Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
For many years the Jeep Wrangler has been the obvious choice for anyone more interested in fun than convention. But with the launch of the new FJ Cruiser, the Wrangler now has a battle on its hands. Is the Jeep Wrangler still the ultimate weekend warrior?
Rock crawlers. Trail blazers. Weekend warriors. As an overland travel magazine we seldom venture onto this side of the off-road fence, and neither do many of you, I suspect. That said, this kinda thing is a part of 4x4ing that really races my motor – I love driving tough trails. You get to camp with pals, test your off-road driving skills and perhaps prove that your 4×4 is better than your mate’s.
But if you’re looking for a suitable vehicle for trail fun you’re not exactly spoilt for choice. Precious few manufactures design their vehicles with rock crawling, mud bogging and dune charging in mind. In fact, I’d argue that the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon was the only 4×4 that truly met the needs of this niche market. Up until recently, that is. The introduction of the FJ Cruiser might just have broken the Yanks’ stranglehold.
Forget about fridge slides, drawer systems and rooftop tents, let’s talk about rock rash, lockers and low-range action. The question we want to answer with this shootout is: which of these two four-wheelers are most likely to put a smile on your face when you hit the hairy stuff?
Which would you rather be: a tank driver or a submarine captain? The first will see you cramped and uncomfortable while the second delivers an experience that’s at once dark, smooth and claustrophobic. No prizes for guessing which is which in this shootout, but I’ll give you a clue anyway: yank tank.
Th ese two vehicles have interiors which manage to be polar opposites; in comparison to the Wrangler, the Cruiser feels like a limousine – soft , silent and detached from the outside world. Th e Wrangler on the other hand is airy, bright and seemingly in tune with its environment.
Th e reason for this boils down to one simple thing: visibility. To put it even more simply, how much you can see of the outside world through the windows. Th e Wrangler boasts excellent all-round visibility whereas sitting in the FJ you feel like you’ve dropped a couple of R5 coins into one of those fancy arcade games where you sit inside a little compartment, surrounded by screens on all sides. Th e Cruiser’s windows are almost, dare I say it, Hummer-like in their size and outlook.
Th at’s not to say I didn’t like the FJ’s cabin; I kinda enjoyed its virtual-reality vibe. It feels ultra-contemporary and like a Back to the Future representation of what tomorrow’s 4x4s will be like.
Despite the Wrangler’s hardcore off -road capabilities, most of these vehicles (though perhaps not the Rubicon model tested here) are sold to people who don’t care about low-range gearing or lockers. Outside of our immediate community the Wrangler’s a poser’s pride, driven by trust-fund kids, wannabe rappers and anyone who likes the idea of the outdoors so long as they can avoid the outdoors part of it.
Jeep secured this market by sticking with their heritage and by doing little to change the model’s appearance over the years. In my view Jeep has to step things up if they want to continue dominating this sector, especially when faced with the FJ’s confi dent, bold styling. Even if you’re not a fan of the Cruiser’s retro look, from what I can tell, most people appreciate its uniqueness. And on that score alone it’ll win many sales.
Th e Rubicon’s off -road spec sheet is an impressive read. It boasts excellent approach, break-over and departure angles (38, 25 and 31° respectively), terrifi c ground clearance (256 mm), a tight turning circle (10.36 metres), diff -locks front, centre and rear, a super low-range ratio (4.1 : 1), solid axles front and rear and a sway-bar disconnect feature that drastically improves articulation. Th ere’s no vehicle quite like it. Th e FJ’s spec sheet ain’
t quite so spectacular but it’s nothing to scoff at. Th e Cruiser sports approach, break-over and departure angles of 34, 29 and 31° respectively, 245 mm of clearance, centre and rear diff -locks and a very eff ective traction control system called A-TRAC.
Given their spec sheets it wasn’t easy fi nding a test trail. Naturally, I wanted to challenge both 4x4s but I didn’t want to break or damage them – manufacturers get twitchy about that sort of thing… So, in the end, we headed to Boegoeberg, a trail which boasts two routes and dozens of obstacles, some of which carry a grade 5 rating. We tackled both tracks for the test.
