My Build: Plan Highlights

One of the first things a new Jeep owner is itching to do with his or her four-wheeled billy goat is to hit the trails and see what it can do off-road. When I purchased Smokey, I was bombarded by friends and fellow Jeepers promising I’d be surprised at how capable my Jeep would be in stock form.

They were absolutely right! Aside from occasionally riding on three tires because my stock sway bar links were connected, I’ve not had any issues getting anywhere I wanted to go off-road. That said, I also know my limits. I’ll wait to tackle the tougher trails until I’m a more seasoned trail hand and until Smokey is a little better-equipped to face larger obstacles.

While not a complete list by any means, here are some of the more notable things I plan to add or modify in order to make my daily driver a more capable weekend trail rig:

Suspension

Metalcloak's 2.5-inch Overland Sport kit for Jeep JK. (Photo courtesy metalcloak.com)

UPDATE April 2017: I’ve researched until I’m blue in the face. I’ve compared features and materials, and read more about elastomers and vulcanization than I care to ever think about again. At this point, I’m leaning toward either the 2.5- or 3.5-inch Overland “Elite” kit from Metalcloak (to be followed later by a full set of eight control arms) and the basic 3-inch spring lift kit from Teraflex, also with longer arms to follow.

UPDATE May 2016: Having installed a leveling kit to enable me to step up to 33-inch tires, I have a little more time to consider my suspension options. After much research and discussion with fellow Jeep owners, I’ve added the 2.5-inch Overland “Elite” kit from Metalcloak and the 3-inch spring lift kit from Teraflex to my list for consideration.

– – –

As my daily commuting vehicle, I have no need to throw a six-inch long-arm suspension kit or piecemeal “frankenlift” under Smokey; one of these days, I’ll pick up an old YJ (1987 – 1995 Wrangler) or TJ (1997 – 2006 Wrangler) for that. At the lower-height lifts I’m considering, 2.5 and 3 inches, there are two types of kits, the budget boost and the coil lift. A budget boost raises the Jeep’s height by placing a rubber or steel spacer block above the vehicle’s coil spring. While this is sufficient to clear a larger tire, most will not offer adequate support for the weight of heavy aftermarket bumpers, winches and other common off-road hardware. A coil lift, on the other hand, not only is equipped to handle larger weight loads than a spacer, it also adds active suspension, allowing the vehicle’s owner to select a spring that gives him or her a spring rate appropriate to the vehicle’s intended use. There’s no question this is the best choice for Smokey.

The next question, then, is which kit is the right fit? Based on my needs and budget, I’m considering 2.5-inch coil lift kits from Teraflex and American Expedition Vehicles.

TF 2.5 Lift Kit

Teraflex 2.5-inch coil spring lift with shocks (Part No. 1251002)

 Teraflex 2.5-inch coil lift: A widely respected name among Jeep aftermarket enthusiasts, the Teraflex lift offers a good foundation for Smokey’s build. This mid-range kit includes front and rear linear coil springs, original-equipment-grade shocks (Some online retailers offer it with higher-quality Bilstein shocks at almost the same price.), front and rear bump stop extensions, an axle-side track bar bracket, rear sway bar links, brake line relocation brackets and longer rear sway bar links. The kit’s instructions call for the OEM rear sway bar links to replace the shorter front links, but since Smokey already is outfitted with aftermarket Teraflex links and disconnects, this step would become unnecessary. The Teraflex lift has the advantages of being the less expensive of the two lifts and the company has an outstanding reputation for excellent customer service. One potential drawback does exist, however: Numerous Teraflex lift owners (though none I can find in my area) have reported experiencing premature coil spring sag. While the veracity of these claims is uncertain, it remains a sticking point in my decision-making.

