Story and photos by Russell Purcell
DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep brand has a long history largely based on the rugged dependability and go anywhere nature of the basic ‘Jeep’ (which is derived from the original name: General Purpose – GP – vehicle) platform that was originally designed for military and agricultural use in 1940.
By the end of WW2, both Willys-Overland and Ford began to produce models designed for civilian use (known as CJs – Civilian Jeep), after returning G.I.s began to make side deals with supply clerks and surplus dealers to acquire the battle-weary Jeeps that had proven themselves so well under fire.
After passing through a number of owners, the Jeep brand was acquired by Chrysler in 1987, as part of the company’s take-over of the American Motors Corporation. Forty years of CJ development and production finally ended with Chrysler’s acquisition of the company when they replaced the rugged icon with a softened up model called the YJ, in an effort to improve the vehicles on-road handling dynamics and ride comfort. This longer wheelbase vehicle was a hit with commuters and image conscious consumers, but represented a huge step back for off road enthusiasts.
The arrival of the next Jeep iteration, the TJ, came in 1997, and went a long way to put some of the ruggedness back into the vehicle – but true off-road mavens still found themselves having to heavily modify these vehicles to withstand the strains and stresses that come with extreme use.
Well for 2003, Daimler-Chrysler has rolled out the Rubicon, a very special limited edition of the TJ, in an effort to offer Jeep fans the chance to acquire a trail-ready package complete with full warranty, right from the dealership showroom.
The Unstoppable TJ
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The capabilities of the TJ Rubicon are best explored when faced with extreme off road conditions. Having had an opportunity to explore some of the vehicle’s limits while on a weekend adventure, I must say that the Rubicon is one amazing Jeep.
Faced with long traverses up neglected logging roads, the Rubicon revealed its true nature. Our progress was slow and steady, but the low-gearing of the ‘Ruby’ was perfectly suited for this type of workout. You simply choose the safest line to navigate through the many ruts, washouts and ditches that populate these primitive roads, and the Ruby’s suspension seems to effortlessly adapt to the terrain to keep things well in control. I quickly found myself in a rhythm where the vehicle seemed to lead me through, up and over the many hazards that we encountered along the way. The most amazing part of this experience was that for the majority of our day-long adventure we remained in two-wheel drive!
When truly put to the test in deep, loose gravel or on steep, soupy slopes, a quick tug on the console-mounted lever would activate the four-wheel drive system and allow us to get over all but the biggest hurdles. When in 4WD-Low you are free to activate the front and rear air lockers at the mere touch of a dash mounted button. With military grade Dana 44 axles and an incredibly beefy, ultra-low geared transmission, the Rubicon is capable of taking you where other Jeeps, as well as almost every other vehicle, fear to tread.
Over the course of our journey we encountered mud, snow, gravel, running water, soft peat and even ice. There wasn’t one point along our route where either myself, or my awestruck passenger, felt that the Ruby could not get us through. As for the awestruck reference, my brother Greg, the leader of this mission, had followed our exact route countless times before in a wide range of vehicles. Every time he felt that he had found a spot where we would be unable to continue on, Ruby proved him wrong!
What is an Air Locker?
The Tru-Lok differentials fitted to the TJ Rubicon are air-operated, meaning that at the touch of a switch the user is able to engage the front and rear air lockers which act to ‘lock’ the axles in place. Utilizing a mere 5 pounds of air pressure these units are very quiet, much more so than the ones available at your local aftermarket retailer. When you are operating the vehicle in either 2WD or 4WD High, the Tru-Lok differentials run normally, albeit with the addition of torque-sensing limited slips. These controlled slips can keep things from getting out-of-control when the going gets slippery or muddy, but things get serious when you engage 4WD Low.
Once 4WD-Low is engaged and the lockers are activated, the combination of lower gears and a beefed up drive train allow Rubicon drivers to take their time when faced with obstacles. This means control stays in the hands of the driver and is not dictated by having to dance on the pedals or using up the brakes as is common practice with less specialized equipment. In fact, the four-wheel disc brakes were delegated to reserve duty, as the Rubicon simply crawled up the mountain and then utilized compression braking and gravity to bring it back down. Awesome.
Big Rubber Boots
Luckily with the arrival of the TJ generation of Jeeps the design team had listened to off-road enthusiasts and yanked the fender liners that had hampered the addition of larger wheels and tires on the unloved YJ line. This allows the Rubicon to come equipped with 31-inch Goodyear rubber and attractive, but heavy duty, alloy wheels, blessing it with a couple extra inches of clearance over other Jeeps without the aid of either a suspension or body lift. This is fantastic news as it means that the vehicle’s centre of gravity is largely preserved. We all know that there is nothing worse than driving a vehicle that feels ‘tipsy,’ so the Jeep design team was very smart to go this direction.
