Tackling America's toughest trail in the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon

The infamous Rubicon Trail is no match for Jeep's aptly named Wrangler Rubicon.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
6 min read

I've been behind the wheel of the 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon for a little less than an hour and I've already counted 14 slams against the rock rails or skid plates. But a high bang count is to be expected when you're on one of the most notorious off-road routes in the country: the Rubicon Trail.

Located just outside Lake Tahoe, California, the Rubicon Trail is only 22 miles long, but it's not for the faint of heart. This is where Jeep first developed the Wrangler Rubicon. The obstacles are continuous, whether it's a set of rock stairs, a boulder-strewn riverbed or a steep granite slope. Trail-side trees have bark scraped away from previous adventurers. Granite rocks are scarred with the vestiges of yesterday's skid plates. The Rubicon Trail tests man and machine like nothing else. People show up here in Mad Max-style rigs with a full roll cage, 40-inch tires and gears low enough that they practically drive themselves.

And I'm in a bone-stock 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. I'm sure I'll be fine.

Slow going

My Wrangler has Jeep's new 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 engine featuring FCA's mild hybrid eTorque system, the same one you'll find in the new Ram 1500 truck. It's not a full-fledged hybrid drivetrain, so don't expect to go cruising on all-electric power. Instead, eTorque swaps the alternator for a small electric motor and generator for better off-the-line power while regenerative braking resupplies the 48-volt lithium-ion battery. A stop-start system helps the smaller engine get an EPA-estimated fuel economy rating of 22 mpg combined, compared to the 20 mpg of the 3.6-liter V6.

2018 Jeep Wranger Rubicon
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2018 Jeep Wranger Rubicon

The Rubicon is the ne-plus-ultra of the Jeep Wrangler trims.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

I bypass the first part of the trail and start at 9 a.m. at Loon Lake. My goal for the first night is Rubicon Springs, a campground about 6 miles away. As I line up behind 21 other rigs, I'm picturing an afternoon at the Springs, beer in hand after a lazy dip in the creek. However, my dreams are quickly dashed by one of our spotters. He's walking the trail next to me. No, scratch that. He's walking the trail faster than me. Looks like today's pace will be a blistering 3 miles per hour.

The first set of obstacles aren't too hard, and the spotter easily guides me over. I'm in the four-wheel drive system's low range, and the sway bar is disconnected to give the Jeep as much articulation as possible, though my lockers aren't engaged. Heck, I haven't even taken any air out of the 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 tires. I'm running at full pressure, right around 40 psi.

The morning is pretty chill, though I'm constantly moving. Watch the spotter, take his directions, don't freak out when I smash the rock rails, go as slow as possible, but as fast as necessary. Rinse and repeat.

2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon on the Rubicon Trail

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When you're crawling rocks, low-end torque thrust is your best friend. That's why I'm thankful I have the 2.0-liter turbo engine underhood -- with 295 pound-feet of torque, it's more powerful at lower revs than Jeep's 3.6-liter V6. It's a $3,000 upcharge ($1,000 for the engine, $2,000 for the required eight-speed automatic transmission), but feels totally worth it, to me.

I don't feel any "hybridy" driving characteristics while on the trail. Stop-start doesn't work in four-wheel drive low range and power delivery is relatively smooth. When I try to get very, very precise with my throttle control, the system sometimes doesn't respond, but I'm asking the Wrangler to move mere inches. Most folks won't have a problem.

Straight to the top

It isn't until the afternoon that I start to think these spotters are crazy. First, I have to pick my way through boulders the size of a Smart Fortwo. Then I have to take a 90-degree left through more boulders. I expect to have to shift the eight-speed automatic transmission into reverse to make it, but since the turning radius in the new Jeep is better than its predecessor, I can make it in one go.

What's ahead of me now looks impossible: a granite rock face that stretches up to the sky. I lock both the front and rear differentials in order to have equal torque going to all four wheels, regardless of traction. There's no room for momentum. This is all about the slow-and-steady crawl ratio, the BF Goodrich KO2 tires and my own personal ovaries of steel.

2018 Jeep Wranger Rubicon
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2018 Jeep Wranger Rubicon

Big rocks? No problem.


The Rubicon has a 44-degree approach angle and scrapes just the tiniest bit as my tires hit the rock. As she climbs up the granite, my field of vision changes to the pure blue sky. I keep my foot steady on the throttle and the 77.2:1 crawl ratio pulls the Rubicon up and over the rock, with nary a slipping tire.

The rest of the afternoon proceeds the same way. I come to an obstacle, I proclaim it impossible, the Rubicon proves me wrong. From the 27-degree sideways slopes of Little Sluice and Big Sluice to the steep uphill climb of Walker Hill, the stock Rubicon tackles it all.

Only one time do I end up high-centered -- one fault of the Unlimited's longer wheelbase. The spotters stack rocks under my tires and even rock the thing from side to side to get the Rubicon to slide off the obstacle, but only a tow strap can save me. On my second attempt the spotter gives me a better line and I continue on, my ego damaged but the Jeep no worse for the wear.

The 6 miles to Rubicon Springs takes a bone-crushing nine hours. Part of that is due to the sheer size of our group -- 21 Jeeps in total -- but mostly it's because of the trail itself. The hits never stop on the Rubicon. I clear one boulder-strewn obstacle, 25 yards away is a set of rock shelves to be scaled. Then 45 yards after that is a 3-foot ledge I have to negotiate. I'm dirty, sweaty, tired and never so happy to see a campground in my life.

The second day is much easier, with just Cadillac Hill as the big challenge. This place got its name because of the wreckage of a Cadillac that rests in the ravine from back when the trail was an actual road that led to Rubicon Springs. Cadillac Hill is a steep uphill climb with narrow switchbacks, exposed tree roots, large rocks and, oh yeah, a literal cliff on the right.

But by this point, I'm confident. I lock up the rear and tackle Cadillac Hill with gusto, making it to the top with no problems. Sure, this Jeep's been working hard, but that's what it's made for. Punish the Wrangler, and it just wants more.

What's not to like?

To be fair, I do have a few issues with the Wrangler. It can only only tow 3,500 pounds, or 2,000 pounds if you get the two-door, so you can forget about pulling larger campers along to your favorite spot in the woods. Oh, and the Rubicon can get pretty pricey. It starts at $41,445, but after you factor in the $3,000 engine and transmission upgrade and the various bits for comfort and convenience, you're looking at a Jeep that'll easily crest $50,000. My tester, for example, is $53,055, all in.

2018 Jeep Wranger Rubicon
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2018 Jeep Wranger Rubicon

At the end of the day, just put the Rubicon back into two-wheel drive and head on home -- no trailering required.


But that's the price you pay for something this capable. Most folks have to bring specialized rigs to the Rubicon, and load them up on trailers attached to trucks at the end of the trail. In the Jeep, however, I can just drive home.

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