American Expedition Vehicles DualSport XT 2.5-inch coil lift (Part No. N0224500AA)

American Expedition Vehicles DualSport XT 2.5-inch coil lift (Part No. N0224500AA)

AEV DualSport XT 2.5-inch coil lift: Opinions on American Expedition Vehicles widely vary among Jeep enthusiasts. Depending on who one asks, AEV either is the premier Jeep outfitter, or is a greedy purveyor of overpriced, underperforming gadgetry. I tend to fall into the former category, as AEV’s engineering prowess has been repeatedly proven on trails literally around the world. AEV’s entry-level lift boasts triple-rate coil springs front and rear, custom-tuned Bilstein 5100-series shocks, front and rear bump stop extensions, an OEM-grade rear track bar replacement, brake line relocation brackets and front sway bar bracket which, as with the Teraflex lift, would be unnecessary for Smokey. The primary benefit of the AEV lift is its on-road handling and raised roll center, benefits made all the more appealing by the fact that Smokey, sadly, spends easily 99 percent of her time on the road. While technically unnecessary, AEV’s geometry correction brackets lower the front control-arm mounting points to reduce the operating angle and add about $100 to the AEV lift’s already-sizeable $959 price tag. Seasoned rock crawlers also decry the AEV springs’ alleged lack of flex, inherent in any progressive-spring design, but this point carries little weight since my daily driven Jeep is unlikely to see much hard-core trail use.

Wheels

UPDATE May 2016: As I approached time to replace my factory wheels and tires, I was leaning more and more toward the Mickey Thompson wheels shown here. Instead, though, I chose a clone design, the Level 8 Tracker, to achieve the look I wanted at a reasonable price. I wanted to avoid rubbing issues at all costs, and the 4.75 inches of backspacing on the Methods concerned me, as consensus is 4.5 is the maximum allowable backspace for Jeep JKs. Eventually, I’ll be replacing the Level 8 center cap logo with a custom design I’ve created that’s themed to my Jeep.

– – –

Here, my decision was relatively simple, or so I thought. The Jeep JK’s lines are so reminiscent of the iconic Jeep CJ, I originally thought a classically styled wheel is best — a satin black alloy wheel with eight circular windows. With that in mind, what better wheel than a Mickey Thompson Classic III in black? Well, how about the Classic Baja Lock?

You see, I’ve opted for a black-and-silver visual scheme for Smokey. The silver ring of the Baja Lock, therefore, might be the perfect touch. I don’t care for the simulated bead lock bolts or the addition of two M/T logos (That’s four per wheel — count them! With that much advertising, maybe M/T should pay Jeepers to run these wheels.)

Still, they’re the best compromise I’ve seen. Level 8’s Tracker design comes close, too, but that company’s logo on the center cap would add unwanted red to Smokey’s décor, and, at only a few dollars’ savings per wheel, it’s easy to justify the step up to the Mickey Thompsons.

Ah, but here’s the rub: Since I originally planned Smokey’s build-up, I’ve discovered a little company called Method Race Wheels. Well-known in the Jeeping community, Method has an outstanding reputation for quality, and at a price that isn’t much higher than the Mickey Thompson wheels. The NV design is aggressive, but tasteful.

Tires

UPDATE May 2016: My factory 32-inch tires were ready for replacement before I was prepared for the lift necessary to run 35-inch tires. As a result, I added an inexpensive leveling kit and went with a set of 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratracs. When the time comes to retire them, I’ll either step up to the metric-equivalent 35-inch Duratracs or the BF Goodrich KM3, which should have been launched by then. (I’ve seen predicted launch dates of fall 2018 to spring 2019.)

– – –

Smokey’s factory 255/75/17 Goodyear SR-As lasted about 34,000 miles, give or take. Without a lift to accommodate the larger shoes a proper trail rig needs, a timely tax refund helped procure a set of very lightly used (about 4,000 miles) BF Goodrich KM mud tires taken off a Jeep JK Rubicon. They’re the same 32-inch size as the factory rubber, but wear a far more aggressive tread pattern.

When the time comes to replace the BFGs, my plan is to increase to a 35-inch tire. Such a move will net Smokey an extra inch-and-a-half of ground clearance, which should be sufficient for most of the trails I’ll be regularly running.