The OEM tires fitted to the Rubicon are Goodyear Wrangler MT/R (Maximum Traction / Reinforced) models, one of the most highly-lauded all-terrain tires on the market. However, the heavy lugs, deep channels and innovative tread pattern are designed more for off-road use than daily commuting, so users who plan to make a Rubicon their general use vehicle, might want to consider switching to a less aggressive tire, one that leans more towards dual-purpose or highway use. Better yet, buy a second set of wheels and tires and keep the factory set up for those times you plan to use the Rubicon in the manner for which it was designed. If you do plan to retain the OEM tires, prepare for the constant drone of tire noise when traveling on the road, especially as you approach the 70 km/h+ range on the highway. Mind you, a lot of people like that sound. I know I do.
Along with the 31-inch tires come extended plastic fender flares that help keep the Jeep clean while preventing debris from being flung from the wheel wells. A heavy duty, galvanized-steel rear bumper protects the back-end, while a set of skid-plates protect the fuel tank and much of the running gear underneath. A strip of diamond plate has been added to the lower door sills to both protect the body and give the Ruby a more rugged look.
Dana? Ruby? What is With All These Girl’s Names?
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The Dana Corporation is a company famous for producing some of the most durable chassis and suspension components on the planet. DaimlerChrysler turned to Dana when it came to toughening up the Rubicon, as years of research and development with heavy equipment applications has made Dana the choice for many OEM and aftermarket suppliers. The Dana 44 axles that support the Rubicon are less prone to flex, which means they are less likely to break than lighter models, and when the going gets tough, it is nice to know that the Dana units are probably overbuilt for this application. Their presence means you have one less thing to worry about when faced with a steep ledge or engaged in a little boulder-bashing with your buddies.
If you are a fan of extreme off-road adventure, then you have no doubt heard of the infamous Rubicon Trail. Located in the California High Sierra just west of Lake Tahoe and about 80 miles east of Sacramento, the 12-mile long Rubicon Trail is regarded as being the most difficult off-highway trail in the United States. This natural obstacle course of slick-rock, Volkswagen-sized boulders and steep cliffs has torn up more off-road machinery than can be counted. As a result, the name Rubicon can only translate as TOUGH!
Tough and Versatile
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My test vehicle came fitted with the colour-matched dual top group, one soft and one hard, including full metal doors, but the standard Rubicon package comes with metal half-doors and a soft top. The hardtop is nice to have as an option as it offers an extra level of protection from the elements, wayward branches and unscrupulous thieves, but it does have one glaring
drawback common to TJ hardtops. For some reason Jeep designers have fitted the rear wiper mechanism to the upper right-hand side of the window glass, which to my shock occupies a large enough area to block about 30% of the rearview mirror. If the unit was simply relocated to the left-hand side, it wouldn’t encroach on rear visibility at all, as it would occupy that area
already masked by the driver’s head. I can’t imagine that the TJ design team missed this oversight, so it must be a cost-analysis issue.
As soon as I slid behind the wheel I immediately noticed that the seat slid further back than previous models, about two centimetres, which is great news for drivers with long legs.
Lots of grab handles and a well-padded roll bar offer plenty to grab on to when things get dicey. Luxuries like an electro-chromic mirror with integrated map lights and compass are new, but power windows and locks are not due to the removable nature of the doors. Durable cloth faced seating will keep your body in place, while a handy storage trunk resides in the rear to handle cargo duties. A new fold-and-tumble rear seat is easily removed if more cargo room is needed.
Is Ruby For Everyone?
In a word: No. In fact, Jeep retailers should make you fill out a survey to determine which TJ model fits your lifestyle. The Rubicon is a very specialized beast much more at home on a rocky outcrop than a congested city street, so if you don’t plan on playing Indiana Jones on weekends, then maybe one of the other TJ or Liberty models would better fill that empty spot in your garage. However, if you are the adventurous type, then the Rubicon represents money well-spent. An all terrain superhero with factory installed accessories fully covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, and the knowledge that all this equipment is included in your monthly payment or initial purchase price.
Technical Data: 2003 Jeep Rubicon
|Price as tested||$34,310|
|Type||2-Door, 4-Passenger 4WD SUV|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine/2WD/4WD|
|Engine||4.0-litre OHV inline 6 cylinder|
|Horsepower||190 @ 4,600 rpm|
|Torque||235 lb.-ft. @ 3,200 rpm|
|Transmission||5-Speed Manual (Tested) or 4-Speed Automatic (Optional)|
|Curb weight||1,686 kg. (3,716 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2,373 mm (93.4 in.)|
|Length||3,947 mm (155.4 in.)|
|Width||1,693 mm (66.7 in.)|
|Height||1,764 mm (69.4 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||252 litres (8.9 cu. ft.) behind 2nd seat|
|1173 litres (41.3 cu. ft.) 2nd seat tumbled|
|Fuel consumption||City: 14.3 L/100 km (20 mpg)|
|Hwy: 11.5 L/100 km (25 mpg)|
|Warranty||36 months/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||84/115,000 km|