Tacos, burgers and surfboards in SoCal

One of the world’s most closely guarded secrets is when the next Land Rover Defender might appear and what it will look like. No-one seems to know anything, not a single solitary thing. Not when, what, where or how. Nothing.

For years, it’s been a total information lockdown, as if Britain’s domestic spy agency, MI5, is running the communications department up at Land Rover’s HQ in Gaydon – at least as far as the next-generation Defender goes.

But until we see something of a prototype emerge out of the shadows of either Solihull or Slovakia (that’s the rumour), there is absolutely nothing in the class capable of coming anywhere near the iconic Jeep Wrangler – especially if we’re talking about the hardcore Rubicon Unlimited version we recently drove in Southern California.

Here’s the thing, we know this thing is bulletproof off road, but trust me, the last thing I needed was another gruelling trek on the Rubicon Trail – been there, done that.

The Parking Spot (used by carmakers and the general public) is conveniently located just minutes from LAX, and easily identified by its trademark leopard-spot livery on the building itself and on the shuttle buses that seem to run every five minutes or so and free of charge.

More obvious still was the outrageous, day-glo Mojito paint job on our Jeep Wrangler tester, which was ready and waiting for our journey south – to Huntington Beach and on to the sleepy Southern California enclave of Encinitas where my final destination lay.

It lit up like a Christmas tree in the carpark, not only for its colour, but because although the few changes to the Jeep’s exterior could only be deemed as slight, it definitely looks fresh compared to its less sophisticated JK-series predecessor.

The giveaways are the upper kink in the trademark seven-slot grille, and the fact the headlights are pushed well back into the grille. The daytime running lights are now a strip on the front of the massively wide front guards, while there’s a bit more bling around the new fog light surrounds.

The new front and rear light signatures are cool, too, and as you can see, there’s no mistaking it for anything but a hardcore Wrangler.

There are a few small details I noticed over the few days I spent with the Jeep, like the tiny red silhouette of an original wartime Jeep imprinted on the wheels, including the tailgate-mounted spare. There’s another on top of the main gear selector, too, and those red tow hooks up front sure do pop against the Mojito paintwork.

It still looks every bit the icon it is, but climbing aboard the new Wrangler for the first time is a bit of an eye-opener. That’s because it’s a major makeover inside that sees a host of welcome changes and features that transform this vehicle into something you could just about live with as your daily – at least in California where it feels completely normal.

Ours was fully leather upholstered with contrasting twin-stitching on the seats and door cards, and surprisingly comfortable given the decently bolstered front pews that made my regular two- to three-hour stints a breeze.

The only issue surrounds the manual adjustment. That on its own isn’t a problem, but you’ll have to contort your torso just to reach the nylon loop you need to pull to alter the seatback angle. And forget about doing it on the run.

Although you sit high in the Wrangler, the dash is now lower, so there’s better all-round visibility for driver and passengers alike.

Thankfully, there are still plenty of chunky knobs and dials around, but make no mistake, the new cabin looks and feels thoroughly contemporary with sharper clarity and faster response times for the infotainment screen with pinch and pull functionality.

The latest instrument display is also largely digital, and although you’re able to cycle through various info pages, most drivers will appreciate the oversize speed indicator placed front and centre.

Moreover, the JL series gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard fitment, which is a godsend if you’re anything like me and tend to switch incessantly between maps, music and messages while running between board shops, taco places, and anywhere I see an interesting car along the route.

The centre-stack layout is also way more functional than in the previous model. There’s a red anodised rocker-switch for the electric front and rear diff locks, and a single button for the disconnecting front swaybar, as well as a bank of four auxiliary buttons allowing owners to wire up their own equipment.

Other general conveniences include push-button start and power windows, though the buttons are located on the centre stack thanks to the removable doors.

Although California’s daytime temperatures are typically warm this time of the year, there’s always a lower temp reprieve at night – meaning I could still benefit from the heated seats and steering wheel that our tester was equipped with.

