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Jeep Rubicon First Impressions

Story and Photos By Mike "TXJEEPER" Cohn

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2003 Jeep RubiconClick photos to enlarge
Early this year, I was trying to decide whether or not I should go to Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah or not. Being 1,750 miles from home, it would mean three days of travel in each direction and a lot of cash for hotels, fuel and expenses. One day my phone rang and I was given an invitation to join the gang from Jeep for a very special get-together during the safari. The event would include a full day of seat time in the 2003 Jeep Rubicon. Roughly, only about a dozen auto writers were invited and I was to be the only "short lead" (web, newspaper, etc.) writer to go. Decision made! Honey, we're going to Moab!

After braving a snow storm in Kansas and Colorado, we made it to Moab just in time for the pre-event dinner. I showed up only 20 minutes late and was introduced around to all the folks from Jeep who came out. The Jeep group included public relations people, engineers, mechanics, and big-wigs. They were all here. If anyone knew about the Jeep Rubicon - these were the people.

Morning came quickly and we all met again for breakfast at the Moab Diner - my favorite. It was time to hit the trails and we headed for the parking lot, where several Rubicons awaited us. Jim Repp called me over and put me in the seat of one of the original, hand-built, test mules. Jim is one of the main guys driving Rubicon development, along with Dave Yegge, who was along for the ride in his extended wheelbase TJ. If you ever run into these guys at an event, give them a big thank you!

The group of Rubicons we had out for the ride included both hard and soft top models and both manual and automatic transmissions. Two of the Jeeps were hand-built test mules, while two actually came off the assembly line as a test run in Toledo. At the time of the event, the four-speed 42RLE automatic had not officially gotten the ok for production yet (it has now).

2003 Jeep RubiconStepping inside the 5-speed soft-top, I immediately noticed something different - the seat. I asked Jim whether the seat went back further than previous models or if I was just imagining it. Jim confirmed that the seats do, in fact, go back another 20mm than before. Nice!

Looking around I noticed other things, like the switch to actuate the locking differentials, the new electrochromic rear-view mirror with map reading lamps, compass and temperature, the "sound pods" instead of a sound bar, the new radio, and a few other changes. This was a new Wrangler, indeed. But what about the Rubicon part? The part that's all about going off-road?

Our first trail of the day would be Hell's Revenge. This was a perfect choice for me, because I have driven the trail in both stock and heavily-modified TJ's, so it would make for a nice comparison. Being that Dump Bump was blocked off at the time, we entered the trail from the bypass, which itself is a great way to determine whether or not a rig and its driver are capable of handling the 4+-rated trail.

Once in low range, Jim explained to me how the air lockers worked. When in normal 2WD or 4WD High, the Tru-Lok differentials run normally, with the addition of torque-sensing limited slips. The limited slips can be a great help when the weather turns sour or if you get into some mud or other slippery surfaces. The real excitement, however, kicks in when you enter 4WD Low. If you are under 10mph, pressing the switch once will engage the rear air locker. Pressing it a second time engages the front, thus locking both front and rear axles. Lifting the switch or shifting out of 4WD Low will disengage the lockers. Running at only 5 pounds of pressure, the air lockers are completely silent, unlike other aftermarket models available.

2003 Jeep RubiconI shifted the Jeep into 4WD Low and engaged the lockers. The specially-built NV241 Rock-Trac transfer case is equipped with a 4:1 low range, as opposed to the 2.72:1 NV231 Command-Trac found in the SE, Sport, X and Sahara models. The NV241 was developed with New Venture exclusively for the Jeep Rubicon. In addition, the new transfer case includes a fixed yoke on the rear (long overdue) and the driveshafts now use 1330 u-joints instead of the previously-used 1310 joints. The combination of the gear reduction, the standard 4.11:1 differential gears, and the NV3550's 4.04:1 first gear (42RLE automatic is 2.84:1), gave us a crawl ratio of 66.4:1. That's a great ratio for any Jeep, let alone one straight from the factory.

I eased up to the obstacle and pointed my Goodyear Wrangler "Maximum Traction/Reinforced" LT245/75R16 (30.5" x 9.65" x 16") tires where I wanted them. With the slighest bit of throttle, the Rubicon grabbed on and lifted us up onto the sandstone fin without so much as a tire chirp. "This is going to be a fun day," I thought. I could tell right away that though this was a TJ at birth, this Rubicon was much more. This thing was built to rock.

As we headed out onto the main trail, the Rubicon did not disappoint. I tried as many obstacles as possible with the air lockers switched off to get a feel for how much they were contributing to the overall performance given by the Goodyears and the 4:1 transfer case. I got the feel quickly and the operation of the switch became more natural after a short time.

Where the Rubicon really shines is in giving control of the vehicle back to the driver. With a standard Sport model, for example, you might have a 3.07 or 3.73:1 axle ratio and the NV231 transfer case. With this setup and the 30" tire package, both the accelerator and brake pedal get a whole lot more use while on the trails. By having the lower gears in the Rubicon, the driver is able take his time over obstacles and not only take more time to make good decisions on his line, but also to actually feel the rocks beneath him.

2003 Jeep RubiconWhile going up and down the many fins on Hell's Revenge, the four-wheel disc brakes (no ABS) got very little use, due to the great crawl ratio of the Rubicon. In first gear and Low range, I went down even the steepest decents on the trail with little or no brakes at all. Compression (engine) breaking was phenominal. In fact, on some hills we were just plain too slow and I had to accelerate to get to the bottom!

As the trail ambled on, we came to several more of the tougher obstacles, including the hot tubs, and Tip-Over Challenge. Lining up at the bottom of one of them, we stared upward toward the sky through the steep and long V-notched run. As a group of Xterra owners watched from the top, we went one by one up the hill. Dan Mick was our guide for the day and did all the spotting. Having been led by Dan before, I had complete confidence in him. As you head up this particular obstacle, you see mostly sky. It is extremely important to stay on the line and watch your spotter. Even the slightest variance can cause you to fall in the crack and violently roll back down the hill. I pointed the Rubicon toward the hill and slowly climbed up it. As I mentioned before, having the luxury of low gears allowed me to feel every slight bump in the terrain. The Rubicon eased me up the notch to the top, again, without even chirping the tires. Wow!

2003 Jeep RubiconOur next big stop would be the hot tubs. We each took our turns driving through the first one and then arrived at Mickey's Hot Tub (named after Dan Mick). Since we were running way behind schedule, only Jim Repp was allowed to take a run at it. With a large crowd gathered around, Jim dropped in, studied his line for a moment, and headed toward the near-vertical exit. There is a very specific line in the tub and Jim got off it slightly. I don't know if it was panic or excellent intuition, but Jim gassed it and popped right out the end of the hot tub. The crowd cheered as Dan screamed "that's a stock vehicle, folks!"

Tip-Over Challenge was the last big obstacle on the trail and the Rubicon, again, did not disappoint. This is one obstacle where the Rubicon really shined, not only because of its equipment, but because of its center of gravity. On trails like Hell's Revenge, sometimes having too much lift can cause problems because of the off-camber situtations. In addition, we did not disconnect our swaybars at all. This also helped us out on Tip-Over Challenge. The Rubicon walked right up the wall. Excellent!

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Rubicon Preview - (Published 4/29/2002)

 

Michael Cohn

Michael "TXJEEPER" Cohn is the Editor and founder of Rockcrawler.com.

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