BF Goodrich KM2

BF Goodrich KM2

BF Goodrich KM2: The first contender is quite possibly the most popular tire among daily driving Jeep enthusiasts. BFG’s second-generation mud tire offers more siping than its predecessor for better, if still less than ideal, traction in rain and snow. But the KM2 excels in its designated element – mud and rocks – while still managing to minimize the ear-jarring WUM-WUM-WUM of most mud-tire designs. The symmetrical tread pattern is modeled after BFG’s Krawler T/A KX extreme off-road line, and features deep self-cleaning tread blocks. At lower pressures, the KM2 easily flex over rocks, logs and other obstacles, affording better traction and a softer ride. The reinforced sidewalls (BFG calls it “TriGard”) increase strength by a third over the earlier KM-series tire. At around $300 each in the 35×12.5×17 size, the KM2s represent a solid, yet affordable option. (OK, who am I kidding? ANY Jeep tire is expensive. Sometimes, you just have to pay to play.) In addition to Smokey’s current set of BFGs, I’ve owned Goodrich tires on a couple of previous vehicles, and always was impressed with their performance and tread wear.

Goodyear DuraTrac

Goodyear DuraTrac

Goodyear DuraTrac: With the DuraTrac, Goodyear attempted to straddle the line between a street-mannered all-terrain and a noisy, aggressive, gas-guzzling mud tire. The DuraTrac sports the deep, widely separated tread blocks of a mud terrain, yet also features generous sipes to improve wet-weather performance. In the tread valleys lie what Goodyear brands its “TractiveGroove Technology;” in layman’s terms, they are many raised teeth between the blocks that aid in self-cleaning and provide extra bite in deep mud and snow. Branded with the mountain/snowflake symbol to indicate they meet or exceed industry severe snow and service standards (it’s also tapped for 16-gauge studs), the DuraTrac’s deep-snow performance has become legendary to the point of mythic status. And, while early versions of the Goodyear hybrid battled sidewall-puncture issues, Goodyear was quick to address the problem. If DuraTrac has any flaw, it’s that Goodyear’s size offerings are so limited. DuraTrac’s largest available size is 315/70/17; while technically a metric equivalent to a 35-inch tire, not-so-simple math reveals the DuraTrac’s diameter to be 34.36 inches before adding the weight of a fully-equipped Jeep.

Goodyear Fierce Attitude M/T

Goodyear Fierce Attitude M/T

Goodyear Fierce Attitude M/T: The dark horse in this race, the Fierce tire started a few years ago as part of the winged foot’s attempt to create a youthful, extreme-sports-minded brand. As such, the Fierce Attitude bore a bargain-basement price, but was built on the DuraTrac carcass, making it a potential gold mine for those willing to overlook the cheesy name and slightly cliché barbed-wire shoulder molding. In theory similar to DuraTrac in design and function, the Fierce is more aggressive than its progenitor, with fewer sipes and a smaller TractiveGroove presence between tread blocks. When Goodyear decided to bring its Fierce line back into the fold, the Fierce Attitude’s price rose to meet or exceed that of the DuraTrac. A higher price for an entry-level tire is unacceptable, but if I were to find a dealer still willing to part with a set of true 35-inch tires near their original bargain price, the Fierce Attitude might prove to be exactly what Smokey needs.

Bumpers & tire carrier

img_6423UPDATE May 2016: While I love the appearance and functionality of the Teraflex hinged carrier, I was presented with an opportunity too good to pass up on the Crawler Conceptz Ultra II Series rear bumper/tire carrier. And, I’m glad I have it! The aesthetic is perfect, and the build quality continues to amaze my fabricating friends and laymen alike. I’d planned to add Crawler Conceptz’s Hi-Lift Jack mount after tax season this year, but I think instead I’m going to make a custom rear light bar mount for a four- or six-inch bar, to mount just above the rear tire. The round bumper-mounted LEDs look great, but they’re not as functional as I’d like.

