On our recent trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, we rented a 4-door Jeep JK Rubicon. Oddly enough, it was my wife's idea to rent it. I was perfectly happy with the mid-sized car we had reserved but while we were standing at the rental car counter, she blurted out that we should rent a JK. She thought it'd be fun to drive around with the roof off. This from a woman who, for the past 10 years, has refused to ride in my open-topped Jeep because it was too noisy and uncomfortable. Go figure.
So we rented one. I didn't think we needed it but I thought it would be fun to drive around in a JK for a couple of weeks. Two weeks later, I have to say that it came in handy and made our exploration of the island much more enjoyable. The first and most significant benefit of having the Rubicon came when we went to find a hot spring pool located on the other side of a big lava field in the Puna area, south of Hilo. Although the road was rough, 4wd wasn't necessary, but the BFG Mud Terrains were exactly what we needed. Getting there required driving over a couple of kilometres of loose, a'a lava. A'a is characterized by its very sharp edges. In fact, a'a is supposed to have gotten its name from the sound you'd make when falling on it. I would not have attempted the drive over the sharp chunks of a'a lava using all-season tires. There was just too much risk of a puncture; and fixing a flat under the direct sun, in the middle of a black lava field, would be a bit too similar to trying to do the same inside a convection oven. So the Rubicon package was just perfect for us, and it let us get to an absolutely stunning swimming area. Warm, almost salt-free, crystal clear water, populated with fish and even a few sea turtles. You know you've done well when your six-year old kid turns to you while swimming and says, "Dad, thanks for bringing me here." Best of all, it was sufficiently hard to get to that there were only a couple of other people there. Without the Rubicon, it would have been a gruelling 45 minute Bataan death march over the hot lava field. Of course, the worst part would be the whining from the kids and the hateful silence from my wife for dragging them there.
The a'a lava field on the way to the hot spring pool.
We spent our first three nights in Hilo, and then packed up and moved to the Kona side. Crossing the island with the roof panels off was a great way to enjoy driving around Hawaii. Passing through verdant valleys and roadside stands of exotic fruits was a heightened experience thanks to the heady scents wafting in the breeze and into the Jeep.
The second time we made use of the Rubicon's particular abilities was when we headed to the "Queen's Bath" and Kiholo Bay. Getting there involved a 45 minute walk from the highway. But with the Rubicon and using 4wd, we were able to drive directly to the bath, and then spend another 15 minutes walking to reach the Bay. A 45 minute walk may not seem like much, but you really notice it when you've got two little kids with you and it's a hot day. BTW, 4wd is strongly recommended here. The road bed is soft gravel. So soft that it felt like I was running on flat tires. Even walking was a chore because your feet sank an inch with every step you took. Low-range was also useful for driving through the trailhead. We watched a local drive her full-size pickup 4x4 up from the beach in high range and she really beat on the truck getting it up, causing one of the little kids riding in the back to start crying.
A very soft pebble road that goes to the "Queen's Bath" natural spring pool.
Climbing back onto the dirt road from the pebble beach was no problem thanks to low range gears and a disconnected sway bar.
The last time we made use of the Rubicon's 4wd was when driving up to visit one of the observatories perched atop Mauna Kea, altitude 4,145 meters (13,600 ft). The funny thing about Hawaii is that, while I never came across any hard 4x4 trails (most likely because I just don't know the area), I did run into two paved roads that were steeper than any I've seen in Canada. The first was in Waipio valley. It features a ridiculous 25 percent average grade, and is 45 percent in some places. We walked it about 6 years ago and it was a killer. This year, we didn't bother going down but even if we had, I don't know if I would have taken the Rubicon. It requires using low range to make the descent but since the Rubicon's low range is only available in 4wd, it would have made for some pretty severe transfer case binding. I know it's a rental vehicle but I still would have felt bad abusing the transfer case like that. The second steep, paved grade I saw was on the way up to Mauna Kea. It's paved at the bottom, and at the top, but is dirt for a significant portion on the way to the top. Having 4wd gave me (and my wife) a lot of peace of mind going up, and even more confidence coming down. Note: if you have a fear of heights, this is not the place for you. Absolutely mind-blowing views but you will get a serious case of the heebeejeebies if you make the mistake of looking over the edge of the road. A few times I had to say to myself, "look straight ahead, look straight ahead!"
Atop Mauna Kea.
Obviously, the Rubicon package is overkill for what we used it for. Lockers, 4:1 tcase gears, and a sway bar disconnect weren't needed at all. But, the way I see it, it's better to have an over-built 4x4 than not, because then you've got more control and are less likely to make a mistake or beat on the vehicle when using 4wd, and that's very important consideration when the rental company has your credit card imprint.
If you're going to rent a 4x4, you might as well get one that's well-equipped. With Jeep JK's, that means going for the Rubicon package. The Rubicon has better tires as well as lockers, a quick-disconnect sway bar, and tow hooks, as seen here.
Here you can plainly see how much more aggressive the Rubicon's tires are.
So if you're going to the Big Island, considering renting a 4x4. It let us do some things that we otherwise would've have done, and explore some paths less travelled by the masses. The only caution I have is that a 4x4 isn't going to make you very happy at the pump when gas is around USD$3.85/gallon!!!! So maybe the best idea would be to rent an econobox for the majority of your stay, and a 4x4 just for 3 or 4 days when you'll hit all the 4x4-required roads.
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