Breaking in a Wrangler at the 2018 Penn’s Woods Jeep Jamboree

Photos by Jeff Wilson and Allie Marsh

Two years ago, Allie insisted we take her Jeep – a well-worn and much-loved 2001 TJ Sport – to a Jeep Jamboree.

We had only just started dating a few months prior to her springing this on me, and while I’d grown to really love driving that TJ the few occasions I was permitted to do so, I must admit, I didn’t have much confidence in that old beast making it to an event that was five hours away, let alone surviving the Jamboree and returning home again.

But it did survive, and my appreciation for Jeep’s venerable Wrangler has grown ever stronger since that adventure, when I saw what that bouncy, rattily, squeaky machine could really do – even on mostly-bald tires.

Best of all, Allie and I discovered that we worked really well as a team, regardless of which one of us was driving, and which one was navigating, and we vowed to do more Jamborees. That’s the best part about the Jeep Jamboree: it’s a fantastic event that brings people together.

Enter: The 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited

A few weeks ago, FCA Canada’s media guru reached out and offered up a spot at this year’s Penn’s Woods Jamboree in Bradford, PA – an opportunity eagerly accepted. As if the deal needed sweetening, a gleaming Firecracker Red JL Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited was thrown in for the occasion, meaning we wouldn’t need to wonder if the TJ would reach its final resting place somewhere deep in the woodsy Pennsylvania highlands.

Having experienced the new JL-generation Wrangler at its Arizona launch late last year, I was really looking forward to logging some more seat time – and a lot of distance – in the reality of my daily life to see if I’d remain as smitten as I was when I first drove it.

The short answer: yes. Especially when compared to driving an 18-year-old two-door Wrangler, this new machine is otherworldly in terms of its refinement and day-to-day livability.

With a busy week leading up to the Jamboree weekend, Rubi (as “our” Wrangler was named), accompanied me for work duties and errands, faithfully commuting and hauling passengers and camera equipment as required before being loaded up for our adventure, all of which it handled with aplomb. Buyers of Sport and luxurious Sahara editions will delight in the fact that a cool-as-ice Wrangler can now legitimately be a reasonable daily driver.

Those going for Rubicon models often want a Wrangler that trades off some comfort for the Jeep’s insane off-road capabilities, and I wondered how this newest, cushiest Jeep would be received by the hardcore Jamboree regulars.

Passing Muster at Penn’s Woods Jamboree

The lush University of Pittsburgh, Bradford Campus serves as the Penn’s Woods Jamboree’s home base. It’s a great venue with plenty of space for the Jeeps and the facilities required to feed and house hundreds of off-road aficionados.

Upon arrival, we queued up for tech inspection, and what ended up being the first validation for the new JL here.

“Oh, this is a new one! What sized tires are those?” asked the inspector.

“33-inchers,” I reply.

“Okay, what other modifications are done to this one?”

“Uhh, none. This is bone stock, right from the factory. So are those tires.”

With that information, he and his fellow inspectors nodded approvingly and discussed how impressive the Rubicon looks before sending us on our way to the registration table with their recommendation to join the trails that skewed to the more challenging end of the trail-rating spectrum.

The FCA media manager reminded me before relinquishing the keys just days before, that Rubi was brand-new and I was its first assignment; so with that in mind, we elected to sign up for the two easiest trail groups.

Trail difficulty is rated on a scale of 1–10. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single Jamboree out of the thirty-or-so that they’re running this year that has anything easier than a 3-rated trail. And that’s a good thing because Trail-Rated Jeeps are sensationally capable, and the Trail Guides at Jamborees are excellent at guiding off-roaders through the particularly tough stuff.

In fact, every person we met was welcoming, helpful, and eager to enjoy the Jamboree to the fullest. Participants in our group ranged from retirees and grandparents, to families with young kids, single adults, and other couples. There were plenty of folks who serve (or have served) in the US Armed Forces, as was proudly displayed on their Jeeps. Every aspect of the Jeep Jamboree is made to be family-friendly, and it really does feel like a great, wholesome activity.

The organizers and guides are excellent at what they do, with a primary goal on safety first and foremost, but in a way that doesn’t detract from the fun. That said, ultimately, saving your Jeep from harm is your obligation, and when we encountered a few particularly gnarly rock mounds to climb, drivers were given an alternate “easy route” around if desired.

