My driving companion and I started off heading south from Moab toward the trailhead of the area known as "Behind the Rocks." We were behind the wheel of a black, 2-door Rubicon with a manual transmission — the black sheep of the group. It also had both the side and rear windows removed, a process we found to be rather simple the day before. Alas, the windows were nowhere to be found, and it was around 40 degrees outside. But we didn’t care. We were in a Wrangler in Moab.
We turned off the tarmac into the sand. "Behind the Rocks" is less about the steep rocky canyons Moab is famous for and more about sandy trails, low-lying vegetation and smooth batholiths — bubblelike intrusions of hardened magma that rise up out of the ground in the form of rounded boulders and buttes.
The JL barely missed a beat when the tarmac turned to soil — you simply point it in a direction, and it goes. It doesn’t hurt that the Rubicon comes straight from the factory wearing 33-inch BF Goodrich KO2 All-Terrain tires, which split the difference for on- and off-road use quite well.
The Wrangler Rubicon has a bevy of off-road features at the ready for whenever the trail gets more challenging. After taking most of the trail in 4-wheel-drive-high, we switched to four low when the conditions got tougher and a bit of rock crawling was required. As the level of difficulty increased from there, the focus turned to the 4×4 switches and buttons ahead of the transfer case knob on the dashboard. As the terrain became more and more uneven, our guides recommended we disconnect the Wrangler’s front and rear sway bars using the "Sway Bar" button.
While on-road, the sway bars ensure stability; disconnecting them in a low-speed off-road scenario, where they really aren’t needed, allows for more side-to-side articulation between the Wrangler’s driver and passenger side wheels, making for a less rigid, less bumpy ride over the rough stuff. Toyota offers a version of this system called KDSS that works automatically without the need for a button — but as cars become more and more toylike, having a button to activate this feature, to me, is just more fun.
When things got even more challenging, it was time to play with the locking differentials. We encountered a staircaselike rock formation on the trail and the guide radioed each vehicle to lock the rear differential. All vehicles have "open" differentials, which are designed to send power to whichever wheel has the least traction. The need for each wheel to be able to turn at a different speed is rooted in basic geometry — when the car is rounding a bend, the wheel on the outside travels slightly further than the wheel on the inside. Therefore, allowing each wheel to travel at a different speed allows for better handling. With the differential "locked," the wheels travel at the exact same speed — not great for handling, but awesome for churning along in a low-speed off-roading situation.
With only the rear diff locked, we were able to crawl up the staircase formation pretty easily. While we locked the rear diff in anticipation of a series of obstacles ahead, we engaged the front locker only on a case-by-case basis. Turning with the front differential locked puts undue stress on the components, so the best practice is to turn it off between obstacles.
After crawling through the red rock for a while, we came upon a massive, 41-degree slickrock slope known as "Phil’s Hill" or "Hummer Hill," supposedly because a guy named Phil drove a Hummer H1 across it … sideways. The Jeep PR crew was quick to point out that they were not encouraging anyone to try it, which naturally led to everyone trying it. Hummer Hill is an "everything on" scenario — 4-wheel-drive-low, sway bars disconnected and both diffs locked. The guide also recommended placing your left foot on the brake and right foot on the gas, to enable minute stop-and-go adjustments during the crawl to the top.
It took me two tries to summit the slope, now driving a 4-door Wrangler Unlimited for the longer wheelbase. On my first try, the guide told me I approached with too little speed and bailed too early when the wheels started to spin. On the second try, now with a little more momentum and the confidence to keep going even when the tires started to squeal, I made it to the top. On a slope like this, your windshield and side windows are consumed with nothing but sky, demanding blind trust in your equipment to get you to the top. The drive back down, now with a view of nothing but the ground below, was just as nerve-wracking as the climb up.
Altogether, I was thoroughly impressed with the new Wrangler Rubicon. I’d always viewed previous iterations of Jeep’s top-dog off-roader as too much of a compromise on-road to justify for my personal use. With the JL, though, Fiat-Chrysler has made investments in the right places — and it’s now quite good at acting as basic every-day transportation in addition to still being the most capable off-road vehicle on dealer lots today. Find a Jeep Wrangler for sale
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.