How to Weekend Wheel Your Daily Driver

If you are like many first-time owners, your new (or new to you) Jeep is your one and only off-roader. It is most likely your one and only vehicle as well. Welcome to the edge of sanity, where temptation relentlessly drags you toward every tree-strewn dirt road, overgrown terrain, or bottomless mudhole within 100 miles of you. You will hear voices in your head saying things like “I can make it through this!” or “I can make it over that!” or “It’s a Jeep! It’s built for this kind of stuff.”

Don’t listen to those voices. They can’t write the checks necessary to undo what you will inevitably do to your poor daily driver. Thankfully, it is absolutely possible to “weekend wheel” your daily driver — if you know what you’re getting into and whether your vehicle can handle it.

Your Weekend Wheeling Checklist

Before you take your daily driver on an off-road excursion, be sure you are mentally and mechanically prepared.

  • Air down your tires for sugar sand trails. Air them up for the long drive home.
  • Drive slowly, let the four-wheel-drive and low-range gearing do the work, and stay out of the throttle.
  • Bring recovery straps and know where the rated recovery points are on your vehicle.
  • Install all-terrain tires designed to perform well on asphalt and various off-road terrains.
  • Bring a pair of clippers and a bow saw to cut back the trail if you need to prevent branch-induced pinstripes.
  • Invest in proper skid plates to protect your undercarriage.
  • Install a winch if possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to let others know this is your daily driver and you can’t afford to break an axle or puncture your oil pan.
  • Drive with caution and think things through. Pick your lines carefully and thoughtfully.
  • Never wheel alone! Go with a minimum of two vehicles and two drivers.
  • Use radios to communicate. If you don’t have radios, check your cell signals. You may have to call for help.

Know Where You’re Going

Yes, it sounds obvious and simple. But many of us have been following our fellow Jeepers down a trail only to realize that they care much less than you do about rubbing the occasional tree or dragging the transmission over a large rock. This often results in you just following their line and hoping for the best, because you don’t want to hold up the ride and you don’t want to look like a mall-crawling sissy.

Bravado and pride are expensive traits. If your buddy isn’t paying the mailman, don’t send it. Y’all know what I mean.

So take note of where the trail leads and what obstacles you will encounter. Ask the trail ride organizer if there are bypasses available for obstacles that could damage your vehicle. It could be a narrow trail lined with the fiendish claws of Mother Nature, waiting to tear scratches into the sides of your ride, or large rock outcroppings reaching out with granite daggers to rip off your bumper.

It could even be the most deceptive hazard of all: the puddle of doom. You only know it has you in its tentacles when forward momentum suddenly halts, and the muddy spray of spinning tires rises up around you like a dirty kraken. It may look like a little puddle in the middle of the trail. Heck, you can see grass growing up out of the top of the water for land’s sake. How deep could it be? That’s when the bottom drops out and you’re left-high-centered or perched on your axles, wheels just spinning helplessly.

Don’t be lulled into complacency or revved up into throttle-happy madness. If you are being cautious and getting out to check the train ahead, and plotting the path of least damage, you are treating your daily driver with the respect and care it deserves. After all, it still has to get you to work Monday morning. Treat your Jeep kindly and it will never leave you stranded.

Know Your Limits

Get familiar with your daily driver and how it performs off-road by exposing it to incrementally more challenging terrain. You should know where the corners of your vehicle are instinctually. Wheeling an expensive machine that you do not want to break is a different skillset than just “sending it” with arms locked on the steering wheel and your right foot mashed to the floor.

Wheeling with care and intent is about finesse and delicate precision. Much like hardcore rock-crawling, you need to know where each tire is at all times, how much available traction each tire has to work with, and where each tree, branch or boulder is in relationship to your Jeep’s body and bumpers.

When approaching a “harmless puddle,” if you are leading, stop to check its depth. If you are following, compare the leader’s ground clearance to yours. Don’t be afraid to admit when the chance of causing serious damage is real. There is no shame in keeping your Jeep unscathed so you can wheel again next weekend. A broken Jeep is not a fun Jeep. The bumper sticker my wife got me at last year’s Jeeptoberfest sums it up very well:

“Remember, Stupid, You Have to Drive This Home”

The most important takeaway here is that you can wheel your daily driver. You don’t have to imprison your Jeep on pavement just to keep it running. You just have to take things slower and more cautiously than the folks with two or three Jeeps at their disposal.

