Not everyone will appreciate Jeep's TJ Rubicon. It's the antithesis to today's cushy-bum sport-utilities - a bit crude on pavement and uncultured in convenience, it makes no bones that the muddy back country is where it's happiest. Still, even city slickers can see the charisma in this limited production mudslinger. Monday to Friday it takes on the concrete jungle and when the weekend rolls around, it's a top down, doors off trail tackler.
Named after the gruelling Rubicon trail in Northern California, this newest Jeep is billed as the "ultimate off-road rig," a vehicle even more capable than the already stouthearted TJ on which it's based. Of course, there are the characteristic round headlights up front and a pair of bright foglamps. Rubicon graphics appear on the sides of the hood, while diamond-plated sill guards protect the rocker panels from off-road uglies. Distinctive Moab 16-inch, 5-spoke aluminum wheels are standard equipment and they're wrapped in toothy Goodyear MT/R tires. The huge Maximum Traction/ Reinforced tires add an inch of ground clearance and feature a tread pattern that extends down the sidewalls for grabbing trail ledges.
Inside, the Rubicon is like any other 2003 TJ, save for the differential lock switch on the centre stack. New this year are larger front seats and a 4-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel, with controls for the $310 optional cruise control. Without running boards the Rubicon's difficult to get in and out of. Often pants get dirty on the doorsills and ladies shouldn't even attempt it in a short skirt. Two corner pods replace the old speaker bar, each housing improved speakers and an interior light. The new auto-dimming rearview mirror with its integrated compass works well with the large outside mirrors to provide an optimal view around the Jeep. Cargo space is tight behind the rear seat, though the two-person bench can be tumbled forward for more room. For the most part the Rubicon's interior is as rugged as the rest of vehicle, though there are finicky bits. The HVAC dials feel unsure, the defrost vent on the dash top looks like it's made from a plastic stir stick and the door locks look and feel the same as the ones in my old '87 YJ.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of the Rubicon is price. For $29,425 you get a vehicle with exposed metal in the interior, no air conditioning and crank-down windows. Of course no TJ is complete without a soft and a hard top, so add $1,660 for that option. Tack on other extras, including air conditioning ($1,060) and the 4-speed automatic ($1,000) and our tester topped out at a whopping $34,535. On paper that's a lot of green for a vehicle lacking in basic niceties and practicality. Still, it's that bare bones toughness that's made the TJ such a success, and with the Rubicon's off-road capability and fun factor, there's just enough justification for its premium price.