The Rubicon: America’s Greatest Trail and Toughest Jeep

05-Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

You can brag all you want about your lifted truck or SUV or what have you, but until you can take on the Rubicon Trail, then pipe down– adults are talking.

The 22-mile trail in the Sierra Nevada is a trial of rock, dirt, mud, elevation, and angles. Ground clearance, approach angle, and locking diffs are the vocabulary of the day, and one need not underestimate the trail’s ability to chew up a custom-built off-road rig, and spit its leaf springs, U-joints, and steering knuckles all over the California mountainside.

Every Jeep that wears a “Trail Rated” badge must traverse the Rubicon Trail, but only one vehicle in the lineup is so capable that it wears it proudly on the side of the clamped-down hood. The Wrangler Rubicon arrived in 2003, as the most capable version of the 1996-2006 TJ Wrangler. It came loaded up with Dana 44 axles (front and rear), diamond plate rocker panels, and the epic Rock-Trac 4-Wheel Drive system, which consisted of a 4:1 low-range gearing, front and rear locking differentials and an electronically disconnecting front sway bar. If this is gibberish to you, then you are not an off-roader. If this sounds like Beethoven’s Ninth, then welcome, you are home.

04-Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

For those counting, the “Rubi” was introduced ten years ago, and Jeep was sure to celebrate this milestone with a worthy vehicle. The Jeep Wrangler 10th Anniversary Edition is a celebration of all that the brand stands for. The Grand Cherokee may be its best-selling vehicle, but say the word “Jeep” and one shape comes to mind. A boxy shape, with a seven-slat grille, and circular headlights, and this is the most capable one yet.

PHOTOS: See more of the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 10th Anniversary Edition

To prove its merits, Jeep flew us out to the Rubicon Trail, to prove that this vehicle was worthy of such a milestone for the brand. Factory-fresh Rubicons of two-and-four-door variation were lined up ready to take on a trail that is typically frequented by heavily modified rigs of all kinds. This was to be a test of what it means to be turnkey-capable, able to take on all manner of obstacles right out of the dealership.

03-Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The 10th Anniversary Rubicon sets itself apart from the rest of the lineup with unique color selection, bolder “Rubicon” graphics on the side of the clamp-down hood, unique red leather interior, excellent BF Goodrich Mud Terrain KM2 tires, and removable end-caps on the front bumpers.

The removable end caps are easily the most useful aspect of this vehicle, and will likely be equipment on the next generation Rubicon. The rear bumper ends are not removable, but rather aimed for improved departure angles. The insane approach angle with the caps removed is the stuff that makes off-roaders salivate.

01-Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

With the electronically locking front and rear differentials, and an electronically disconnecting sway bar, nothing on the market comes close to this out of the dealership, and setting up a vehicle like this with aftermarket parts can run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

As we ascended the Rubicon trail, we shifted into 4LO, and as a rule, I typically like to start in second gear when crawling. Driving in 4HI creates too many Jackrabbit starts, while starting in first in 4LO is too slow, save for the most harrowing conditions. Even in second, you can let the clutch out without applying any throttle and the Rubicon will creep along. Gear spacing was perfect, and working your way up to 3rd or 4th will only get you moving at about 25 mph. True off-road Nirvana, though, is found at 3 mph.

02-Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

On extreme declines, it is advised to engage first or second gear, let the clutch out and crawl down, occasionally riding the brake. The ratios are so low that you can come within whispers of the engine stalling, letting the gearing do its work. At moments, I would have preferred a gear in between first and second. Multiple ratio sets are available from the factory, and you really need to test both to see which one will best suit your driving needs.

The incredible part about the 10th Anniversary Rubicon (and all Rubi’s for that matter) is their unbeatable composure in increasingly adverse conditions. From the wheel articulation to the light curb weight, which allows you to get nearly sideways, staring at the ground out the passenger window. We were traversing in conditions that were chewing up custom off-road rigs. More than one lifted Jeep or Toyota had been claimed by the trail. Our Rubicons were passing them, and these things came right out of the factory.

00-Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

You can save your pennies and purchase a high performance sportscar, but there is always something better. There is always a car more capable. For the Wrangler Rubicon 10th Anniversary, Jeep created a supercar for the trail. It is the culmination of decades of off-road know-how in an SUV that is without rival.

All photos: George Kennedy for BoldRide

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