I wheel my daily driver every chance I get. I’ve tried to prepare it the best I can to survive each excursion and get us back home safely each and every time — whether I’m towing my trailer loaded with UTVs 500 miles to the North Georgia mountains or running my favorite loop around the bombing range in the Ocala National Forest. I put on the largest mud tires that will fit under my air-lift suspension. I installed full-steel skid plates bumper-to-bumper, sourced from Australia. I have steel rock rails and locking front and rear diffs.

I’ve gotten my fair share of Florida pinstripes and trail damage, and, yes, I’ve been stuck, and I’ve been recovered. I’ve pushed the limits of what I should tackle with my WK2, and I’ve been lucky so far, but I know my luck will run out eventually. Breaking things is just a fact of wheeling.

I now try to take a more pragmatic approach to Jeepin’. I’ve bowed out of an obstacle and taken the bypass around it, and I’m OK with that. I know I have nothing to prove and too much to lose. I’ve never loved a vehicle so much as my Jeep, and I would be heartbroken if I damaged it. More importantly, it’s my only ride. My family depends on this Jeep, and so I must wheel with care and caution.

But make no mistake: I still wheel as often as possible. I’ll keep my beloved WK2 as safe from harm as my daily driver, as I plan for the monster JKU (or JLU) I will build in the future. For now, as I send my daughter through college, I’ll take the fiscally responsible road — or as much as I can resist the temptation of the gnarly trails I so love to ride.

Nuts and Bolts

Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew and proud owner of “BlackWidow,” a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk.

Jeeps Are Social Creatures

Jeeps are social creatures in that they tend to be found in groups. If you happened to drive down A1A in Daytona Beach, Fla., the last week of April this year, you saw them in mega-sized herds. Being out there amongst so many other Jeep enthusiasts really got me thinking about why Jeeps are so much more than transportation.

More than a mere vehicle, Jeeps are like a membership card to a very special club. They not only make a statement outwardly about your enthusiasm for venturing down the path less taken, ownership also changes one’s own behavior. As a Jeep owner, we don’t just drive it to and from where we need to be, we purposely go looking for new and remote places we really need to be. “Have Jeep, will wander,” you could say.

My Jeep Is Calling

This desire to not just drive but explore is nurtured by the Jeep itself. It whispers, “Take me on an adventure” every time you start the engine. It develops its own personality over time, and because of this, Jeep owners have a habit of naming their Jeeps. Giving them a name makes them the core member of your adventure team. It’s a member of your family, not just another vehicle in your driveway.

As a family member, you trust your Jeep to get you out into the greater unknown places on Earth and to get you back home again at the end of the day. Regardless of how many Jeeps have been produced, no two remain alike as each is customized and modified.

As you and your friends and family pile into the Jeep each weekend to go out and explore new trails, you start planning your time off around trips to places to explore. Your spouse starts to buy you Jeep-related gifts for Christmas and birthdays. In short order, owning a Jeep transforms from something you bought into something you do — and you don’t do it alone. You do it with your family!

Jeepin’ is a way of life. We’ve all heard that saying, and we all know how true it is. The spirit of adventure, exploration, conquering difficult challenges, and recovering from disappointing failures is not only a reflection of the American spirit, it’s a reflection of the human spirit that moves through all of us and brings us together for enormous events.

Nuts and Bolts

Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew and proud owner of “Black Widow,” a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. He believes Jeepin’ builds communities and families through off-road adventure, events and club membership.

But the most influential gathering of likeminded individuals (and their loved ones) is the Jeep club. Some are organized like traditional clubs of other hobbies and interests within a specific geographic area, and others are just an informal association of fellow Jeep enthusiasts that want to celebrate Jeep culture together. Those are the Jeep Crews we see popping up all over the world, often made possible by social media, and it is wonderful!

A Daughter’s Love

I know that, in my own personal experience, Jeep life was always part of my spirit. I didn’t own a Jeep until my mid-40s, but I’ve always taken any vehicle I’ve ever owned off-road, whether it was meant to do so or not. I just wanted to get off the beaten path and make my own trail.

A few years ago, I tried to get the family into the outdoor adventure sport of ATVs and UTVs. My oldest daughter has special needs and was not impressed. She did not like the rough ride as we went bouncing down the trails in my side-by-side. I was heartbroken. My dream of building family memories off-road seemed to be doomed.