– – –

When I purchased Smokey, my plan had been to use AEV bumpers front and rear. As I began to rethink my choices based on the sheer weight they’d add, I began to look at LoD Offroad’s Armor Lite series of lightweight alloy bumpers. Plans changed again, however, when I won a front stubby (grille-width) bumper from Crawler Conceptz, a new company owned by former Poison Spyder Customs Lead Fabricator Shad Kennedy. The Crawler Conceptz Ultra Series out front is visually very unique with its faceted surfaces. Whatever bumper I choose to use out back has to meet the following criteria: (1) American-made, (2) The design must seamlessly integrate with the lines of the JK and the angled theme of the front bumper and, finally, (3) Must be offered in raw steel so its finished surface can be made to match the front bumper’s black satin finish. All feature shackle tabs to aid in off-road recovery.

Crawler Conceptz Ultra Series rear bumper

Crawler Conceptz Ultra Series rear bumper

Crawler Concepts Ultra Series: The natural choice out back might seem to be the matching bumper from Crawler Conceptz, and it is on my list. However, I’d like a wraparound rear bumper to hide the JK’s hideous lower-body pinch seam, and the Crawler Conceptz rear bumper ends at the rear corners, leaving large sections of the pinch seam exposed on each side, though the bumper does include a small cutout for rear-facing LED lights. The Crawler Conceptz rear bumper also features an integrated tow hitch and an available swing-away tire carrier that ties to the tailgate for single-motion operation. While I’d prefer to use Smokey’s existing factory tow hitch, the bumper’s hitch offers the benefit of raising the tow point out of the way of off-road obstacles. In the interest of saving weight, I’m strongly leaning against a bumper-mounted tire carrier. As a new company, Crawler Conceptz continually is revealing new products, and all their offerings come at prices easily a third or more below the cost of their competitors. I’m keeping my eye out for a full-width bumper offering. MSRP is $499 in bare steel.

JCR Offroad Vanguard rear bumper

JCR Offroad Vanguard rear bumper

JCR Offroad: Leading my list at the moment is JCR’s Vanguard rear bumper. It’s available with or without a tire carrier (No matter which choice I make, a tire carrier can be installed later if I change my mind and want to go with one of JCR’s two tire-carrier options.), wraps almost completely around the JK’s body and includes cutouts for rear-facing lights and a high-lift jack. The Vanguard also is notched to allow use of Smokey’s factory tow hitch and wiring harness. It closely mimics my front bumper’s angular design and is available without powdercoat. The $650 price (sans powdercoat), too, is extremely competitive, and JCR has a positive reputation and a growing presence in the Jeep marketplace.

Expedition One Trail Series rear bumper

Expedition One Trail Series rear bumper

Expedition One Trail Series: Aesthetically, this easily is my favorite Jeep JK rear bumper, so much so, I’d (almost) happily fork over the nearly $1,300 for the combination bumper-tire carrier. The design incorporates just the right balance of sharp angles and rounded corners, and is very complimentary to the Jeep’s body lines. Like the JCR, Expedition One’s rear bumper is available with or without a rear tire carrier, though Expedition One’s offerings are two separate designs and do not allow the addition of a tire carrier after the fact. The tire carrier is solid and attractive. It’s truly a shame Expedition One’s bolt-on options for the tire carrier are so limited. As of this writing, a high-lift jack mount is the only option available on the company’s website. The Trail Series is notched for the factory JK tow hitch, but does not include cutouts for rear-facing lights. MSRP for the standalone bumper is $810 in bare steel.

