If you follow Route 11 north from Milo and Brownville Junction you will find a neat dirt road at a sharp bend in the pavement, a road that leads to the old Katahdin Iron Works and one of the manned gates for access to the Maine North Woods road system.
This is also the entrance road for hiking along the Pleasant River and the Appalachian Trail, as well as Maine’s own “Grand Canyon of the East,” Gulf Hagas.
Gulf Hagas is a deep canyon formed by the Pleasant River coarsing through the shale-like rock. Once used for backwoods log drives, the Gulf descends 500 feet over less than three miles, forming a series of scenic waterfalls, large pools and high overlooks that invite exploration. Combined with the adjoining Screw Auger Falls found on Gulf Hagas Brook, this area makes for a memorable day hike for young and old alike.
And with a new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon available, what better trip to take to see how the Jeep handles Maine’s woods roads with four hikers aboard.
In reality, the North Maine Woods road system was little challenge for the Jeep. Most of the route westward from Route 11 was well graded and smooth enough for relaxed travel. With Gulf Hagas about halfway across the 30-mile KTI-Mary-Jo Forest road, we elected to venture all the way through to the Greenville side after our excursion. With some timber harvesting evident, the road is still well maintained and never taxed our Jeep’s aggressive off-road oriented tires.
In fact, not much of anything taxed the Jeep Wrangler four-door during its visit. Sure, there are some comfort compromises with an adventure vehicle such as this, but Chrysler has mitigated many of those concerns and smoothed over many of the rough edges that used to be so evident on this design.
Outfitted with the plastic “hard-top” (with no headliner) and stowable soft-top canvas package, the Wrangler was surprisingly subdued during most urban travel. Conversation was not forced, nor is the stereo working hard to be utilized, as the cabin was relatively quiet at all speeds except elevated turnpike travel. Given that the Rubicon package adds super-aggressive B.F. Goodrich mud and terrain tires — with a lug pattern so large that you can feel the tires turning over the surface at low speeds — the Jeep was actually quite civilized and more comfortable than the recent Honda. After a couple of long days in the saddle, the Jeep’s seats never elicited any driver complaints either.
Unlike previous Wranglers the current four-door model offers more space versatility and passenger comfort. With separate rear doors, back-seat passengers have far more convenient access, while the folding seatback lets the cargo area grow exponentially. The shortcomings are few. Tall rear passengers longed for more thigh support on the short bench seat, the seatback angle is not adjustable and the soft-top arch intrudes into the cargo area’s entrance at the back and makes large item loading somewhat of a challenge. Visibility out the back is also very constrained by a combination of wide roof pillars, a rear wiper motor hanging from the roof, plus the spare tire mounted on the center of the swing-out tailgate. A back-up camera would certainly aid close-quarter motoring.
Jeep has had good success with the four-door Wrangler model due to the added space, as well as the improved ride supplied by a truck that uses 21 inches of longer wheelbase. This variance alone helps the Wrangler Unlimited achieve a far smoother ride under most conditions. You will sacrifice some low-speed turning radius over the regular two-door Wrangler, but in most other driving situations the four-door model has more relaxed ride motions.
Currently, power comes from a 3.8-liter V-6, churning out 202 hp or 205 hp, depending upon transmission and/or two- or four-door body. Jeep promises a stronger V-6 in upcoming editions as part of Chrysler’s new engine family for all vehicles.
Equipped with the smooth-shifting six-speed manual gearbox and 4.10 gears, the Jeep requires an earnest right foot to make reasonable progress. Fifth and sixth gear are strictly overdrive gears, too, requiring several downshifts for steep grades. EPA estimates are 15/19-mpg; I averaged just over 18 mpg for our time together, which included numerous highway miles.
It is hard, however, to measure the Jeep’s prowess in a paved world when it is obvious that this is a serious off-road oriented package and not the poseur that so many trucks are today. Run down the hardware list: underbody skid plates, rock rails, Dana 44 heavy duty front and rear solid axles, electronic sway-bar disconnect, locking front and rear differentials, Rock-Trac manual-shift four wheel drive, hill start assist (works great in the city, too), electronic roll mitigation, traction control and electronic stability control.
The functionality of the Jeep’s chassis extends to the interior. Controls and instruments are simple yet effective devices that are often a contrast. The Jeep offers one-touch lane change signaling action but there is no power assist for the mirrors. You get outside temperature and compass, but the locking differentials and sway-bar buttons are buried low in the dash and hard to see. After seven days, I was still not used to the power window switches in the center of the dash.
On the plus side, the optional navigation system was credibly accurate and easy to use, with back-seat passengers admiring the bird’s eye view of our intended path. The upgraded stereo system, with Sirius Satellite radio and Sirius Traffic programming also performed well with large speakers front and rear that make listening to NFL football games a must-do activity after all-day hikes.
At the end of its press fleet duty, the Rubicon showed no signs of the abuse that had been heaped upon it (I had to think that counterpart Ezra Dyer must not have had any time in the Jeep). Steering feel is commendably accurate and predictable, with the Jeep tracking down the road perfectly. The light clutch was flawless and there were no squeaks or rattles either.
If you need, or want, to travel off-road on a regular basis, it is hard to find a better-suited vehicle for such chores. That doesn’t mean that the Jeep doesn’t have capable rivals, because there are several worthy adversaries. However, Jeep has done a good job crafting an individualist persona as part of its marketing — a theme that continues to pay dividends for an automaker desperately struggling to survive.
Just the Facts: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Jeep Wrangler comes in two-door body with four-wheel drive or four-door Unlimited in either rear- or four-wheel drive. Tow ratings are 2,000 pounds for two-doors, 3,500 pounds for four-door body.
All Jeep Wranglers currently use a 3.8-liter V-6 making 202/205-hp and 237 pound/feet of peak torque. A six-speed manual is standard or four-speed automatic is available. EPA mileage estimates are 15/19 for all 4X4 models.
Wranglers are built in Toledo, Ohio. Base price for tested Wrangler Unlimited 4X4 was $32,050. With options, total SRP came to $35,975.
Jeep is once again teasing a pickup version of the Wrangler package for a 2011 debut, as well as a mild styling update on existing models. Planned new Pentastar V-6 engines for 2011 models should also upgrade performance and fuel efficiency.
For more arts & entertainment news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.