2003 Jeep Wrangler Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
New Rubicon is factory-prepared for America's gnarliest trails.
Jeep Wrangler is a classic symbol of summer cruising and off-road rambling. The Wrangler is the icon of the Jeep brand, and there are no direct competitors for it. As Jeep says, there's only one.
Headlining the 2003 Jeep Wrangler lineup is the Rubicon, which boasts a serious off-road suspension, a powerful 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine, a Dana rear end, and other changes, all designed to improve 4x4 capabilities. Essentially, it's a modified Jeep from the factory, making financing and preparation a turn-key deal for off-road enthusiasts.
But all models benefit from upgrades that make them more comfortable, more convenient, more responsive, and more capable for 2003. A new four-speed automatic transmission is available on all models, eliminating the notoriously outdated three-speed automatic for much better response and improved fuel efficiency. Four-wheel disc brakes improve the stopping ability of all models. The base SE model gets a big boost in performance with a new, more sophisticated, four-cylinder engine.
New features spice up the Wrangler's spartan cabin. Redesigned front and rear seats offer more room and are easier to work with. Redesigned exterior mirrors help reduce noise, vibration and harshness and are wider, offering a better view rearward.
Built along Jeep's 'Go anywhere, do anything' design philosophy, the new Rubicon is a 4x4 gem. After driving through Hell's Revenge, Cliff Hanger, and other challenging trails around Moab, I am happy to report that the Rubicon passes the off-road test with flying colors. Front and rear locking differentials, front and rear Dana model 44 axles and a 4:1 low-range transfer case give the 'Ruby' trail capabilities far beyond those of the average SUV.
Five models of the Jeep Wrangler are available for 2003: SE ($15,665); X ($18,685); Sport ($20,495); Sahara ($24,085); Rubicon ($24,385).
SE comes with a new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 150 horsepower. The new engine delivers 25 percent more horsepower and 18 percent more torque than the previous engine (150 hp @ 5200 rpm and 165 pounds-feet @ 4000 rpm). It works well with the standard five-speed gearbox, which is a new heavy-duty transmission with synchronized reverse gearing and improved shift quality in cold weather. An all-new four-speed automatic is also available. Still, the SE does not offer thrilling acceleration performance. At first glance, the SE looks attractive, but its low price quickly rises when upgraded upholstery, a rear seat, rear carpeting, a stereo and other options are added. If you don't want a rear seat, don't mind the easy-to-clean vinyl upholstery, and don't feel the need for speed, then the SE is a good vehicle for fishing, hunting, exploring. Having one attached to the back of your motor home comes in handy for tooling around small towns in the American West. A variety of options is available, including the hard top.
Wrangler X, Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon models come with a much more powerful 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine rated at 190 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque. A heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission is standard; the new four-speed automatic is optional. The inline-6 gives up some fuel economy to the inline-4 around town, but the six-cylinder gets 19 mpg on the highway.
Wrangler X comes with cloth upholstery, upgraded front seats, a fold-down rear seat. full carpeting (covering the rear seat area, cargo area and wheel housings), AM/FM/cassette, digital clock, padded roll bar, and P215/75R15 Goodyear Wrangler tires.
Sport adds full metal doors, wind-up windows, fog lights, tilt steering column with leather-wrapped wheel, courtesy and underhood lights, and other features.
Sahara comes loaded with a high-zoot stereo, premium cloth, air conditioning, cruise control, gas shocks, monster tires (30x9.5xR15), premium fender flares, among other features.
Rubicon is named for the Class 10 off-road Rubicon Trail on the California-Nevada border, a location that is part of Jeep's evaluation for all its vehicles. The Rubicon is designed to reflect the original vision realized in 1940, when Jeep invented the sport-utility and dominated off-road travel. Jeep even recreated sections of the famed Rubicon Trail at its proving grounds in Michigan to test the durability and capabilities of its newest offering. Rubicon comes equipped with diamond plate sill guards, front and rear Dana axles and driver-actuated locking differentials. Standard are 31-inch tall tires and 16-inch five-spoke wheels. It's available in all of the Wrangler exterior colors.
All models in the lineup include a fold-down windshield, removable doors and top, and a weatherproof interior. Drivers may choose between hard- and soft-top models. Exterior paint treatments include four new colors: Bright Silver Metallic, Inca Gold Pearl Coat, Intense Blue Pearl Coat and Light Khaki Metallic. Interior trim is Dark Slate on all models except Rubicon, which offers either a Dark Slate or Khaki interior.
Jeep Wrangler is an icon, one of the most widely recognizable vehicle in the world. That hasn't changed. All boast distinctive round headlamps. Uplevel models come with front fog lamps and bumpers and wheel wells in a contrasting color.
A few additions to the exterior distinguish the Rubicon from others in the lineup. A 22-inch long nameplate is prominently emblazoned on either side of the hood. Heavy-gauge diamond plate sill guards are bolted to the body sides to protect rocker panels from the damage and dings of rocks and stumps in the backcountry. Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires are mounted on new 16-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels with a dished face to protect them from debris and obstacles. Ten inches of ground clearance helps the Rubicon traverse the trail.
One of the biggest decisions when buying a Wrangler is selecting the top. Purists prefer the soft top, a high-quality piece of equipment that can be configured according to the weather. Folding the top down takes only a third of the time it took before a redesigned top was introduced for 2001. If a screwdriver is handy, the windshield can be flipped down for breezy, low-speed touring in the back country.