Teraflex Adjustable Hinged Tire Carrier

Teraflex Adjustable Hinged Tire Carrier

Teraflex Heavy Duty Adjustable Hinged Tire Carrier: My tire carrier of choice is the revolutionary design from the folks at Teraflex. This cast-aluminum design provides a stronger tie between the JK body and tailgate, a tie strong enough to support a 37-inch tire. It’s also a much lighter option than other manufacturers’ steel options, and maintains the Jeep’s factory single-motion tailgate opening without introducing the need for an adjustment point on a swing arm. Teraflex received a little criticism early on for cracking of the tire carrier portion of the two-piece assembly, but a redesigned carrier features gusseting for reinforcement, silencing the critics. The beauty of Teraflex’s marketing plan for this product is that by offering it as two separate pieces, budget-minded individuals can spread out the purchase of the hinge, tire carrier and the many available options, such as the high-lift jack mount, Roto-Pax carriers and the adjustable high-mount stop lamp assembly. MSRP for the combined system is $693.

Recovery gear

You can’t off-road very long, before you inevitably find yourself stuck. While a winch might not be considered a necessity if you stick to the rule of never hitting the trails alone, I’d rather err on the side of being prepared for self-recovery. To that end, my choice among the many winch brands is Warn.

Warn Zeon 10s winch

Warn Zeon 10 winch (standard model with wire rope shown)

Warn Zeon 10s: The Warn Zeon Series is the company’s premium line of consumer winches. It offers a stylish presence to go with Smokey’s exposed-winch front bumper and a sealed body to protect the delicate electrical components from the elements and/or water crossings. The “s” designation indicates this Warn is equipped with synthetic rope for added safety and about 20 pounds of weight savings. The Zeon’s centrally mounted control box also is removable for those who prefer a low profile appearance. MSRP is $1,299.

Armor & occupant protection

UPDATE April 2017: Rocker protection, too, has become an area where I’ve researched myself to the point of paralysis. I’m again leaning toward a purchased set of rock sliders, as I don’t see my friend’s and my work schedule being conducive to a custom-built set. (The jury’s still out.) Among these off-the-shelf options, I’ve eliminated both the Nemesis Billy Rockers and Crawler Conceptz Ultra Series rockers, as I simply cannot overcome by distrust of body-mounted rockers and the risk of expensive sheet-metal repair. I’m also forced to eliminate the JCR Classic Sliders, as their mounting system makes rolling the pinch seam too easy on the trail. I still see frame-mounted sliders as an inherently stronger option, but I ran across a rather frightening forum thread (yeah, I know) regarding rocker damage from failed mounts on the VKS Prerunners. I’m torn between the frame-mounted LOD and the body-mounted version of Poison Spyder’s Rocker Knockers, which offer more step access than the frame-mounted variant.

 

UPDATE May 2016: While all these are viable options, I’m now leaning toward working with a fabricator in my local Jeep group to create a set of frame-mounted rock sliders. The primary benefits to this approach will be (a) having a unique design unlike all the others out there and (b) a significant cost savings, which can be applied toward other modifications.

– – –

The most vulnerable part of any trail-driven vehicle are the rocker panels, the areas between the wheels that run underneath the vehicle’s doors. Jeep JKs, in particular, are susceptible to rocker damage due to the extremely thin nature of the steel used in their construction. For Smokey, the area of rocker protection is one made a little more complicated by my desire for a step to ease entry. My current tubular steps, added by a previous owner, afford easy entry, but very little protection. Some options provide better rocker protection, but little useable surface on which to step. Others provide a great step, but little or no practical protection for Smokey’s body.

Crawler Conceptz Ultra Series rock sliders: At first glance, the Crawler Concepts sliders look like many other body-mounted rocker-protection systems. But, their design features a beveled lower surface, increasing ground clearance. Most importantly, though, their interior attachment points are significantly beefier than their competitors’ offering superior protection against body warping. My concern with all body-mounted rocker protection, and especially using that protection as a daily step, comes from the inherent weakness of the JK tub itself. Jeep made its JK bodies so thin, they’re likely envious of a Coke can’s rigidity. I wonder if the holes drilled for nutserts really can take the daily pull of step use without wallowing out, leading ultimately to failure. I’ve voiced this concern to numerous individuals and a couple of manufacturers via online forums, but have yet to receive an answer that allays my concerns. MSRP is $699 in bare steel.

