Jeep Wrangler beats Thompson closure

The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon Recon takes a break near the Devil’s Gulch Road. (Bud Wells photos)

The rugged Rubicon Recon edition with the 2017 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited was perfect for one final run through the Big Thompson Canyon in late September, before the Colorado Department of Transportation shut down the highway for the winter.

It’s not that I did any true offroading in the canyon, but the Jeep Wrangler four-door certainly looked as though it belonged in the tough, tall terrain.

The extended-length Unlimited model has basically the same exterior appearance of other Wranglers. The Rubicon Recon package added a power-dome hood with functioning air vents, side rock rails with tread plates (step pads) for fending off boulders and heavy debris, a winch-capable steel bumper with red tow hooks and a military-inspired, beefed-up Dana front axle for added durability.

The Rubicon Recon is a body-on-frame structure showing off 10-inch ground clearance with half-inch suspension lift, skid plates, and maneuverability with a very tight turning radius.

Tied to the Jeep’s 285-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 engine is a long-used 5-speed automatic transmission. The Wrangler is the last Chrysler/Dodge/Ram/Jeep product using the 5-speed auto, dating back to when the Chrysler brands were part of Mercedes-Benz of Germany from 1998-2007.

. . .and in a more offroad setting.

We climbed into the Jeep (21-inch step-in height) on a Saturday afternoon and headed west through Loveland, past the Dam Store and into the canyon on U.S. 34, which has closed now for a second winter for road and stream reconstruction from damage in a 2013 flood. The road will be closed until Memorial Day weekend 2018.

Repeating a run Jan and I made in a Subaru Outback wagon before closure a year ago, we drove the Jeep to Drake, then turned onto the Devil’s Gulch Road to Glen Haven, where we shared one of Steve and Becky Childs’ homemade cinnamon rolls. The climb on up to Estes included two intense switchbacks, which the Wrangler, with its short turn radius and locked in 1st gear, made the ascent and turns in good shape.

We spent little time in crowded Estes, then in descending the canyon on the main U.S. 34 roadway we used 2nd and 3rd gears in the Jeep to avoid frequent braking. At the I-25/34 intersection at Johnstown, we stopped and joined in the grand opening of the 240,000-square-foot Scheels sporting goods store.

Shy a gear or three it may be, the Wrangler, though, shifted smoothly; for the 110-mile drive, it averaged 18.3 miles per gallon (EPA estimate is 16/20), and rode like a Jeep noted for offroad prowess. It rides on BF Goodrich Mud Terrain LT 255/75R17 tires.

From inside the vehicle, the top over the front seats can be removed by twisting four latches. Tradition reigns, as the windshield can still be folded flat onto the hood. Red accent stitching highlights the leather-trimmed seats. All-weather slush mats are good protection from mud and snow.

The Wrangler Unlimited, built in Toledo, Ohio, like the earliest of Jeeps back in the ‘40s, carries a base price of $37,445. The total tally climbed to $48,870 with the Rubicon Recon options, including the steel bumpers, rock rails with step pad, automatic inside temperature control, GPS navigation, Alpine premium audio, voice command with Bluetooth, heated front seats, red seat belts, remote start, rear window wiper/washer/defroster.