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2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Road Test

Jeep's off-road heavyweight retains its title for the 2012 model year

What It Is
If your driving routine has a steady diet of on and off-roading excursions in it, the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is just what the doctor ordered.
Best Thing
The stock off-roading features.
Worst Thing
Because of the Rubicon's elevated ground clearance, climbing into the rear bench may be harder than anticipated.
Snap Judgment
The 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is a healthy blend of daily-driver mixed with some off-road fun.


The Jeep Wrangler is the automotive equivalent to a Swiss army knife; it can go anywhere and do anything. So what happens when Jeep adds a few extra off-roading goodies fresh from the factory floor? You get the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Now the Wrangler, which was developed off the beaten path, is even more equipped to take on whatever rock-riddled trail, congested parking lot, or open highway that crosses your path. But how does it handle all of the different types of terrains?

We spent a week with the 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon doing just that, taking it to areas that can only be reached by leaving the pavement, traveling down freeways, and navigating through our fair share of jam-packed parking lots. To our surprise, the Rubicon handled the constant change of scenery better than some vehicles designed only for on-road use. The off-road suspension was subtle enough to handle grooved cement but rugged enough to climb over uneven terrain and rocks. As expected for a vehicle that weighs 4,104 pounds (when equipped with a manual transmission), fuel economy was an issue but that's not why you buy a Wrangler. You buy one for the smile that spreads across your face once all the doors and roof have been removed. Does the 2012 variant deliver like those from years past? Here's what we found out.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

The Wrangler Rubicon is the top-line model, and its $29,995 base price is higher than the Wrangler Sport, Sport S and Sahara. In addition to the $800 destination charge, our Rubicon added $900 leather-trimmed and heated front seats bucket seats up front, and a $385 customer preferred package that included a USB port and Uconnect voice commands with Bluetooth. Our Rubicon was also equipped with a $685 package that added power windows, mirrors, locks, and remote keyless entry; a $1,715 body-color three-piece hard top that added a rear window defroster and washer; and a $1,035 media center which included a 6.5-inch touchscreen, GPS navigation, and XM radio. Grand total: $35,515.

So what does a $35,515 price tag get you? For starters, Chrysler's new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine powers the Wrangler and is mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The Wrangler Rubicon comes stock with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a tilting steering column, a 7-speaker system with a subwoofer, Sirius XM radio, a 115-volt auxiliary power outlet, and floor mats. Stock off-roading features included an electronic front sway bar disconnect, Dana 44 heavy duty front and rear axles, rock rails, a transfer case and fuel tank skid plate shield, sports bar with padding, Tru-Lok electronic locking front and rear differentials, a 4:1 Rock-Trac part-time four-wheel drive system, Hill Start Assist, a tire pressure monitor with a warning lamp, and 17-inch aluminum wheels wrapped in off-road tires.

Standard safety features include ABS, LATCH points at the base of the rear bench, multistage front airbags, traction control, hydraulic brake assist, and electronic roll mitigation.

The Commute

Out of all the Wrangler models that are on sale today, the Rubicon is the most trail-ready Jeep from the factory. As a result, the combination of both Dana 44 heavy duty axles and the off-roading tires that the Wrangler Rubicon rides on creates a louder ride than any other vehicle in Jeep's portfolio. However, a quick and easy remedy to getting rid of the road noise is to simply take the top off. It doesn't quiet the truck down any, but it drowns out any other noise you could hear it make. The point is that road noise is a known and accepted fact for off-road Wrangler owners, and the latest variation stays true to form.

At cruising speeds, the Wrangler sails along without a hitch, defeating the dreaded highway hop with ease. Moving from one lane to another with the hard top on does make for a bouncy ride, but again, this isn't an unfamiliar sensation for Wrangler drivers. On congested freeways, more specifically those that cut through the heart of downtown Los Angeles, you can really feel the shifter click into place. As fellow associate editor Matt Askari explained in the vehicle notebook, the shifter feels like you're operating a Tonka truck; big and heavy. The result is jolting acceleration and while it's not quick, it sure is fun.

When we removed the roof and rolled the windows down, the radio was still audible without being turned all the way up. An overlooked feature of a lot of Chrysler Group vehicles is the audio and tuning controls situated behind the steering wheel spokes. The substantial feeling buttons make it easy for the driver to control the radio. It's minor in the overall picture, but once you get used to the buttons, it's a simple solution to making the in-vehicle entertainment system less distracting.