Then I traded my pickup truck for a Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. To my delight, my daughter loves Jeepin’! My youngest daughter then bought her very own new Wrangler JK, and now our family’s love for adventure and exploration into the wilderness just keeps growing, much like the membership numbers of our very own Ocala Jeep Crew.

We have met so many amazing people through Jeepin’ and have made so many new friends. I’m a computer systems engineer by profession, so as you probably correctly assumed, I’m quite introverted. Meeting new people is not my strong suit, but after being shackled to my office computer all week, I need to unplug and recharge my soul batteries.

Jeepin’ does that for me. It does that for my whole family. It’s pushed me out of my dark computer lab and out into the forest to adventure with new friends I never would have met on my own. I never thought a vehicle could change my life in such a profound way. Jeepin’ is family!

How to Shoot a Jeepin’ Adventure

You bought the Jeep. You did a few upgrades, maybe a lift and new tires. You’ve planned an adventure with a Jeep club. Now it’s time to hit the trail.

How do you capture all the great memories? Really, the options are endless. Whether you have a traditional camera, a smartphone or tablet or a GoPro, you are ready to acquire unlimited breathtaking photos and films.

Before you embark on documenting your trail ride, I hope you’ll allow me to share a few proven tips for amazing still shots and videos. They are the building blocks that will help you create lasting memories for yourself and your community of Jeep enthusiasts. Fully charged batteries and empty memory cards are just the beginning.

A great photo or video tells a story. Your story will have all the usual components — an opening, a storyline and an end — and your camerawork becomes the writing on the page.

Using a GoPro

Creative camera angles are a great way to advance your videos. Attach it to a fender to get those wild shots of the mud spinning off the tires or from a sideview mirror to see the branches coming into frame. Mounting your GoPro in the cabin to record the driver or passenger adds to the storyline of the documented ride.

You will need to find different types of mounts to fit different attachment points. Mounts can range from suction cup mounts that can go on the hood or door panels to the types that can wrap around your side steps.

For photography, the same principle for angles will work. Get those low-angle shots of Jeeps crawling to the top of a hill or coming down a slope.

Using a Camera, Smartphone or Tablet 

The first step that is vital to the success of the video or photo is a solid mount. You must position yourself so the equipment is steady. That may seem obvious, yet even a minor movement or shaking may require you to edit out what could have been the best captured moments of the day.

The next and one of the best tips for mobile device users is to turn the camera of your smartphone or tablet to record in the horizontal position. When it comes time to edit, what you captured fills the frame completely. If you record in the vertical position, you will have the black bars on each side of your video frame, which results in limited viewing and editing options.

Nuts and Bolts

Brian K. Dery is the CEO of Cool Cat Digital Inc. in Tampa, Fla., an experienced video producer and documentary filmmaker, and an avid off-roader. He advises Jeepers who wish to document their adventures to experiment with equipment and camera angles, shoot more footage than you think you’ll need, and attempt to capture the spirit of the ride.

Now that you are properly oriented, here are some helpful tips for the trail:

1. Movement: Follow the action with your device. Avoid any radical zooms or turning of the camera. If you move the camera left or right, that is called a “pan.” Moving a camera up and down is referred to as a “tilt.” Make smooth movements and just follow the action.

For video editing purposes, it is always nice to let the subject leave your field of view, or “frame.” When taking photos, get up close and personal. Get tight with that zoom and capture the thrill and excitement the driver and passenger are experiencing.

Never forget that safety comes first. Be aware of your surroundings whenever you are shooting.

2. Lighting: Lighting can be a huge issue in Florida. It can serve you well, or it can limit the quality of your video or photo. As you are deciding on the best position to shoot or record, avoid any shots that are directly toward the sun.

That said, I once broke that rule while capturing a trail ride. The way the sun was shining through the trees created an effect that normally I would not want. But in this case, with the angle of the camera and the action I was recording, it made for a perfect scene.

3. Footage: If your end result is to make a video of your adventure, you may think you shot enough footage during a trail ride. Chances are, you probably didn’t. You can never get enough video, or as we call it, “B-roll.” Just because you may have gotten three hours of footage, that doesn’t mean you have three editable hours of footage. Always shoot more than you think you will need so your story will be complete.

4. Editing: Editing is always an exciting part of the process. On a Jeep ride with my group, I get a feel for everyone’s mood and the energy level that is out there. On the trails, everyone is out riding their Jeeps, pushing their limits. Their friends or other members of the Jeep club are rooting for them to take that hill or plow through that mud pit.

