If one trail shows up on a bucket list, this is it. The Rubicon isn\’t just a version of the Wrangler, it is a challenge that has given it its name. And now I have one to drive over its many boulders, how hard could that be?
\‘This is interesting\’, I thought to myself. I can see mostly sky out of my window and my passenger\’s window is pointed at a rather steep angle towards the bottom of a huge boulder. To make life more interesting, beyond it lies a sheer drop. The 2018 Jeep Wrangler I am driving has two wheels up on the hill side and is aimed at an impossibly narrow gap, that I\’m quite certain this four-door Rubicon cannot get through. Nevertheless, I follow the spotter\’s directions, largely consisting of hand movements with slight gestures with the finger tips for finer adjustments, down to the last degree of steering lock and inch of wheel rotation. There is no \‘left or right\’ to confuse with an actual all right, there\’s only \‘driver and passenger\’ directions followed by a lot of \‘just so\’ advices. The bonnet is an inch away from crashing into the ledge on my left if I don\’t turn away and there isn\’t really an alternate line that exists, which would allow me to avoid it. My Rubicon experience has just gone from \‘great\’ to \‘oh-my-god\’, and, you know I have left out a couple of four-letter words there.
This is, of course, the hallowed Rubicon trail, tucked away in the jagged confines of the Sierra Nevada range in El Dorado National Park. As important as the smooth, but spectacular rock formations of Moab is to Jeep, Rubicon is where the annual jamboree finds its home and, well, also lends its name to their most hardcore version of the Wrangler, called, you guessed it, Rubicon. More than half the cars I\’ve crossed on the trail are Jeeps and all of them have been modified to a fair extent before their owners felt comfortable bringing them anywhere close to the trail. Me? I am at the controls of a bone-stock Rubicon, running the same tyre pressure even, just as you would find one at the showroom. It isn\’t the longest, the toughest or even the prettiest trail, but it is one that will work out every fibre in your body as you twist and shake inside the car for all 12-miles of this \‘unmaintained road\’.
There is a tenacity to the Rubicon trail that is difficult to explain. It is one of those hard-working, dogged little efforts that needs grit and determination from man and machine. Look away and you could clip a tree, don\’t manage your machine well and you could easily bend an axle, at the least. And, the Jeep is doing a rather good job of filling in on those counts for the both of us. As the Rubicon throws up a barrage of obstacles with an unrelenting proficiency, a lot of which seems impassable, the Wrangler matches it with equal efficiency. Every time I got past an enormous boulder, another showed up with promise of being as severe as the last one. And, just when you think you\’ve seen it through, a small stray rock catches you out with the unmistakable grind of hard rock on harder steel. Thankfully, the Rubicon comes clad in steel that would make an armoured vehicle proud, to protect important bits underneath from a bashing of this exact sort. With four-wheel-drive set to low-range, sway bars disconnected to allow for maximum articulation, the Rubicon measured its way up the trail an inch at a time.
There isn\’t anything fast about driving off-road, but this here has been a pace that could qualify as a gentle stroll after dinner. And now, perched half way up the hillside with nowhere to go, I have engaged the final trick in the Rubicon\’s arsenal to encounter this particularly stiff challenge thrown by the, err, Rubicon. Differential locks engaged, I move forward, avoiding any slip and with millimetre precision. The 268 horsepower has been reigned in taut for a command from my right foot. Another inch forward and the only sensation I have is the front wheels sliding away downhill from under me. A moment ensues where my jewels rapidly rise against gravity with my eyes opening wide at the sight of the deep gorge. It takes me a few moments to realise, the rock that I had been looking at through my passenger\’s window, has me hooked and has helped me pivot the car on the rock sliders to squeeze me through the gap that had looked impossible to pass. Grinding metal on hard rock never made for a pleasant noise and this was no different, but as the spotter pointed out, \‘you\’re fine, that\’s what the sliders are for and there simply isn\’t another way through\’.
The near 4.8-metre long Wrangler may not be the best option here, the three-door would sure have been a better idea. Nonetheless, it stood there, squeezed through and set down on the other side to carry on through the rest of the trail where the next obstacle awaited only a few steps away and posed its own set of challenges. Then again, there isn\’t much else that you could expect of a trail that follows a river bed and is pummelled by a heavy blanket of snow every winter to alter its dynamics. What you can expect is to find Jeep owners, often with their families and all their camping gear, with the doors unhinged and winches mounted, to take on a trail that does not understand smooth, in an SUV that invented off-road driving. Every bit of the Wrangler\’s eight decades worth of legacy gets in behind it, on a trail that is equal proportions iconic and bone-jarringly gruelling. Good thing the new Wrangler has gotten even better at getting to terms with it.
Jeep SandstormIf there was ever an antidote to the slow crawl of the Rubicon Trail, which I thoroughly enjoyed, this is it. The Sandstorm is, in essence, the lovechild of an RFC-spec car and, let\’s see, a dune buggy. What you see here is a longer, lighter, incredibly suspended, V8-powered, custom-built Wrangler from the guys at Jeep. They like to pull out a few special toys for their Moab meet, and this time, they\’ve decided to show them off on a farm just off the Rubicon. To allow the Sandstorm to put down its near 500 horsepower from the 6.4-litre motor, the wheels have been pushed out further at the front and the rear for a much longer wheelbase. It comes with massive 39.5-inch tyres bolted onto the 17-inch rims and can articulate a maximum of 14-inches at the front and 18-inches at the rear. If you are envisioning Robby Gordon tearing through Dakar in his trophy truck, well, you\’d be pretty close. I\’ve strapped myself inside and bolted the steel tubing I have for a door. The next thing to do is open up the jet fighter-style switch and hit the ignition button to turn the motor over. To say it sounds like an angry lumbering giant would be an understatement. Try imagining Hulk, really pissed off after a few rounds of cannon fire and then multiply it by a machine that is happy to eat children for breakfast. The Sandstorm sounds that wild and that too at just a tap of the throttle.
Getting used to the manual six-speed shifter on the wrong side of the car made for some botched shifts, but that did not stop the slightest provocation of the throttle from swinging the rear-end loose and kicking up a tonne of dust. There wasn\’t much of a steady build up, just all my teeth showing in a bright orange hooligan that swung wildly down a dirt track threatening to munch through anything that comes its way. The smaller yumps were impossible to tell and the bigger one was accompanied by a slight grunt to let me know the tyres were running extra loose. With the car stepping out sideways in the first couple of gears and the speedo already indicating 60mph (20 of which must\’ve been wheelspin), I heard a voice on the radio asking me to slow down. I felt like a hopped up junkie, dreaming about the start line of the Baja. Eventually, they did manage to peel me away from the Sandstorm, not before I had filled the cabin with an adequate pool of drool. What. A. Laugh.