I asked three 4×4 gurus to join me: Dennis Maytom, Terrence Reinders and Cris Ingram. All three have a history in 4×4 Challenge driving and the Australian Outback Challenge. It has to be said that both Dennis and Terrence are self-proclaimed Jeep freaks, while Cris is a Toyota devotee. To balance things up, I also asked a mate, Brett Castel, to join us; he’s a newbie off -roader with little 4×4 experience and no previous exposure to these vehicles – you could say he was the only objective oke there!
Most of the Boegoeberg trail consists of rock with brief stretches of sand. For the two days we were there the Rubicon proved its superiority in the manoeuvrability department, thanks to its compact proportions, great driver sightlines (remember that visibility thing I spoke about earlier?) and its tight turning circle. For these reasons the Wrangler is far easier to drive off-road, requiring less driver skill and concentration when choosing the perfect line. Climb into the Toyota and it feels bulky and boxy and thanks to its OE running boards you have to be careful when picking your line. It has to be said that the limited edition Desert Cruiser is OE fitted with heavy-duty rock sliders which would make this particular model far more of a relaxing off-road drive.
We discovered an interesting thing about the Rubicon’s off-road gadgetry: on most trails you don’t need it. A front diff-lock is a great feature (two lockers will always be better than one); however, from what I could tell, the Rubicon’s rear locker did most of the work anyway – an experience common to the Cruiser. And when the terrain does get hellishly gnarly, to the point where you’re stabbing at the front locker button with your heart in your mouth, the chances are pretty good that at that point you will have surpassed the dimensional abilities of the Rubicon’s 31” tyres. In other words, if you’d like to drive extreme trails in a standard Rubicon, your biggest concern won’t be when and where to turn on your lockers, but rather when you’re going to scrape together the money to fit oversize rims and tyres to increase your clearance. Overall, the Rubicon is a supremely confident off-road drive. This has a lot to do with the Jeep’s agility, but is also thanks to its superior clearances and the effectiveness of its sway-bar disconnect. When placed on our RTI ramp the Rubicon scored a noteworthy total of 495 with the sway-bar connected, which comfortably pips the FJ’s 460. However, at the push of a button the Rubicon’s sway-bar disconnects and the Jeep climbs its way to an RTI score of 724 – that’s an astonishingly good score for an OE-spec vehicle and is the best we’ve ever tested. The Toyota’s trump card is its off-road traction control system (A-TRAC); it was regularly applauded by all our drivers – even the diehard Jeep fans. This system can only be activated in low-range and is user selectable via a large button on the centre console. Toyota made a smart move in allowing it to be turned off. The A-TRAC system is really just a highly sensitive type of traction control. The moment a wheel loses traction the A-TRAC system will brake the slipping tyre while simultaneously transferring torque to the wheel which needs it most. It’s not a marketing gimmick – this system is highly effective and almost just as good as a rear locker. Plus, it’s a great feature for novice off-roaders who might not be sure when to engage the rear diff-lock.
I’ve heard people defend the Wrangler’s on-road handling, saying it ain’t as bad as it’s made out to be. They’re right – it’s not bad, it’s bloody scary! But let’s unpack that statement a little. Generally speaking, the Rubicon’s suspension is firm and fairly unyielding, but as soon as you swing the Jeep into a tight turn, it feels as though the body is only loosely attached to the chassis – almost like there’s a delayed weight shift response. To make matters worse, the Wrangler nosedives under heavy braking and the power steering system is typically American – super easy to turn but vague at speed. But once I grew accustomed to the Wrangler’s dynamics I realised it’s far more sure-footed than my first experiences had suggested. The problem is that this is a learned confidence, not an instinctual one, which some people might find difficult to accept. With independent suspension upfront and a solid axle at the rear the Cruiser’s suspension feels far more refined. In fact, from an on-road perspective you can’t really compare these two 4x4s – the Cruiser is superior in the main three areas of comfort, control and driver feedback.