JCR Offroad Classic rock sliders: Let’s be frank. Given my wheeling style, the simple body mount- and pinch seam-affixed tube sliders from JCR are, realistically, all the protection I’d likely need. But, you never know when you’re going to encounter an unexpectedly nasty trail obstacle. And, given the body mounts’ extreme flexibility, I’m concerned about these rockers rolling up into the pinch seam, should I take on more than I can chew. But, at just $338, they’re also the most inexpensive option on my list.

LoD Offroad Signature Series Rock Sliders: With a frame-mounted design, LoD utilizes the strongest foundation for its sliders. The LoD entry features a 2-inch square tube, topped with a 1.75-inch round DOM tube and a built-in step with dimple dies for extra grip in wet or snowy conditions. While the sturdy construction and frame-mounted design make flex less likely, the built-in step, like the Expedition One entry, sits painfully close to the Jeep’s body. MSRP is $523 in bare steel.

Nemesis Billy Rockers: One of the most popular looks among Jeep JK enthusiasts is the body-mounted slider. Several manufacturers, including Poison Spyder Customs and Teraflex, offer their own versions. Most comprise two pieces, an armor plate in either steel or aluminum, that attaches to the tub via nutserts, and a slider that attaches to the tub armor and to the tub itself underneath the body. Nemesis Industries, a Colorado-based firm that has made a name for itself offering innovative aluminum products for Jeeps, modifies that model to turn the inherent weaknesses of aluminum into a deceptively strong rocker guard. The Billy Rocker consists of not two, but three pieces: The Titan Tub Armor attaches to the tub like any other brand’s armor. But instead of bolting a boat-sided slider panel to it, Nemesis adds an aluminum space frame. Effectively an impact absorber, it is this space frame that absorbs impacts and distributes force across the entirety of the armor. The space frame attaches to the bottom of the tub armor and to the underbody channel behind the JK’s pinch seam. Finally, an outer wrap bolts to the top of the space frame and to the Jeep’s body mounts to complete the armor package. When assembly is complete, the Billy Rocker system translates to nearly three quarters of an inch of aluminum between the Jeep’s body and any damage-causing rocks or other obstacles — yet the Billy Rockers weigh in at a scant 62 pounds in two-door configuration. The Nemesis team wheels their shop JK Unlimited, Dixie, with abandon on some of the most hard-core boulder fields Colorado has to offer. After watching footage of the Billy Rockers on these rocks, I have no qualms about using aluminum for rocker protection. MSRP for the complete Billy Rocker system (Nemesis does offer the pieces individually) is $749 in bare aluminum.

Poison Spyder Customs Rocker Knockers: Combining 1.75-inch and 1.5-inch DOM tube rails with a 3/16-inch steel slider plate, the Rocker Knockers offer solid protection from rocks and other trail obstacles, but lack any kind of built-in step. For use on Smokey, I’d need to add a length of 3M no-skid tape to the 1.5-inch top rail to act as a makeshift step. PSC Rocker Knockers mount using body mounts and the under-body channel used by factory steps, and the higher of the two rails sit even with the door sill, making for a high step-in height once Smokey is lifted. MSRP is $575 in bare steel.

VKS Fabrication: Similar in appearance to the Poison Spyder option above, VKS’ Prerunner Rock Sliders add to the design an integrated dimple-died step plate and standard frame-mounting attachment. I like the VKS option’s frame-mounted design, which transfers any impact to the strongest part of the Jeep. MSRP is $494 in bare steel.

