Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Review (Pt.1): Tropical Storm Isaias and the perfect beach trip vehicle

The 2020 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon is so much more to me than just a vehicle. You see, Jeep has a special place in my heart. The brand has always been my favorite, and for good reason: Most of my early childhood memories revolve around adventures, trips, and, yes, mishaps, in my dad’s 1989 YJ Wrangler. The thing was a mess, a nonstop headache and fury of chaos, but it is also, unquestionably, largely responsible for my love for off-roading, my gearhead predisposition, and my life pursuing all things automotive. It did, in essence, set the course for my life and help carve me into who I am.

So it wasn’t without weight that, a few weeks back, I took delivery of a 2020 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Not forever, but for a week, a press loan from FCA to experience for myself just how far Jeep has come from the primitive four-by-four that helped make me who I am.

[Disclosure: Jeep was extremely kind and lent me a 2020 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon for a week. I didn’t really take it off-road, but I did drive it as if it were my own.]

Let’s back up. It’s 2020. By now you’re probably fatigued with COVID escape-centric reviews. I know I am, and I’m guilty of contributing to it. Apologies in advance: Once again, I needed an escape. So when Jeep stepped in and offered a beautifully-optioned Wrangler Unlimited for our annual trip to Long Beach Island we hoped it would be part of the formula to add up to the fatigue antidote we needed.

But a trip to the beach? The Wrangler needed some dirt to play on. New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, aka Wharton State Forest, seemed like the perfect place to go exploring without the worries of real-deal off-roading. But with great tension, we watched the weather. Tropical Storm Isaias was looming. It made landfall, flooding the coast and dishing out 110+ MPH winds, falling trees like toothpicks. Thankfully, power outages on the island didn’t last and we were cleared for take-off. But Wharton had fared worse, and with only a core crew on staff, the park was temporarily closed. 

And so, our adventure became a fully on-road trip. Which is, to say, exactly how almost all Jeep Wrangler owners use their vehicles. An appropriate test? Not of the JL’s fullest capabilities, but certainly a good evaluation of how the vehicle fares on the tarmac.

Pavement, as we know, isn’t the Wrangler’s home turf. Prior Wranglers were a nightmare on-road. The JK generation (and especially JK Unlimited) made a big leap but still touted nowhere near the road manners of the closest competitors. Would the JL be any better? If the spec sheet was any indication, it certainly would be. Just looking at the Monroney was shocking – not just in the price of the thing, but in the equipment offered.

The weather wasn’t exactly ideal when the Jeep was dropped off. I sat there looking at the spec sheet as Tropical Storm Isaias was in full swing, winds ravaging trees and rains flooding roads. $60k for a Wrangler? I was as shocked as I was by how sturdy the Sky One-Touch power top felt amidst the near-hurricane. At $3995 the roof is a seriously pricey option, but it offers a sense of the familiar roof-openness with more of the structure you expect from a traditional hard-top. And driving home as trees fell, it provided a safe, secure feeling despite the weather raging around me. And, unlike Jeeps of yore, no water leaks were to be found.

Commuting home that day, the Jeep immediately showed its strengths. Though the wind was blowing strong enough to lean the Wrangler a bit in a brutal crosswind, it was absolutely unaffected by everything else. Downed branches, massive puddles, and torrential downpours had no impact on the Jeep. It’s not as vault-like as a Land Cruiser, but with the incredible visibility and commanding seating position, the storm was not even a worry. Seeing this on the screen wasn’t too reassuring, though:

The storm, having passed, the next evening we loaded up the Wrangler with the fundamentals for a few days away. Space in the trunk is good and the cubic-like cargo hold makes it easy to play Tetris with your belongings.

We hit the road the next morning. To my shock, the Wrangler was actually decent on the highway. Not nearly as good as a 4Runner, but remarkably close given the structural limitations. At speed, it’s mostly composed and normal speaking volume is possible without having to yell. Wander, long a Wrangler issue is largely gone. The steering wheel takes some care and attention yet is nothing like what even the JK required.

Similarly, these traits translate to fatigue— or lack thereof. In prior Jeeps, our 2.5-hour highway stint would have meant arriving at our destination exhausted, drained. Or, at least, not refreshed. Which I wasn’t, but words I haven’t used in the past can finally be used: Comfortable, composed, compliant. Even the engine was a sweetheart, providing ample passing power and smooth shifts from the ZF 8-speed transmission. At 70 MPH the engine is barely noticeable. It’s smooth, quiet, and calm.

Pulling off the highway I hit the button to retract the sliding canvas section of the roof. Though providing more of a panoramic sunroof than the open-air experience afforded by fully removing a top, it’s a good compromise. In fact, it’s a more luxurious experience than being fully roofless and exposed. An excellent addition. Between the leather, automatic transmission, slew of tech, and the roof, Jeep has really bumped the Wrangler— at least those optioned like this— into uncharted territory for the nameplate. And it works beautifully.

