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Sand Stormer

Chrysler's new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon duels it out with the Death Valley outback



THE LARGEST U.S. NATIONAL PARK outside Alaska, Death Valley is a wilderness of rocks and sand nearly the size of Connecticut, with topography as arid and mountainous as the Moroccan fringes of the Sahara. Since 1849 it’s been notorious for waylaying travelers in wheeled vehicles. What better proving ground, then, for a factory-new 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon?

We left the town of Lone Pine, Calif., late in the afternoon, outrunning the shadow of Mount Whitney — the tallest in the lower 48 states — on good pavement. My co-pilot, a photographer, snapped pictures through the open soft-top roof and played DJ as well, working the interface between his iPhone and the Jeep’s onboard computer.

We’d been given the four-door model in a blend of yellow and orange dubbed “dozer” (a new color perhaps less reminiscent of heavy construction equipment than of artificial cheese), and we looked forward to giving it a respectable patina of dust. There was plenty of room in back for 10 gallons of water, a folding table and chairs, food, beer and enough camping gear for two nights in the backcountry.

With its new six-cylinder engine — lighter and more efficient than its V-8 predecessors and, paradoxically, more powerful by 83 horses — the Rubicon (or “Ruby,” as fans call it) hit its stride like a thoroughbred on the wide-open desert two-lane. It was wily on tight corners, of course, like a real Jeep. But I had to set the cruise control to keep my sporting impulses in check.

In the ramble-down former mining camp of Darwin, at pavement’s end, we stopped to inquire about the road ahead. “You’ll be fine — it’s a Rubicon, toughest one they make,” said a woman, who didn’t appear to be in the pay of Chrysler Group, which owns Jeep. She gave it a final appraisal in the gaudy light of the setting sun. And then had to ask: “What color is that?”

It wasn’t until we’d forded a stream, climbed a steep pile of mine tailings and performed a brush-crushing turnaround at a washout illuminated only by our headlights that we got a taste of what the Ruby could really do. Namely, what Jeeps have been doing for the past seven decades: jeeping. (What other brand in the history of vehicles can rightly claim its own verb?)

We overnighted at the Furnace Creek Inn, a luxe-vintage safari hotel set in a date palm oasis above the Death Valley salt pan, with a warm springs pool and a pith-helmeted bellboy. Then we lit out overland. Connecticut has roughly 21,000 miles of roads; Death Valley has 1,000, fewer than a third of which have been tamed with pavement. The other 700 range from suspension-busting washboard to barely discernible wilderness tracks best suited to cloven-hoofed animals. (“I hope you have good tires,” a docent at the visitors center had remarked, showing us a dagger-edged rock sample from a typical “improved” road. “This is what the natives used to make arrowheads.”)

On a single tank of gas and stock tires, we worked a 250-mile circuit that took us across four basins and three mountain ranges. We passed a Frenchman and a West African changing a shredded tire on an old Montero. We squeezed through a rock hallway that would have peeled the doors off a Hummer, and descended a stepladder of dry waterfalls as smoothly as if we’d been in an inflatable raft   — then, for fun, we crawled back up to do it again.

Grinding down a wagon-width grade into Saline Valley, we came grille to grille with a sibling Rubicon from ’09, in silver. The vanity plates read “DV RUBY.” We killed engines, cracked beers and enjoyed a tour of the owner’s $6,000 worth of after-market upgrades. Looking at ours, briefly, he wasn’t so sure about the new color. But he did regret not having waited for the V6, and when he saw the AC power outlet built into the center console, his crest fell ever so slightly. “OK,” he admitted. “Now that’s slick.”

Guidebook author DAVID PAGE once drove a 1976 Jeep CJ5 from Alaska to Colorado. His everyday safari vehicle is a 1983 Toyota Land Cruiser with functional windshield wipers.

The bells and whistles

Starting Price: $33,570

Engine: The 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine delivers 285 hp and a boulder-devouring 260 lb-ft of torque, with a highway fuel efficiency of up to 21 mpg.

Performance: The Rubicon has 10.5 inches of ground clearance; can take on a granite wall at an approach angle of 44.3 degrees; and can ford a 30-inch-deep stream.

Perks: Included are BF Goodrich Mud Terrain T/A tires, Dana 44 heavy-duty front and rear axles, three-way push-button locking differentials, steel-plate underbody armor, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated seats and enough high-tech electronics to warrant 39 pages in the owner’s manual.


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