But, despite the late-night arrival into Los Angeles and the need to be at my 83-buck-a-night Airbnb at Huntington Beach before the owner’s curfew expired at 11pm, there was no way I was going without a mandatory stop at the In-N-Out Burger joint next door on Sepulveda Boulevard for a double-beef protein style (that’s lettuce leaves instead of a bun). They’re simply addictive.

There’s no power tailgate, rather a hinged door that opens wide for easy access to what is a considerable load space (897L with the rear seats upright and 2050L when folded dead flat), and I would need every litre of that space for the drive up to LAX with board and bags.

They say New York never sleeps, but trust me, neither does LA – with traffic still thick on all freeways heading south. Sitting on around 70–75mph, I arrived in Huntington Beach at 10:30pm and parked out front of what looked like a modest California bungalow.

This was actually my first Airbnb, and frankly I was already dreading it. The host suggested I park in the driveway next to her PT Cruiser, accessed via the lane around back, which suited me fine, as I never like to leave press cars on the street.

Apparently, I wouldn’t be going into the house proper, rather my lodgings consisted of a room with a double bed and adjoining bathroom – accessed only from the laneway. Fine with me, along with clean linen, towels and soap.

I had three nights here coming and going as I pleased and the total bill would be less than US$300 including tax. The cheapest hotel would have set me back 700 bucks at least – meaning I had more for treats like the shrimp tacos at Sancho’s, right across from popular Huntington Beach Pier.

First things first, though. There was the urgent task of writing up my review of the Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door jet we’d just driven in Austin, Texas, which meant heading to a local coffee shop that didn’t mind me commandeering a table and camping out for six hours, or until it was done.

Within minutes of Googling, I was three kays down the road and sitting in Sweet Elle Café – a cosy strip-mall stop serving great coffee and even better breakfast burritos.

It was an early start on day two, as I made my way south on the I-5, skipping those classic Californian surf spots like Dana Point and San Clemente, but sneaking in a quick stop at the world-class Swami’s break just before Encinitas and Bing Surfboards, where I was keen to check out.

Right from the outset, the latest-generation Jeep Wrangler feels like a more civilised proposition. Even negotiating the tight exit at the Parking Spot was a piece of cake, as were the traffic-signal U-turns permitted in much of the United States. And that’s despite the huge 33-inch diameter off-road tyres fitted to the Rubicon.

There’s no crabbing whatsoever, but there’s a fair bit of tyre roar at highway speed limits, and wind buffeting off the side mirrors would create quite a racket if it weren’t for the much improved insulation. When combined with the quality nine-speaker Alpine audio system our vehicle was equipped with, it can effectively drown out any unwanted noise inside the cabin.

The electro-hydraulic steering isn’t quick, but it’s comfortably weighted with adequate feedback to feel like you’ve actually got things under control despite 3.2 turns lock to lock.

More surprising still was the level of ride compliance from over standard-size bumps. Luxurious it is not, but the mega-tall tyre walls on the BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2 rubber help the Wrangler absorb the worst of it.

Mind you, it’s still a bit choppy depending on road conditions, but again, I expected much worse from Jeep’s king of trails with solid front and rear axles. I kept coming back to the fact that this was the first hardcore Jeep I could actually live with.

The highlight, though, is the new 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engine with a 48-volt mild hybrid system dubbed eTorque, which makes a thoroughly creditable 200kW of power and 400Nm of torque at 3000rpm.

Frankly, I didn’t immediately know what engine was in our tester, but it didn’t take long to realise it wasn’t the torque-starved Pentastar V6 motor that’s standard issue in the States.

It’s mated to an eight-speed auto with several drive modes including Sport, and you won’t quite believe how this thing gets away from a set of traffic lights. It’s a total eye-opener, and similarly refreshing that a small-displacement engine can haul this two-tonne ladder-frame off-roader so easily. It almost feels sporty given the complete non-existence of lag from the turbo, and some extra low-end grunt from the hybrid system.

As well as being blessed with plenty of off-the-line poke, the new four-cylinder petrol is also efficient, delivering less than 10L/100km during my three days of mixed driving conditions.

