Welcome to the Rubicon Trail. The pedal in question is attached to the latest, JL-generation Jeep Wrangler – gently tweaked, substantially improved but, to everybody’s relief, fundamentally unaltered from before – and what you’ve just imagined is a stretch known as Cadillac Hill. In essence, this is 15 sweaty-palmed minutes of warily managing gravity in such a way that machine isn’t unnecessarily damaged or beached entirely by your own ineptitude.
It’s one reason why the trail as a whole is regarded as the toughest off-road challenge in the world – a hot lap of the Nürburgring for those of a knobbly tyred disposition – and were it any easier, it’d be a disappointment. The prospect of axle-breakage looms large here. More so if you’re driving a Land Rover, say some partisan but pleasant locals we encounter.
Because of the remoteness of this point, an hour’s drive south of Reno in the El Dorado mountain range, even minor maladies can mean an overnight stay before a ‘trail repair’ can be made. Like many a wilderness, it is spectacularly pretty at times, but it’s equally brutal all of the time. Jeep’s association with the place goes back to 1953. It was then the first organised tour left Georgetown, a tiny settlement established a century earlier as a camp for hopeful gold rushers.
During two days of what must at times have felt like an intolerably hard slog, more than 50 ‘CJ’ Jeeps – popular among Second World War veterans – initiated an annual tradition that exists to this day in the form of the Jeepers Jamboree. Modern-day tours can number 400 cars, each subtly remoulding the trail with every turn of their wheels.
Today it’s our turn, and our machinery is interesting for two reasons. First is that we’re dealing with the Wrangler Rubicon, which is the latest, most hardcore model you can buy in factory spec. The standard car is enormously capable but here you get Dana 44 solid axles (not just stronger than before, but also wider, so the turning circle is family-hatch tight), massively flared arches for 33in all-terrain tyres and an ultra-low-range gearbox. Jeep says this is the only car in the world that’s capable of tackling the trail in standard form. Suzuki may beg to differ. Mercedes, too, although one of our colleagues – a 4x4 specialist from a respected German title – concedes you’d discover a G-Wagen’s unprotected sills in a terribly sorry state come the end of the day.
But that is a group test for another time. Right now, the JL generation feels a lot slicker than its predecessor. Dropping the windscreen flat historically allowed the Willys and Ford-built Jeeps to be shipped more easily to conflict zones and it’s always been a hallmark of the model. It was always fiddly, too, and although ours is erected to help stave off endless plumes of dust, folding the thing is now a matter of removing a mere four bolts instead of 28. Likewise, peeling back the canvas roof (a hard-top is available) isn’t quite MX-5 easy, but it’s close. We have it drawn over for shade. The car’s spacious interior still uses bulky switchgear but the materials are now much nicer, and there’s some proper ‘connectivity’, too, along with an 8.4in touchscreen.