Let other automakers gussy up their sport utility vehicles and turn them into luxurious family haulers that never venture off pavement.
Jeep, the brand whose history is traced to a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle that carried America's fighting force in all sorts of terrain in World War II, is sticking to its SUV heritage with its 2003 Wrangler Rubicon.
You won't find leather seats here. You won't even get power windows.
This top-of-the-line Jeep Wrangler model, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $25,420, is all about off-road capability and bristles with equipment that's typically found on vehicles that have been modified for off-road duty.
Examples include locking differentials that can be engaged as needed by the driver, durable Dana model 44 axles and substantial, off-road tires.
But don't think only hardcore off-roaders are attracted to the Rubicon version.
According to company spokeswoman Carrie McElwee, sales have been a pleasant surprise, surpassing the expected 8,000 level and requiring a boost in production to some 14,000 since the Rubicon was unveiled about a year ago.
Even actress Angelina Jolie has a Wrangler Rubicon in the upcoming Paramount film "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life."
In the movie, due out in July, a modified Rubicon is shown in many rugged and extreme situations.
"You'll see the Jeep driving 80 miles an hour across harsh desert and jungle terrain without any difficulty," said Jeff Bell, vice president of Jeep at DaimlerChryslers Chrysler Group. "That's real Jeep 4-by-4 capability and that's Jeep adventure."
The test Wrangler Rubicon inspired adventure on the test drive.
I found myself taking country roads, rather than interstates, whenever possible. Dirt paths beckoned, and it was easy and unique to drive right up to a scenic creek and enjoy a quiet lunch amid nature on a friend's private property.
No wonder McElwee said many buyers of the Wrangler, which is offered in several models -- all with standard soft tops -- say they have always wanted the free-spirited vehicle and don't view it as a typical small SUV for day-to-day use.
It's a convertible, and it's often a weekend vehicle, she said, adding that for many buyers, it's a third vehicle in the driveway.
Fully 53 percent of Wrangler buyers are married, with median age 36 and median household income $61,000, McElwee said.
More than two-thirds of buyers are men, and 47 percent are college graduates.
The test Wrangler Rubicon got attention even after it was coated in dust, as a toll booth attendant asked how I kept the Jeep so clean. I realized it was a testament to the brightness of the bright blue exterior paint that shown through the dust, because I hadn't done a thing to protect against dirt.
Climbing inside the two-door, four-wheel-drive Rubicon took some doing, even for front-seat passengers.
The terrain-clearing off-road design and 16-inch off-road tires meant the driver seat cushion was about navel level for me, and there's a sizable raised sill at the door entrance.
Once situated on the cloth bucket driver seat and under the optional hard top, I noticed a decent amount of headroom and a dashboard that doesn't intrude too far into the interior.
The windshield, with a sharply vertical slant, seems a bit small, too.
But my high-seat position gave me a great forward view over the traffic ahead. Drivers just must be sure to check around the sizable pillars at the edges of the windshield.
Though a 147-horsepower, four-cylinder engine is available on the base Wrangler SE that starts at $16,825, the other four models all have the powerful, 4-liter, overhead valve, Power Tech inline six-cylinder.
It develops 190 horses, which means it doesn't strain on highway runs. Note the speedometer inside the uplevel Rubicon is calibrated to 100 mph only.
Torque, which is key for off-roaders, is a healthy 235 foot-pounds at 3,200 rpm and can be expertly managed via the Rubicon's Rock-Trac transfer case with 4:1 low-range gearing.
As expected, the standard transmission is a five-speed manual and was on the tester. A four-speed automatic is an $825 option.
The gear shifter had a long stalk and a notchy feel in the test vehicle, and I modulated the vehicle's performance easily via the gears.
But fuel economy is lackluster here at just 16 miles a gallon in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway. Expect to stop frequently to fill up the 19-gallon tank.
The hard top was a pleasant surprise, as I heard no squeaks or rattles. But there's a lot of wind noise at highway speeds as the exterior isn't exactly aerodynamic.
Tire noise is plentiful as well, and I spent a considerable amount of time tuning the radio volume up and down as my speeds -- and noises -- rose and fell.
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