air suspension for the 2020 model year. Having always represented the ultimate in capability, the Wrangler continues to embody freedom of movement and the spirit of adventure unlike any other mass-produced automobile out there.
If you truly want to get to the root of what “it’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand” means, get behind the wheel of a Wrangler and go wherever you want on a weekend’s trip away from the daily struggles of life in the urban jungle. You’ll love it to bits, and it will get under your skin quicker than a hungry mosquito.
After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.