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2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon: Drive to end of road, keep going, repeat

Posted by Bill Griffith  July 13, 2010 10:25 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for Boston.com)

A MILE PAST THE FIRST "PASS AT YOUR OWN RISK" SIGN, ELLINGTON, Conn.—The Wrangler Rubicon is in its element. We've gone from dirt road to rutted road to rocky road to just a grassy track. Then the road ends. Truly. There's a tree diagonally across the track, then a big mound of vegetation, including a lot of poison ivy. Nowhere to go, nowhere to turn. It's time to take a picture, then back out of there.

A MILE PAST THE SECOND "PASS AT YOUR OWN RISK" SIGN—The Rubicon has climbed steadily up a boulder-strewn track with a swarm of deer flies circling behind on a 90-degree afternoon, the inland version of seagulls trailing a homeward-bound fishing trawler.

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That's when the realization hits. We're 120 miles from home, and it's the 4th of July weekend. This isn't a good time or place to get stuck or break down.

However, turning around isn't an option, not until we climb another quarter of a mile. The trip downhill isn't any smoother, but we get home exhilarated.

The point is driven home: The Unlimited, the extended, four-door version of the Wrangler, is more at home off the beaten path than on it.

"I was wondering if I'd get a call to go pull you out of there," says Mr. Jim, my grandson's Ellington neighbor and the fellow who'd given directions on where to go locally to "get lost."

"AAA wouldn't go up there, but if we told a local farmer we've got a city guy stuck, we'd get you pulled out," he said.

It was probably 10 years ago when I first found myself reviewing a Jeep Wrangler and wrote something along the lines of "This is the car a parent hopes his son (or daughter) never buys."

Three things happened after that piece ran:

  1. Irate Wrangler owners e-mailed to say I was way off base-in a matter of speaking. That's putting it mildly because there's an element of e-mailers who love to rant and say things they'd never say to someone face-to-face.

  2. My son then bought a well-used Wrangler that served him well for a couple of years, though it dropped its driveshaft in Boston's Seaport District one night.

  3. I developed a grudging respect for the Wrangler, especially its off-roading abilities. That respect took another step when the Unlimited strutted its stuff.

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This test vehicle officially is a 2010 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4x4, a longer, somewhat more refined and certainly more expensive ($35,975 as tested) iteration of the basic Wrangler. After taking it off road, for some reason you want to talk about the trip.

Several observations after this trip:

  1. The Wrangler remains a formidable vehicle for off-roading. Forget our humble test. Suffice it to say that Four Wheeler magazine named the Rubicon the best 4x4 vehicle of the decade and the four-door Unlimited "one of the smartest product moves any automotive company have ever made."

  2. Cruising around town in a Wrangler is fun, especially living near a recreation area. Wrangler owners (like Mini drivers and motorcyclists) tend to give each other a wave of acknowledgement when passing. It also gives you a bit of a free-spirit, outdoorsy image.

  3. Take it out on the road and some flaws show up. The 3.8-liter V-6 puts out 202 horsepower and 237 lb.-ft. of torque. Acceleration is pedestrian at best, and perhaps that's a good thing, because braking is equally drawn out, likely because you're bringing 4,315 pounds to a stop. Gas mileage also is middling. The EPA range is 15 city to 19 highway. We checked in at 17.9 over some 400 relatively traffic-free miles.

  4. Remember that it's a truck. When you encounter some rough pavement or most any bridge in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (oh, those diagonal expansion grids), the jolts and twists are intense, even though the Unlimited has a 116-inch wheelbase.

Jeep calls the Wrangler a "multipurpose" vehicle. Indeed, what do you shop it against? Perhaps Toyota's FJ Cruiser, another stand-out-in-a-crowd vehicle. However, the Wrangler stands alone as the only four-door convertible on the market and the one that loves rock climbing as a sport.

The Wrangler shows its Jeep heritage in the traditional grille with seven vertical slots, round headlamps, wide wheel flares, outside hinges (for removable doors), removable top, sport bar, and fold-down windshield.

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Our test vehicle in Rubicon trim ($32,050 base price) was equipped with a fancy navigation/media center ($1,550) that included a 30 GB hard drive, satellite radio, and 6.5-inch easy-to-use touch screen display. It also had the dual top group ($1,625) with a three-piece modular hardtop, rear window wiper/washer, and defroster. Among standard items were power windows and locks. Sturdy plugs were easy to disconnect for removing the doors and roof.

We opted to remove the front two roof panels (similar to T-tops). That was easily done, and they stowed in a storage bag. Not-so-simple was removing the rear of the fixed roof ... or the task of storing it without a garage at hand. However, the hardtop option does give you a secure vehicle as opposed to the soft top and zippered windows that are an easy mark for thieves.

Mrs. G found the Wrangler difficult to get into, with its high seats, 10.2-inch ground clearance and funky doors. Because the doors are removable, there's a strap that acts as a detente to keep them from opening too far. However, said strap also can snap them closed on your legs if you swing them open too enthusiastically.

The removable doors also mean there are no power side mirrors. It's decidedly retro to have your passenger tweaking the right-side mirror for you. One alternative is to use that snowbrush with the telescoping handle that you didn't get put away last spring.

However, there remains something appealing about the Wrangler. How do I know that? Because I'd miss it if it were to go away. And that's not likely to happen. It's been around seemingly forever and would be the first vehicle you'd want should the Apocalypse arrive.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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