Undercarriage armor, too, is an important upgrade for any Jeep, but even more so for those, like Smokey, running stock suspension or minimal lift. Since Smokey will remain my daily driver and I have no interest in extreme lifts for her, a set of skid plates is in order. That said, the Jeep JK is a very heavy vehicle as it arrives from the factory. Add an extra hundred pounds of steel skid plates to the aftermarket bumpers, winch, heavier tires and so on, and road performance and fuel mileage will considerably suffer. Given that, and the fact that I don’t plan on running extreme trails, and it’s easy to see that what I really need is a set of just-in-case skids, something that provides more coverage than the skimpy factory fuel tank and transfer case skids, but nothing that will hinder highway performance. In other words, I’ve chosen to use a set of aluminum skid plates.

River Raider Off Road aluminum skid pate system

River Raider Off Road aluminum skid pate system

River Raider Off Road: At 62 pounds, the RROR aluminum skid-plate set weighs half of a comparable set of steel skids and includes armor for four vital areas: the gas tank, oil pan, transmission and transfer case. The skids tie into one another to form a near-seamless underbelly to help Smokey slide across any rocks or other obstacles I might find on the trail. Additional weight savings comes in that the RROR set, like most, will allow me to remove the steel factory skids and, should my lift plans ever change, allow the use of a long-arm kit without modification. Given the nature of the product, I’ll save some expense and order the skids in bare aluminum and paint with a paint-primer all-in-one product, probably in silver for contrast. At more than $1,400, including the optional EZ oil drain, the aluminum is pricey, but I value the long-term weight savings over the lower cost of steel plates. If the RROR system has any weakness (Here’s where the hardcore rock crawlers cite aluminum as a weakness.), it’s that the attachment bolts are exposed, leaving them vulnerable to trail damage.

ASFIR 4x4 Jeep JK engine/transmission skid plate

ASFIR 4×4 Jeep JK engine/transmission skid plate

ASFIR 4×4: I was unaware of ASFIR, an Israeli company, until recently. Their aluminum skid plates are made of quarter-inch-thick 5052 aluminum and bolt to existing holes in the Jeep’s undercarriage. The ASFIR skids were the skid of choice for Dozercon, a popular build by Joe Thompson of Teraflex. I’m still doing some research, but the ASFIR skids are sold individually, rather than as a complete system and carry a higher price tag, as one would expect of any imported product. A relative newcomer to America, ASFIR products have been the choice of the Israeli military for many years. More to come on these …

While no one likes to think about it, the reality is that any short-wheelbase SUV is at greater risk of rollover, both on the trail and the blacktop. Jeep’s factory “sport cage” doesn’t offer much protection, so I plan to add a little bolt-in peace of mind.

The market for bolt-in Jeep JK roll cages once boasted a handful of offerings from names like ORFab, Poison Spyder, Rock Hard and others. For reasons that remain a mystery to me, the selections have grown painfully scarce. Newcomer Crawler Conceptz has hinted at a possible cage option in the future, but that has not yet made it to market. I admired the Poison Spyder Trail Cage‘s ($849 MSRP) fit and interlocking tube-coupler design from the start, so I’m glad to see it still available. Another promising option is the Ultimate Sport Cage from Rock Hard 4×4. It boasts an easier installation than the PSC cage and a much lower $650 price tag. I’ve no question the PSC cage provides better protection, but I’ve seen several stories attesting to the Rock Hard cage’s survivability and, again, my wheeling style makes a cage comforting insurance, not a necessity.

Performance

UPDATE May 2016: Having heard some anecdotal evidence suggesting supercharging does no favors for the Chrysler 3.8-liter’s long-term viability, I’m beginning to lean toward saving those pennies and, when the 3.8 ultimately plays out, replacing it with a fire-breathing Hellcat motor. This may be just a pipe dream; only time will tell.

– – –

Jeep’s 3.8-liter V6, sourced from its minivan family, struggles to keep up with Smokey’s two-ton factory curb weight. Start adding heavy tires, wheels and armor, and highway travel might truly be a joke in motion. The 3.8 puts out a paltry 202 horsepower at 5,200 RPM. Around town at 2,000 revolutions, that drops to an unbelievable 25 horsepower to the rear wheels to push around all that weight! A boost definitely is in order. Like many Jeep owners, my dream would be to transplant a fire-breathing Hemi V-8 into Smokey’s engine compartment. But, in the absence of a spare $20,000 or more to make it happen, a supercharger, at $5 or $6,000, is a much more reasonable project.

