Jeep Wrangler is a classic symbol of summer cruising and off-road rambling. The Wrangler is the icon of the Jeep brand, and there are no direct competitors for it. As Jeep says, there's only one.
Headlining the 2003 Jeep Wrangler lineup is the Rubicon, which boasts a serious off-road suspension, a powerful 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine, a Dana rear end, and other changes, all designed to improve 4x4 capabilities. Essentially, it's a modified Jeep from the factory, making financing and preparation a turn-key deal for off-road enthusiasts.
But all models benefit from upgrades that make them more comfortable, more convenient, more responsive, and more capable for 2003. A new four-speed automatic transmission is available on all models, eliminating the notoriously outdated three-speed automatic for much better response and improved fuel efficiency. Four-wheel disc brakes improve the stopping ability of all models. The base SE model gets a big boost in performance with a new, more sophisticated, four-cylinder engine.
New features spice up the Wrangler's spartan cabin. Redesigned front and rear seats offer more room and are easier to work with. Redesigned exterior mirrors help reduce noise, vibration and harshness and are wider, offering a better view rearward.
Built along Jeep's "Go anywhere, do anything" design philosophy, the new Rubicon is a 4x4 gem. After driving through Hell's Revenge, Cliff Hanger, and other challenging trails around Moab, I am happy to report that the Rubicon passes the off-road test with flying colors. Front and rear locking differentials, front and rear Dana model 44 axles and a 4:1 low-range transfer case give the "Ruby" trail capabilities far beyond those of the average SUV.
We went to Moab, Utah, to drive the new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon over some of the best and most varied four-wheeling trails in America. Here, in the heart of the Colorado plateau, are thousands of miles of backcountry tracks, most left over from mining days. We motored across the mixed topography of deserts and canyons with the 13,000-foot La Sal Mountains in the backdrop. We traversed trails that ranged from a difficulty of No. 1 (unimproved or rarely graded roads that call for four-wheel drive or extra clearance in places, but require no special driving skills) to a No. 5 (locking differentials and front and rear tow hooks necessary for passage, winch recommended, expert driving skills demanded). Note: This trail rating system is different from other 4WD trail ratings in the U.S., which range from 1-10, with the Rubicon Trail rated a 10. We put the Rubicon to the test on trails such as Hell's Revenge, Cliff Hanger, Metal Masher, and Top of the World, which travel through forest, desert, steep ravines and rims, rivers, mountains, and Moab's famous slick rock.
The Wrangler Rubicon performed flawlessly in the rough and rugged. It boasts a cadre of 4WD technology that includes a transfer case designed with a 4:1 low range (the previous off-road version was 3.73:1), which delivers more power at the slow speeds required for off-road driving. Locking differentials, actuated when the driver presses a switch on the dash, prevent power from being directed away from the tires with the best grip. Dana model 44 axles, considered by enthusiasts to be the cream of the crop, come standard on the Rubicon model and are strong enough to handle all manner of off-road conditions.
We drove the new smooth-shifting automatic transmission, as well as the well-geared five-speed manual transmission, and both match up well to the inline six-cylinder engine. Jeep's inline-6 produces ample power in all conditions: 190 horses at 4600 rpm and 235 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3200 rpm.
Boasting Big Foot stature in a mini footprint, the Rubicon wears aggressive Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires that help it achieve more than 10 inches of ground clearance on a short (93.4-inch) wheelbase, which makes this a nimble vehicle in the backcountry. Added to that are laudable approach (45-degree), departure (34 degree), and ramp breakover (25-degree) angles. This means you can drive up, down and over steep grades, tall boulders and fallen logs with greater ease.
Off the trail, driving the Rubicon is another matter. The tall tires and off-road suspension, which add capability in the backcountry, become a liability around town. The ride is harsh and choppy. It's a tall step up to get inside and a long reach to access gear stowed in the rear seats. On the plus side, however, is a torque-sensing limited-slip feature on the rear axle for better traction on the road.
We also drove a Wrangler SE with the new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. There's not much power here and we wouldn't want to drive all the way across the U.S. in one, but it is an appealing vehicle. The low-cut doors and soft top are cool and it's a more comfortable vehicle than before. And the low price is attractive.
Jeep calls its new 2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon the ultimate off-road rig. The Rubicon is the long-awaited answer to enthusiasts' prayers. Jeep reports strong initial sales and expects to sell 8,000 of the 2003 Rubicon models.
As for the other Wrangler versions, Jeep expects to sell some 60,000 during model year 2003. A legitimate sport utility vehicle, this model may not easily take to the highway, but will happily take drivers as far down the trail as they want to go.