I drove a $48,000 Jeep Wrangler to see if this off-road warrior could live up to its legendary SUV reputation — here's the verdict (FCAU)

Jeep Wranger Rubicon

  • The 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is a serious off-roading machine.
  • But can the trail warrior handle everyday life?
  • The answer is that the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon isn’t interested in everyday life if there are trails to conquer — and if that’s your thing, you’ll be happy to spend $48,000 on the vehicle.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I’ve honestly never understood the appeal of the Jeep Wrangler (and before that, the Jeep CJ) to most people. Sure, the rugged, bare-bones vehicle makes ample sense — if you’re a dedicated rock-crawler, have rivers to routinely ford, are planning an expedition to a place that civilization forgot, or are simply opposed to cars that don’t have doors that can be removed.

But that’s got to be, I don’t know, less than 1% of all car buyers? The rest are going to use almost none of the Jeep Wrangler’s capabilities. And yet, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles still sold about 240,000 of these things last year in the US.

How many of those owners do you think are regularly meandering through unimproved territory? Well, the answer is some. But quite frankly, when it comes to an outdoor lifestyle, the spiritual descendant of what started its long life as a World War II scout vehicle is now competing with the Toyota Tacoma, which I’d argue is the better choice for adventures.

The Wrangler owes its baffling, ongoing celebrity in the auto world to its image. That’s what makes, for example, teenagers dig a ride that every parent knows might look cool but is expensive to own and rather challenging to operate. Even Alicia Silverstone’s disastrous driving test in “Clueless” can’t change hearts and minds.

Read more: I drove a $69,000 RAM 1500 and a $57,000 Chevy Silverado to find out which is the better pickup truck. Here’s the verdict.

However, because image is everything for the Wrangler, it can’t be a Potemkin village on four huge tires. Jeep has taken, and continues to take, this responsibility seriously. Ridiculously seriously.

I drove a fairly no-fuss Wrangler a couple of years ago and had a typical Jeep-in-the-‘burbs experience. More recently, Jeep tossed me the keys to an upscale 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with a base price of $37,500. Kitted out with many of the goodies that owners can get on the latest generation, our test car cost $48,000. The base two-door Wrangler in Sport trim starts at $27,945.

Has the $48,000 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon made concessions to soft modern life? Is the Greatest Generation/zombie-apocalypse-survival machine surrendering to the weakness of prospective owners who don’t spend their days far, far away from major highways? Can you still remove eight bolts and go doorless?

Read on to find out.

SEE ALSO: I drove a $42,000 VW Golf R to see if the ‘performance hatch’ is worth the price — here’s the verdict

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My $48,000 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon arrived with a snazzy paint job. It’s called “Punk’n Metallic.” Get it?

The little Jeep that defeated Hitler wasn’t available in “Punk’n” metallic, but its battlefield history sets the standard by which all modern Jeeps are judged.

The first civilian Jeeps appeared in the late 1940s.

I tested a cheaper version of the Wrangler in 2017, a previous iteration of the vehicle.

Read the review »

Believe it or not, the basic mechanical design hasn’t changed much in the intervening decades since the vehicle appeared. The Wrangler Rubicon is body-on-frame, with two solid poles of metal as its front and rear axles.

The now legendary grille and headlights have been tweaked, but never revamped.

Let’s face it: Nothing else on the road looks like a Jeep. It stands out in the same way as a Corvette or a Lamborghini. It’s an iconic design.

The branding and nameplating are more extensive than on our previous test Wrangler.

Notably, the Rubicon callout. That’s not for the river in Italy, by the way — it’s the name of a famous off-road trail in California that Jeeps have been tackling since the 1950s.

If you need proof, the Wrangler Rubicon is obviously trail-rated. In fact, the Rubicon trim level features a combination of staggering off-road capability and (for Jeep) somewhat impressive interior comfort.

The Wrangler is unmistakable from every angle. The shell over the rear seats and cargo area is removable, revealing the roll bars. As this was a winter test, I didn’t go there.

Yep, you have five tires.

The BFGoodrich all-terrains can take you from road to trail — but they’re going to be happier with the latter.

Note the mega-serious locking hubs, as well as the subtle reference to the original Willys Jeep.

That bumper ain’t foolin’ around.

Neither is this gas cap.