Magnuson supercharger for Jeep JK 3.8-liter V-6

Magnuson supercharger for Jeep JK 3.8-liter V-6

Magnuson Supercharger. While the RIPP centrifugal supercharger has gained quite the following among JK enthusiasts, I prefer Magnuson’s roots unit for its near-factory appearance, lower noise output and torque across the entire RPM range. A supercharger install is not for the feint of heart, and I expect to spend at least a full weekend on the install. While I don’t look forward to paying for premium fuel, I’ll make myself content with the estimated 80 or 90 additional horses to the rear wheels.

Miscellaneous

UPDATE May 2016: While I still plan to acquire a replacement hood one day, I decided I didn’t want to stare at the hail damage on my hood any longer. For now, Smokey is running a very attractive and functional Poison Spyder Customs hood louver. In the snorkel department, I’m now leaning toward AEV’s $400 unit. While nothing tops the River Raider snorkel’s appearance, it conflicts with the A-pillar lights I want to add and is a far more invasive installation than the AEV.

– – –

As previously stated, this is not a complete list of everything I dream of doing to give Smokey her own unique flair, but this list should give an overall sense of the direction I plan for her build-up. Here, briefly, are a handful of additional changes.

Mopar 10th Anniversary Jeep Wrangler Rubicon hood

Mopar 10th Anniversary Rubicon hood

Mopar 10th Anniversary Wrangler Rubicon Hood: To celebrate 10 years of the Rubicon trim level, Jeep unveiled a special 10th anniversary package that included an extra half-inch of ride height and a number of unique appearance options. One of these was a unique hood that featured a central power dome reminiscent of previous Jeep CJs and Wranglers, but also included two functional vents to exhaust excess underhood heat, a sadly common issue for the JK Wrangler. MSRP: $625 plus paint

Poison Spyder Customs Bombshell differential cover

PSC Bombshell differential cover

Poison Spyder Bombshell Differential Covers: Smokey rolled off the factory floor with a Dana 30 front and Dana 40 rear axle. While these, too, might give way to upgrades (Teraflex’s Tera series of heavy duty axle housings are very tempting!), in the meantime, the factory covers are just too vulnerable to rock damage. When I upgrade my gear ratio (I’m debating 4.56 and 4.88 ratios to replace the OEM 3.73s.) to accommodate the planned 35-inch tires, it’ll be a good time to upgrade to a sturdier cover, too. At just $90 each, they’re almost a steal!

River Raider Off Road Expedition Series snorkel

River Raider Off Road Expedition Series snorkel

River Raider Off Road Expedition Series snorkel: Jeep drivers have many choices when it comes to raising the JK’s air intake. Most involve a long plastic tube running along the outside of the right side of the hood. These designs, while functional, lack aesthetic appeal. Another manufacturer, Rugged Ridge, offers a cowl snorkel that gives owners a choice of a low, downward-facing or extended windshield-height intakes. Two problems arise with this design. First, one of the snorkel’s tube seams falls low behind the right quarter panel, where a failure could prove catastrophic. Second, the design’s squared box cowl leaves an unattractive gap where the JK’s rounded factory cowl once went. In my opinion, the best snorkel currently on the market is the Expedition snorkel by River Raider. While arguably the most invasive installation of all the available choices (You’ll drill two large holes through the cowl and firewall and relocate your battery!), the finished product appears as if it could’ve come from the factory. Additionally, the River Raider snorkel lets drivers use a small mushroom cap that sits low over the cowl during daily driving, then easily add an 18-inch vertical extension when it’s time to hit the trail. MSRP: $716 with optional hard air intake tube, breather extension kit and the 18-inch extension.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s