Jeep has been the king of 4-wheel-drive for almost six decades. It’s the original ‘‘go anywhere, do anything’’ machine. And from the ‘40s war hero to today’s Wrangler, it’s always been the number-one choice of serious stump jumpers. And while the brand now does sell more luxury sport-utes than traditional 4X4s, Jeep hasn’t forgotten the off-roaders who made it famous. And this year Jeep rewards their loyalty, with the new Wrangler Rubicon. So let’s hit the trail, for some real sport utility.
And few modern 4-wheel-drive vehicles offer more equipment for a real sport-utility adventure than the 2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. To make a Wrangler worthy of America’s most challenging off-road trail, Jeep has packed the Rubicon with a primo selection of dirt-handling hardware. Those parts include front and rear locking differentials, heavy duty Dana 44 axles, a Rock-Trac transfer case with a 4-to-1 low range, and thicker drive shafts with 1330 universal joints, all riding on 31-inch Goodyear tires, mounted on 16-inch alloy wheels.
Power comes from Jeep’s proven 4.0-liter Power Tech inline-six. It makes 190 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Transmission choices are our Wrangler’s 5-speed manual, or an optional 4-speed automatic, which if you’re doing rock climbing is actually preferred. Speed has never been a Wrangler strong point, so we weren’t surprised by a leisurely 0 to 60 time of 9.8-seconds. The 1/4 mile passed in an equally relaxed 17.3-seconds at 73 miles-per- hour. But low down grunt is plentiful, which again suits the Jeep’s mission. Only the mushy clutch needs improvement.
A short wheelbase, high center of gravity, chunky tires, and vague steering left the Rubicon feeling twitchy in corners, with oversteer being the most prominent handling characteristic. Braking is by 4-wheel discs, with ABS an option. Our non-ABS test vehicle stopped from 60 in a longish 145 feet. We did encounter some lockup, primarily due to the soft, long-travel brake pedal. Stability was acceptable, but we’d opt for the ABS.
The Rubicon felt much more comfortable on open roads, where it displayed a much improved ride. In fact, while hardly a Ford Explorer, our hard-top Rubicon is the smoothest, quietest Wrangler yet.
But it’s off-road that matters in the Rubicon, and a trip to a private 4-wheel-drive course showed this rough, tough Wrangler to be worthy of its name. The differentials can be locked on the fly at speeds under 10 miles per hour. A dash mounted rocker switch allows you to lock the rear axle, and toggle the front axle lock on-and-off as needed for traction or improved maneuverability.
While 8.2-inches of ground clearance, plus an approach angle of 42-degrees and a departure angle of 31.9-degrees, allowed the Rubicon to easily clear rocks, holes and fallen trees. Steep slopes, deep gullies and thick mud were all conquered by the Rubicon’s prodigious traction. Add an even more aggressive set of tires, and even the most difficult off-road obstacles will fall before it. As if its potent off-road powers were not enough to distinguish the Rubicon, Jeep stylists gave it special graphics and diamond-plate sill protectors.
The interior is revised for 2003, but preserves the straightforward Wrangler look. The freshened interior includes a clean and modern dash, with comprehensive gauge cluster, and clear controls for climate and audio. But short folks will still find them a bit of a stretch. New front seats include taller backs, additional support, and increased travel. And the seat belts now have height adjustable anchors.
A redesigned rear bench seat flips and folds and is easier to remove. The new bench allows for a total luggage space of 41.5 cubic-feet when folded, and 46 cubic-feet when removed. So you can carry a ton of camping gear, or thanks to the new LATCH child seat anchor system, introduce the kids to off-roading before their first birthday.
And do it for a base price of $24,995. Add in our Rubicon’s options, which include the removable hard top, and the final price comes to $27,885. While that’s getting pretty steep for a Wrangler, it does buy a lot of true off-road capability.
And if you want something really different for just a few dollars more, there is the limited edition Rubicon Tomb Raider. Designed to highlight the Rubicon’s appearance in the new Lara Croft film, The Cradle of Life, the Tomb Raider is limited to just 1,000 vehicles. It features special Tomb Raider graphics, as well as a ton of special gear including wheels, light bar, grille guard and fender flares. All for a base price of $28,815.
Want a bit more metal around you for those true off-road adventures? Then how about this 2003 Jeep Liberty Renegade? Jeep’s newest 4X4 gains the rebellious Renegade nameplate, plus two-tone front-end, integrated light bar with 150,000 candlepower, wider, bolt-on-style wheel flares, removable tubular side steps, and unique 16-inch aluminum wheels. Inside there is a custom flat weave fabric with leather accent on the seats, white faced gauges, and brushed aluminum on the dash. All leather upholstery is optional, as is a new overhead information console.
Power comes from the Liberty’s tested 3.7-liter overhead cam V-6, with 210-horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Manual and automatic transmissions are available, as are both part-time and full-time four-wheel drive systems.
On road or off, the Liberty Renegade cuts a wide path, and shows Jeep knows how to build on its heritage like no other brand. And while prices will climb rapidly with options, the 4X2 Liberty Renegade’s base price of $23,120, and $24,730 for the 4X4, seem most reasonable.
From Wrangler Rubicon to Liberty Renegade, they are all genuine Jeeps. And thanks to real off-road equipment, no posers here, Jeep delivers more genuine all-terrain sport and utility for the money than any other 4-wheel-drive vehicles in the world. They say ‘‘only in a Jeep,’’ and we understand why.
Engine: 4.0-Liter Power Tech Inline-6
Torque: 235 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 9.8 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 17.3 Seconds @ 73 MPH
60-0 MPH: 145 [w/out Abs] Feet
EPA Mileage: 15 MPG City 18 MPG Highway