On the island, roof back, windows down, the Wrangler Unlimited is an amazing vehicle. Sure, doors and roof off would be even more enjoyable, but this gets pretty close. It also goes without saying that the Jeep wave is ever-present. The sense of community that comes built-in is greater with the Wrangler than any other vehicle I’ve experienced. Refreshing, when so much of the world is at odds.

Also refreshing– for the Jeep’s underside, at least– was the slew of puddles I drove through the second morning of our stay. Isais was still fresh in mind and overnight a bout of massive thunderstorms and heavy rainfall brought serious flooding. So, in my quest to pick up breakfast, I did the only logical thing and drove through every puddle– some nearly as deep as the Jeep’s rock sliders– while laughing heartily.

Unnecessary? Yes. Juvenile? You betcha. Fun? All of it. Have Jeep, will play when the opportunity presents itself. If nothing else, it reiterates, again, that this is the perfect vehicle for a beach or island lifestyle. Or any, for that matter. Unexpected weather can bring serious hazards, and the Wrangler, especially in this form, is prepared to make it through anything and everything.

I also have to say that in Rubicon guise it looks properly badass. Jeeps have always looked good. This thing’s stock stance is fantastic. As is the Ocean Blue paint which absolutely glows in the sun. The JLUR is elegant enough to not look like it should be a beat-up trail rig, but with the accents and BFG KO2s, it stands off-road ready with genuine curb appeal. The untrained eye might mistake it for a semi-built rig when this is straight off the production line. The paint is beautiful, the details are brilliant, and whether on pavement, parked at the beach, or really anywhere else, it all just works.

Half-way into my time with the Wrangler, I was swooning over the Jeep’s manners and, of course, its character. Amidst mental fatigue, this Jeep is a breath of fresh air. Better yet, I finally found the perfect beach trip vehicle. I can’t afford one, but I now know that Jeep has built a vehicle that is truly impressive in its on-road ability. And, as it turns out, off-road as well.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon…

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7 responses to “Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Review (Pt.1): Tropical Storm Isaias and the perfect beach trip vehicle”

  1. GTXcellent Avatar

    Yeah, that lead picture looks really familiar

    I can attest to the ride comfort (relatively speaking of course). The only thing that gets a little tiresome is the wind noise (duh, it’s a Jeep). Granted I put on a roof rack which doesn’t help in the least, but it still gets a little loud, especially with a cross wind. We just went on a little week long road trip – about 1000 miles total. Lots of slower driving (and a tiny little bit of off-roading) and we still got 21 mpg. Not too shabby. Too bad your tester had tan leather – you don’t get the cool red dash.

    1. Ross Ballot Avatar
      Ross Ballot

      Ha! Very nice JLUR. I’m still a fan of the plastic, unpainted fenders and standard roof. The one I borrowed for this was obviously nearly-loaded.

      Which engine is yours? I’ll be sharing some of my thoughts on the turbo-4 in Part 2.

      If I were to build my own (in a *dream world*), it would be a 2-door Rubicon with cloth, the manual, and yes, the red dash.

      1. GTXcellent Avatar

        If we had gone painted fenders, they’d have been a total mess by now. The BFGs are the very worst I’ve seen at throwing gravel and our rear fenders definitely show it (as do our door hinges, doors – oh well, it’s a Jeep. Shows character)

        Ours is the 3.6, 6 speed manual, and cloth seats (that have since been covered in neoprene seat covers – I was too worried about “bird damage” when we leave the top off). I was waaay interested in the turbo-4, but since automatic only it was a no go.

        1. Zentropy Avatar

          Ok, this string answers my main question of “what engine?”, especially after Ross called it a “sweetheart”. I sorely miss my CJ-7 and am tempted by the Wrangler and Gladiator, but there’s no powertrain combination that suits me. Ideally, I would get the turbo four, but it’s automatic-only, and as with GTXellent, for me that’s a no-go. But to get the 6-speed manual I’m forced into the V6. I don’t care for V6s in general, and the Pentastar 3.6 in my opinion is a car engine inappropriately assigned to truck duty. In anything but a small car, I like the peak torque/hp ratio to be well over 1, and the torque to be in healthy supply at low RPM. This V6 just doesn’t suit the character I want in a Jeep. Rumors of a return of the inline six haven’t materialized. Unless Jeep engineers the manual to work with the 4-cyl, then I think I’m going to take the Bronco route in a couple of years.

          As an aside, my BIL just traded his JKU for a Gladiator Mojave, and wow, is that suspension nice. It’s notably supple compared to his prior Jeep’s (an Oscar Mike, whatever suspension that gives you– but not a Rubicon). I swear if he lifts it and puts on bigger tires, I’m going to choke him.

          A second side note: that paint is gorgeous.

  2. crank_case Avatar

    If the wrangler is the perfect beach car, maybe you need to go to a better class of beach.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      Is that a VW Type 2? It’s cool, whatever it is.

      1. crank_case Avatar

        It’s a Pininfarina bodied “Eden Roc” Fiat 600 Multipla