The optional hard top is more practical and offers better protection from weather. It comes with full-height doors and roll-up windows. Rearward visibility is aided by the rear-window defroster, wiper and washer. Wind noise is greatly reduced. The top can be removed.
For those who want the best of both worlds, Jeep offers a package that includes both hard top and soft top in matching colors. Either top is far easier to remove or install than those of pre-2001 models and provides much better sealing from the elements.
The new exterior mirrors are made of plastic, which Jeep engineers say holds up better than metal when going off road.
Inside, the Jeep Wrangler's space is spartan but highly functional. New seat designs and fabrics make it more comfortable. A dark gray or khaki interior, four-spoke steering wheel and padded sport bar give the Wrangler its unmistakably utilitarian look, while a simple dash with 12-volt power outlet adds functionality. All models come with a weatherproofed interior that features removable drain plugs for hosing out the interior.
The Wrangler remains miles away from luxurious, but improvements for 2003 make the interior more comfortable. Softer trim pieces inside offer improved head protection. A new electrochromic rearview mirror with map lights and compass display should help keep you on the intended route. New corner pods located just behind the B-pillar on both sides of the Wrangler house interior lamps, providing theater lighting. Optional roof speakers are available.
A new center stack with new radios improve functionality. The rear view mirror is now electrochromic; it automatically dims when headlights shine on it, which is an important feature when the top is off.
A redesigned front seat offers 20 additional millimeters of rearward travel, allowing taller drivers to sit a more comfortable distance from the steering wheel. A new, more easily removable fold-and-tumble rear seat is equipped with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and upper Tethers for CHildren) system for mounting child safety seats directly to the structure of the seat. Also, the seatbacks are higher, which improve safety for taller people.
Research firm J.D. Power and Associates gave the 2001 Wrangler high scores for the quality of its interior features (such as the seats, windshield wipers, door locks, heater, air conditioner, and stereo system), and that should be improved further for 2003.
We went to Moab, Utah, to drive the new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon over some of the best and most varied four-wheeling trails in America. Here, in the heart of the Colorado plateau, are thousands of miles of backcountry tracks, most left over from mining days. We motored across the mixed topography of deserts and canyons with the 13,000-foot La Sal Mountains in the backdrop. We traversed trails that ranged from a difficulty of No. 1 (unimproved or rarely graded roads that call for four-wheel drive or extra clearance in places, but require no special driving skills) to a No. 5 (locking differentials and front and rear tow hooks necessary for passage, winch recommended, expert driving skills demanded). Note: This trail rating system is different from other 4WD trail ratings in the U.S., which range from 1-10, with the Rubicon Trail rated a 10. We put the Rubicon to the test on trails such as Hell's Revenge, Cliff Hanger, Metal Masher, and Top of the World, which travel through forest, desert, steep ravines and rims, rivers, mountains, and Moab's famous slick rock.
The Wrangler Rubicon performed flawlessly in the rough and rugged. It boasts a cadre of 4WD technology that includes a transfer case designed with a 4:1 low range (the previous off-road version was 3.73:1), which delivers more power at the slow speeds required for off-road driving. Locking differentials, actuated when the driver presses a switch on the dash, prevent power from being directed away from the tires with the best grip. Dana model 44 axles, considered by enthusiasts to be the cream of the crop, come standard on the Rubicon model and are strong enough to handle all manner of off-road conditions.
We drove the new smooth-shifting automatic transmission, as well as the well-geared five-speed manual transmission, and both match up well to the inline six-cylinder engine. Jeep's inline-6 produces ample power in all conditions: 190 horses at 4600 rpm and 235 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3200 rpm.
Boasting Big Foot stature in a mini footprint, the Rubicon wears aggressive Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires that help it achieve more than 10 inches of ground clearance on a short (93.4-inch) wheelbase, which makes this a nimble vehicle in the backcountry. Added to that are laudable approach (45-degree), departure (34 degree), and ramp breakover (25-degree) angles. This means you can drive up, down and over steep grades, tall boulders and fallen logs with greater ease.
Off the trail, driving the Rubicon is another matter. The tall tires and off-road suspension, which add capability in the backcountry, become a liability around town. The ride is harsh and choppy. It's a tall step up to get inside and a long reach to access gear stowed in the rear seats. On the plus side, however, is a torque-sensing limited-slip feature on the rear axle for better traction on the road.
We also drove a Wrangler SE with the new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. There's not much power here and we wouldn't want to drive all the way across the U.S. in one, but it is an appealing vehicle. The low-cut doors and soft top are cool and it's a more comfortable vehicle than before. And the low price is attractive.
Jeep calls its new 2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon the ultimate off-road rig. The Rubicon is the long-awaited answer to enthusiasts' prayers. Jeep reports strong initial sales and expects to sell 8,000 of the 2003 Rubicon models.
As for the other Wrangler versions, Jeep expects to sell some 60,000 during model year 2003. A legitimate sport utility vehicle, this model may not easily take to the highway, but will happily take drivers as far down the trail as they want to go.
SE ($15,665); X ($18,685); Sport ($20,495); Sahara ($24,085); Rubicon ($24,385).
Options As Tested
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon ($24,385).
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