Or these functional hood scoops.

The Wrangler provides four convenient exterior cupholders.

What’s new? These lights in the fender, for one. Might be the only thing, actually.

Cargo capacity with the rear seats up is pretty bad.

This schematic details four-wheel-drive operation, tells you what depth of water you can drive through, and reminds you that the Jeep is built in Toledo, Ohio.

Let’s check out the engine!

Dang! The prop rod couldn’t be unstowed! Lacking a nearby fallen limb, old ax handle, or dinosaur bone to hold the unlatched hood open, I had to use my arm.

The venerable 3.6-liter V6 makes 285 horsepower with 260 pound-feet of torque, which is unimpressive on paper. But on a rock-strewn trail with the 4WD system active, you see the logic. The Wrangler isn’t built for speed or comfort, but to extract you from severe jams.

The fuel economy is as bad as always: 18 mpg city/23 highway/20 combined. The new generation adds a turbocharged four-cylinder to the lineup.

Let’s hike a leg way up and step inside.

The black interior features leather-trimmed and topstitched seats.

That’s fancy. But this is a Rubicon.

The rear seats are … something of an afterthought. There’s a four-door Jeep if you need to use them. My 8-year-old could make his way back there only by crawling between the front seats.

You can overcome this challenge by throwing a few latches …

… to remove the three-piece roof. Then just climb in over the side!

That’s a useful grab rod for the passenger.

There are grab points on the pillars as well. You’ll need them if you rock-crawl and switch from level angles to ones that make you worry about tipping.

The driver gets a well-appointed steering wheel and the better-than-basic instrument panel.

There’s a push-button stop-start, a concession to modernity. But it also means a key chain isn’t constantly banging around.

So we don’t get to test the off-road cred of Wranglers. Suffice it to say, however, that the eight-speed automaker is well-mated to the motor, and that if you do your homework …

… You can take full advantage of the best off-roader that America has to offer, and that can be configured to switch to 4WD on the fly.

The 7-inch infotainment screen is rinky-dink by 2019 standards, but FCA’s Uconnect system is quite good — and you aren’t going to be accessing your playlists when you’re fleeing brain-eating zombies anyway.

We’ve always been impressed with Uconnect, which handles everything from GPS navigation to device connectivity with aplomb.

There are USB/AUX ports, recharging options, and an audio system that sounds completely awful in the Wrangler Rubicon. Can’t have everything!

So what’s the verdict?

I’ve trail-busted in a Jeep, and let me tell you: You want one of these babies if asphalt isn’t on the route.

The Rubicon Wrangler also gained me some serious dad points with my teenage daughter, an aspiring outdoor enthusiast who could someday justify getting a Jeep like this.

But the real question here is: If asphalt is on the agenda, what’s the Wrangler like to live with?

When I asked myself in 2017, I concluded:

“Over a week, I grew to enjoy the Wrangler for what it is: a lovable brute. A dog by my side would have been a natural addition. I could imagine never, ever worrying about washing the Jeep. It would only look better with dents, dings, perhaps even rust, scratched paint, encrusted with crud. Part of the investment you’d make if you bought a Wrangler would be in unselfconsciousness.”

You can now do that in a vehicle with a somewhat higher-tech interior. But the truth is that if you must have a Wrangler, you might as well buy the cheapest trim level, pack in some infotainment, and call it a day. The Rubicon’s capabilities will be lost on everyday drivers 95% of the time. (I did luck out when I tested it and a storm dumped a foot of snow on my driveway. The Jeep powered through it as if it were cotton candy.)

Don’t get me wrong: For the people who might actually visit the Rubicon Trail, the Rubicon is what’s called for.

For everybody else, it’s too high, the ride is tractorlike, the engine is underpowered at highway speeds, the cabin is noisy, the cargo capacity is disappointing, the audio system isn’t up to the standards of a 1980s boom box, and the fuel economy is wretched.

But. But. But. The Wrangler Rubicon does make you look cool. And a lot of times, when image is everything, what’s under the skin is a fraud. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon doesn’t have that problem.

What we have here is a lot of hat and a lot of cattle. What you see is without a doubt what you get. And then you just have to ask if you’re the kind of person who can handle what that means. If you say you can, then the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon will be the best $48,000 you ever spent.