I’ve experienced first-hand what the new Rubi can achieve on rocks, and so not once did we opt out of any offshoot or obstacle we came across during two full days on the trails. The new JL Rubicon makes drivers look like heroes over some particularly nasty terrain.

Plus, all the stuff that really matters when you’re out in the woods – like approach and departure angles, and ride height clearance, as well as a tighter turning circle – have been improved, meaning the new Wrangler was much easier to wheel around and capable than its predecessors.

We put much of the Rubicon’s off-road electronic trickery to good use too. At the trail head while others scampered around locking hubs on older machines (and one poor guy even fitted tire chains to his ’80s-vintage Cherokee), all we had to do to prep was air down the tires to 27 psi, shift into 4-Low and disconnect the sway bar with the push of a button.

On a few occasions, we were worried about traction from the BF Goodrich K02 all-terrain tires, particularly when the torrential downpour on Sunday turned much of the trail to the consistency of chocolate pudding. We needn’t have worried since Rubi never faltered, climbing up and down the trails and rocks, extending suspension bits impossibly to keep tires connected to terra firma.

Only once or twice did we electrically lock the front and rear differentials for maximum traction, and even then, I’m not entirely sure it was necessary.

We also learned early on, that slipping and sliding on the soggy terrain can be helpful. Skidding laterally helped turn the big Jeep around tight obstacles – usually completely by happenstance. And sliding forward, slowly down a rock face is unnerving, but sometimes the only way to go.

Don’t however, mistake the Jeep’s astonishing capability (and of course, our expert driving) as an absence of challenge at this Jamboree. Plenty of times our peers would elect to go around obstacles our Wrangler could happily tackle, or would show considerably greater difficulty in getting through.

There was that one time, however, when a slight lateral slide off a rock – at no fault of the skilful driver – left the otherwise unstoppable JL high-centered on another, larger rock. Our new friends from Ohio in a two-door JK happily hooked up and towed us off. We, in-turn, did the same for the four-door JK from Maryland behind us, immediately after.

Friends Made and Lessons Learned

We developed new words to describe the sounds made from ours, and other Jeeps moaning and groaning over obstacles. We lost count early on the first day for all the graunches, scrunches, and grundy-thunks emanating from the underside of Rubi as it dragged its skid plates over rocks, logs, stumps, and high ground. After a water crossing, we noticed the brakes (which continued to operate fine) made new, strange noises, and we joked that it was from frogs we had collected.

The new JL generation is excellent at what it does off-road, and by the end of the event, everyone I spoke to seemed to give it the respect it deserves. I suspect there are still Jeepers out there with decades-old machines that have been rebuilt several times who look to the electronics of the new Wrangler warily, wondering how long they can practically last in such a hostile environment.

And you know, maybe there is a little too much technology in the new Wrangler. The Trail Guides bemoaned the bright LED running lights of the JL, that would blind them as Rubi climbed up and over obstacles while they tried to give directions. The blind-spot monitor sensors had enough of the close proximity of navigating between trees and gave up, firing a warning light on the dash until Rubi was shut down and restarted. And the Apple CarPlay decided to go on strike for two days, suddenly re-appearing mid-way through Saturday’s trail ride for no apparent reason.

Compared to Allie’s TJ, there is definitely some character lost in this new, smoother, more sophisticated machine. But then, the same is true for almost any vehicle that’s continuously evolved and improved over decades. It’s nice having a vehicle that features the creature comforts (and safety) one expects from a new machine, especially if it’s going to be daily driven. It’s remarkable to find a new vehicle that does all that, and can even hang with lightly modified Wranglers in a harsh, off-road world.

For me, if I were buying a new one, I’d skip some of the options that drove the as-tested price of Rubi to $60,000, and spec a two-door Rubicon with a stick-shift to get a more visceral driving experience and a smaller rig that can get into tighter spaces on the trail.

Until that day comes, it looks like Allie and I will look at ways to make the old TJ even more capable and durable for all our future Jamborees. And we hope there will be many, since there’s no better way to enjoy the camaraderie of the Jeep community, and seeing just what a Jeep can do than at a Jamboree.

Bringing people (and rocks) closer together. 7/6/2018 8:00:00 AM