2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited review: Excelling in the rocks, mud and dirt

Editors' note, August 23, 2017: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited. See the changes for the 2017 model year above.

I stopped the 2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon at the bottom of the rock pile. Ahead of me were boulders the size of laundry baskets stacked pell-mell on top of each other. I got out to scout, mentally taking a picture of where I would place each wheel as I climbed the hill. Satisfied, I buckled in, put the Jeep into 4L, locked my front and rear differentials and started rock crawling.

The Jeep has quite a history in the United States. Some even say we would all be speaking German if it weren't for the trusty little four-wheeler. While I'm not one to judge geopolitical events, I will say that the Jeep is as American as Mom and apple pie, eliciting feelings of freedom and independence as no other vehicle can.

The Wrangler is the SUV you want in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Even the base Sport is capable in its own right. But you, dear Roadshow readers, are not base kind of folk. You are Unlimited Rubicon folk, the top dawg of 4x4s. With four doors, hence the Unlimited nomenclature, and all the off-road bells and whistles, the Unlimited Rubicon Wrangler is made for getting you into nature, and out of trouble.

Powered by a 3.6-liter V6 engine, the Wrangler makes 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard but my tester came with the five-speed automatic. Word on the street is that a diesel, already available in Europe, is in the works for 2017 as well as an eight-speed automatic transmission, but that's straight out of the rumor mill.

Still, this gas-powered dirt genius gets all the off-road goodies a wheeler could want. Dana 44 heavy-duty front and rear locking axles, disconnecting front sway bar, 10 inches of ground clearance; all are essential to getting to the top of the rock pile, but the keys are the 4:1 low gearing and the 4.10 axle ratio. Sure, the axle ratio will cost you about $700, but it puts more torque to each wheel. When paired with the super-low gearing it's possible to crawl over weighty obstacles with low speed and greater control.

Unfortunately, all the axle ratios in the world won't help you if you pick the wrong line. I was halfway up the rock pile before I realized I'd put myself in a precarious situation. The BF Goodrich KO2 tires were trying their damnedest, but I'd gotten a rear wheel up in the air and the rocks were too slick for the remaining three tires to get a purchase. I looked out the door (because of course I had taken the doors off) and realized I was off my intended mark. Had I placed my front driver tire just 2 inches to the left, I would have been OK. As it was, I had no choice but to build a bridge under my open tire with my Maxtrax recovery boards and reverse out of it.

2017 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited review: Excelling in the rocks, mud and dirt

A few bangs and crashes to the skid plates later and I was at the bottom of the rock pile, the Jeep no worse for the wear. My ego, however, was crushed.

Still, there were plenty of obstacles to conquer at The Mounds Off Road Vehicle Park about an hour and a half outside of Detroit, all of which the Jeep, and more importantly the driver, did without a problem. Steep and sandy hills were easy. An approach angle of 42.2 degrees meant I could hit precipitous inclines with speed and not worry about hitting the steel front bumper. Coming over sharp crests is easy with a 21.2-degree breakover angle, and add 4 more degrees to that spec with the standard, two-door Wrangler Rubicon. Coming down a steep face can be done the old-school way, in 4L or with the hill-descent control feature. Don't worry about the rear steel bumper scraping, as the Rubicon has a departure angle of 32.5 degrees.

But like all things in life, the Wrangler is not perfect. On the road it, well, it drives like a Jeep. That is to say, a bit floaty and with enough body roll to make you hit the brakes before each and every turn, even the slow sweepers. The tires are noisy on the pavement and don't do your gas mileage any favors. EPA fuel ratings are 16 miles per gallon in the city, 20 miles per gallon on the highway and 18 miles per gallon combined. There is a 6.5-inch touchscreen display, but the Wrangler is not loaded with FCA's excellent Uconnect system. Instead you get a GPS with dated-looking graphics from Garmin and no backup camera.

My Wrangler Unlimited came with the hard-top Freedom panels, which take the podium for worst marketing lingo. The panels, constituting the front half of the top, come off only after several latches have been undone and two large screw-in fixtures have been removed. It's not quick and there is no designated place to put them, although you can get an optional storage bag. After placing them in the back for a day of driving, I found the paint to be scratched. The Freedom panels are meant to be stored in your garage, so plan your freedom accordingly.

One of the coolest things about a Jeep is driving without the doors. I like to think the poor schleps in their cozy four-door sedans admire my gumption for driving so free. However, the side mirrors on the Jeep are fixed to the doors, not the A-pillar. And now that the Jeep has creature comforts like electronic windows and door locks, taking off the doors means undoing the wiring harness as well.

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Honestly, the first thing I would do with the Jeep is get the soft top, find some aftermarket soft doors and bolt some mirrors to the A-pillar. That might be a little much for most people, but I'm willing to keep anything I don't want stolen in the lockable center console and let the chips fall where they may.

If you need to tow your toys, hopefully they will be light as a feather as the Jeep can only pull 3,500 pounds. That's enough to haul a small utility trailer or a teardrop camping trailer, but anything bigger than that and you're out of luck.

The Jeep Wrangler dominates its own category. I mean, how many convertible body-on-frame SUVs can you think of? In terms of off-road prowess you might want to look at the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off Road or the Chevrolet Colorado Z71. Both will give you more towing capabilities, and the Colorado is available with a 2.8-liter Duramax turbo diesel. If you're looking for a bit more luxury, Land Rover offers the Range Rover Evoque in a convertible. It looks a little odd, but it has the excellent Range Rover terrain response system.

The 2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited starts at $36,495. My test model came with the top-of-the-line Hard Rock option package for $4,800, which includes a soft top, heated seats and steel front and rear bumpers. Adding to the bottom line is the optional five-speed automatic transmission for $1,350 and the 4.10 axle ratio for $695. With many other additional extras, my test model tops out at $47,620.

Buying a Jeep means buying into a lifestyle. It's a quirky vehicle to be sure, but it gives you the freedom to go anywhere. As long you choose the right line.