The Grocery Run

The Wrangler isn't known to have cavernous amounts of cargo space, and with 17.2 cubic feet available behind the rear seats, it's about tied with cars like the Honda Fit and the Mazda3. There's enough space for a week's worth of groceries for a small family, but you have to know where to place each bag. However, those who decide to purchase a Wrangler know they're going to have to sacrifice certain creature comforts in the name of off-roading.

Even so, the Wrangler is still capable of carrying more than its fair share of goods if the rear seat is unoccupied. With a maximum cargo capacity of 61.2 cubic feet and the rear seat folded down, there's room to spare for a week's worth of groceries. This extra space in the back eliminates rear seating though so only the driver and a front passenger would be able to go grocery shopping. Our Wrangler Rubicon tester came with a hard top so storing cargo could be done so with peace of mind. The same can't be said for the soft top, even while it's one of the main attractions to owning a Wrangler, it's notoriously easy to break into. The glove box and center console are the only safe places to stash anything and both offer minimal space.

Getting in is a whole other story, as the Rubicon's ground clearance is 10.2-inches, almost two more inches more than the Wrangler Sport S. Combine that with an undersized opening to the back seats, and you can see where a problem can arise. Sitting inside the Wrangler can be a cozy experience if you've ended up in the back seat. Legroom for rear seat occupants check in with 35.6-inches but expect most of that to be occupied by the front seat if a full-size adult is up front. For example, a driver who is over 6-feet tall will have to push the seat back to fit their frame in, which, in turn, forces the rear passenger to sacrifice legroom.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

It doesn't matter what the road surface is beneath the tires, because while the Wrangler was molded off-road, its developers kept pavement in mind, too. Southern California's concrete freeways aren't the most forgiving road surface, but the Rubicon and its off-road tires even the playing field, albeit with a lot of tire noise. Almost an hour into a 240-mile round-trip from our Los Angeles offices to San Diego, we either learned to tune out the road noise, or simply became deaf to the frequency. Either way, the air rushing through where the roof should be was the only thing to be heard. Once past the noise, it was a comfortable cruiser on the freeway.

But it's when the weekend plans involve climbing over boulders or traversing deep ruts that Jeep's legendary off-roader shines. As the quintessential weekend vehicle, the Wrangler Rubicon is easy to load up with goods needed for a weekend excursion. Slip the transfer case into 4LO, and the Rubicon can crawl its way over just about any surface. Trails are rated on a 1 to 4 scale, with 1 being a standard paved road, and 4 needing an expert driver and highly-customized off-road vehicle. The Rubicon, as it sits, can handle a 3 with an experienced driver behind the wheel. In other words, if there's a discernible path through the woods, desert, or mountains, this Jeep can handle it.

But, just to be safe, travel in a group anyhow.

Summary

The 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon showed up at our door with a price tag just north of $35,000, a mind-numbing chunk of change when compared to other Wrangler models. Next to the special edition models, the Rubicon is the most expensive Wrangler you can purchase. All that extra cash will get you the most off-road ready Wrangler direct from the factory that money can buy though. So, are all the added off-roading features worth the extra money or should you just opt for a Sport S trim instead? It all depends on the amount of off-roading you plan on doing. If you're a hardcore off-roader then the Wrangler Rubicon is the best factory-ready vehicle that you can get. If you're more interested in removing the doors and roof to just drive around with the Jeep image, the other models in the Wrangler stable may be of more interest.

Each model serves a different purpose, and it was evident with the Rubicon, which had the off-roading crowd squarely in mind when it was created. The beauty of the Wrangler Rubicon is that is can climb a mountain, turn around, and pick up a prescription and a gallon of milk before going home for the day with ease. If off-roading isn't of interest, the Wrangler is still one of the best convertibles on the market today, if you don't mind having to fill up a little more frequently. If you're in the market for something to go off-roading in or are just looking for a fun weekend-in-the-sun truck, the Jeep Wrangler is the only vehicle you need to look at.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $35,515 Fuel Economy EPA City: 17 mpg city EPA Highway: 21 mpg highway EPA Combined: 18 mpg combined Estimated Combined Range: 334.8 miles Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent

Notebook Quotes

Before even turning the Wrangler on, I felt like there was value there. Once turned on, I absolutely loved the Tonka-truck/tractor-like feel of "operating" the Rubicon. - Matt Askari, Associate Editor
The Wrangler is an amazing vehicle for the money, especially since the next-most-comparable vehicle costs upwards of $40,000 on the used market and rattles around like it's falling apart. -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

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