That’s because the hybrid system also incorporates auto start/stop, extended fuel shut-off, transmission shift management, intelligent charging and regenerative braking all in the interest of efficiency.

Make no mistake, this new powertrain is the pick of the Wrangler litter, and by some margin. But what I find hard to believe is the turbo-four Rubicon tips the scales at 2034kg – 13kg more than the 3.6-litre V6 version.

Safety systems have been upgraded too, with the Wrangler now equipped with features like blind-spot monitoring and Rear Cross Path Detection, while those with trailers will appreciate Trailer Sway Control and a reversing camera with guidelines.

I arrived at Swami’s mid-morning and there wasn’t a lot happening in the line-up, but the place was crowded nonetheless with both surfers and plenty of Jeep admirers – one in particular who couldn’t stop saying, “Man that’s a cool machine”.

It was still cloudy, as is the case with Southern California most days until the haze burns off, then the sun breaks through and it starts to heat up.

You can’t miss Encinitas – there’s a huge sign hanging over the road, and Bing Surfboards is a couple of kays beyond. It’s a small nondescript shop next to a cool sandwich place called Moto Deli, and without doubt the best taco place in California called Juanita’s – get the fish tacos, two will do you just fine because they’re huge.

Bing has been around since 1959 with a history of shaping great boards (long and short), so it wasn’t long before I chose a 6ft 4in twin-fin board for US$749. But the dilemma arose when working out how to get it back on the plane – expensive board bag or $75 box job? I took the latter option, but was told to come back at 5pm.

Mind you, it was now only 1:30, so I had a few hours to kill, which is when I found Juanita’s Taco Shop after a recommendation from the Bing crew. It’s nothing to look at from the outside, and the menu looks like it’s been untouched for decades (as are the prices), but the food is truly sensational and favoured by the locals over a smorgasbord of other taco-serving establishments.

Next stop was Pannikin Coffee and Tea – a delightful old-style bungalow design with a wide selection of beverages and home-made cakes. I’m supposed to be on the no-carb diet, but caved in for the super-size cinnamon scroll they deliberately put in front of the pay station. It was to die for, too.

I arrived back at Bing around 4:30pm to be told the board was on its way down from the factory. What they didn’t tell me was the 6ft 4in short board had morphed into a 2.46m box.

A quick search of Virgin Australia’s site to check allowable dimensions for oversize luggage – tick. The more worrying aspect was whether it would fit in the Jeep. Only just, but that meant losing vision through the passenger-side door mirror – not a great thing on US highways where lane merging is almost always fast and furious.

The more worrying aspect was the fact that I would have to manage the box and two bags, but short of putting four finger-size holes in the box, luggage straps seemed the only option.

But that was an issue to be sorted tomorrow morning before my checkout time of 11am. It was time to head back to Huntington Beach via the coast road taking in the more salubrious places like Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar – both of which have a great vibe around them.

Windows open, seat heaters on, and the Wrangler Rubicon was in its cruising element. Seeing the sign for Laguna Beach, I turned off to see if a mate who runs PR for Aston Martin in the Americas was around – you can see why he’d never want to leave the place and head back to rainy old England.

Oddly enough, I never did drop the three-piece roof on the Jeep – thinking it was all too complex – only later learning it was most likely the optional electric roof system, which would have made life so much more pleasant.

My flight was a late-night adventure, which left plenty of time to check out Hollywood shops and The Grove shopping village, where you’ll find a Nike flagship store and every other brand you can think of. Word of advice, though: check the parking signs carefully or you’re likely to find a not-so-friendly calling card from the parking cops – 58 bucks that one cost me.

Never would I have believed you could live with one of the world’s most capable off-roaders in the City of Angels. But that’s exactly what the new Wrangler Rubicon proved over the precious few days I’d been driving it.

It’s not the most practical, nor is it the most comfortable, but it is a vastly more modern lifestyle instrument than its predecessor. And as far as California Cool goes, it’s up there with a Mustang Bullitt. I only wish I’d read the owner’s manual and dropped the roof.

Next time.

MORE: Wrangler news, reviews, comparisons and videos
MORE: Everything Jeep