It has to be said that I was initially wary of the Cruiser’s upper body bulk, and kinda hesitant to test its on-road handling abilities, but it’s far more sure-footed than you’d expect and bodyroll definitely isn’t a major concern.
Fuel consumption? Well, they’re off-road toys so you can leave your norms at home. Th e Cruiser will typically use 14.2 l / 100 km on a combined cycle while the Wrangler will guzzle down 14.9 l / 100 km. Th ese unreserved fi gures are a result of two very powerful engines used in both vehicles.
Th e FJ sports Toyota’s ever-popular 4.0-litre V6 motor capable of 200 kW @ 5 600 rpm and 380 Nm @ 4 400 rpm. Th e Wrangler has ditched its old straight-six petrol engine in favour of the all-new Pentastar 3.6-litre V6 which produces 209 kW @ 6 350 rpm and 347 Nm @ 4 300 rpm. Despite the Wrangler’s superior power-to-weight ratio, the FJ accelerates marginally quicker. Th is could be due to the Cruiser’s transmission but I’d argue that it has more to do with power delivery. Th e Jeep’s V6 has a defi nite power band, a noticeable point where the motor really comes alive. In contrast, the Cruiser’s motor pulls with unstoppable power throughout its entire rev range – it’s an incredible motor, one which has proven its strength, performance and reliability in several other Toyota models.
Th e Jeep’s V6 Pentastar is a brand new engine, one which signifi cantly improves the Wrangler’s on-road performance. Th e previous Rubicon engine, a 3.8-litre straight six, was a disappointment, but this new V6 is a great step forwards and makes the Wrangler a far more exhilarating drive.
I want to tell you that the Rubicon won this contest outright, but the truth is that the Cruiser never faltered, never turned around or scampered through a chicken run; it followed the Jeep every step of the way. For this reason, it’s diffi cult to come up with a clear winner. Sure, the Rubicon made everything feel easy, while the FJ requires slightly more driver input, but the end result was the same – full marks for both vehicles. In the hands of an absolute novice, I think the Cruiser is most likely to get damaged on a tough trail whereas the Rubicon has the ability to make a newbie look like a pro.
Polling our testers, rather unsurprisingly the Jeep fans favoured the Rubicon while the Toyota guy preferred the FJ. But Brett, our freshly-hooked trail blazer, opted for the Rubicon, basing his decision on several factors: the Rubicon’s phenomenal articulation (lockers are seldom required), its super low-range gearing (you can idle through an obstacle) and the fact that the Jeep carries a heritage associated with excitement and off -road freedom.
I love the Rubicon for its supremely confi dent abilities, and I’m a big fan of the FJ for its ceaseless ability to surprise you – it’s the underdog rugby team that never gives up and always pulls together before the fi nal whistle. But if we go back to our original question of which vehicle is most likely to put a smile on your dial, nothing beats the Rubicon. It’s all about visibility, feeling a part of your surroundings and in on the action. Its secret weapon is its removable roof; even die-hard Toyota fans will question their loyalty once they’ve driven a Wrangler with the roof off . And I’m not talking about cruising around Camps Bay either, I’m talking about driving grade 5 trails, with an African sun beating down on your head, and your favourite tunes playing on the Rubicon’s state-of-the-art sound system. It’s a unique experience that no 4×4 can off er – though I’ve heard that the new Defender may compete in this department.
Of course there is a bigger picture to consider if one looks beyond the pure fun aspect. Not many of us can aff ord a R400k toy and in most cases buyers will look for a vehicle that can fulfi l multiple purposes. And here the FJ Cruiser is clearly a better choice because it’s more comfortable and far more refi ned. Plus, just like every other Toyota, the FJ’s build quality is top-notch – better than the Jeep’s. Of course it does cost R63k more than the Rubicon.
For outright fun, the Rubicon is the champion. But for fun and practicality in one package, the FJ off ers a knock-out counterpunch.