The energy and excitement from the ride helps me pick out a suitable song. So what makes a great soundtrack? Something upbeat that fits the mood. You want something that will keep the viewer excited as they watch the incredible footage that documents that amazing trail ride.

If you plan correctly and take your time with your shots, you can easily turn a full day of trail riding into a great memory to share with others. And who knows? After a few tries, you may be the next YouTube sensation!

Learn the Shocking Truth

It is almost a daily occurrence that a customer will contact me about an electrical issue. When your headlights, an LED or your winch is in use, they draw an electrical current through a wire. As the electricity passes through the wire, it causes friction (resistance) and heat.

As resistance increases, so does heat, and as heat increases, so does resistance. Eventually, the resistance and heat will melt the wire and could cause a fire.

So, with all that in mind, let’s discuss some of the dos and don’ts for when it comes time to install that LED bar or winch.

DO! Use the proper gauge wire. If at all possible, use the wiring harness provided by the manufacturer. They know how much power their item takes and will supply the correct gauge wire. If you need to extend the harness by more than a few feet, consider replacing the wire with the next larger size.

Nuts and Bolts

Veteran Jeeper Ed Johnson advises off-roaders to heed a long list of dos and don’ts for installing electrical equipment, including:

  • Use the proper type and size of wire and fuse.
  • Secure your wiring and check your grounds.
  • Never leave bare wire unprotected or wrap it around a battery terminal.
  • Ask for help if you lack experience.

DO! Use the proper size fuse. The purpose of a fuse is to protect the wiring — and you — by cutting the power to the circuit before there is damage. If the manufacturer supplies one, use it! If not, find out what they recommend. If the fuse is too small, it will just blow. If it’s too big, the wire could overheat and melt first. Fuses should be installed as close to the power source (battery or bus bar) as possible.

DO! Use the proper type of wire for automotive use. Solid-core house wire and extension cords are not made for the temperatures and vibration encountered in a Jeep!

DO! Use the proper connectors and tools. Crimp-on or solder-type terminals and heat-shrink tubing should be used. Marine-grade connectors have heat shrink tubes and gel that seals out moisture and keeps the connection clean. They should be your first choice. Terminal ends should be “ring”-style so they do not come loose from vibration.

DO! Secure the wires. Use tie-wraps, clamps, grommets or loom to keep the wires from moving around.

DO! Check your grounds. Most electrical issues can be traced to dirty, corroded or nonexistent grounds.

DO Not! Wrap bare wire around a battery terminal and hope it will stay! It will come loose, short out and, worst case, start a fire.

DO Not! Leave wires unprotected. Wires that are run near the edge of sharp metal, hot exhaust and rotating parts are a disaster waiting to happen.

DO Not! Overload a circuit by adding more load than it can handle. If needed, add a switch system like an sPOD, a Trigger or any other device designed to handle the extra electrical requirements.

DO Not! Undertake more then you are capable of. If you would not replace switches and outlets in your house, ask for help! Electrical wiring, when done correctly, should last the life of the vehicle. Doing it right may not be cheap, but it will be cheaper than trying to fix it later or replacing burned and melted harnesses.

So You Bought a Used Jeep

This is the second in a series of articles that will document the search for and customization of a used Wrangler that will be raffled off at Jeep vs. Harley 2018. 

So you read “How to Buy a Used Jeep” in the last issue of JCF (January/February 2018, Page 26) and you heeded our advice. You made yourself into an educated consumer. You tested and inspected a bunch of Jeeps and finally hit pay dirt when you found your dream machine.

It may not be 100% perfect, and it may even have some quirks or needed work that you found during your thorough inspection. Maybe you identified some repairs that will be covered by one of your planned upgrades. (The seller didn’t need to know that.) Hopefully, you were able to use those issues as a bargaining tool to negotiate the price and still drive home with some cash left over for upgrades.

Whatever the case is, congratulations on your new-to-you Jeep! Time to get to know it a little better, address any pressing issues, and start to plan your build.

Name That Noise!

Your first task is to get some quality on- and off-road windshield time under your belt. Get to know your Jeep’s specific characteristics. Familiarize yourself with how it handles, brakes, steers and runs.

Wranglers — especially older, used ones — are not known to be the quietest vehicles to begin with. But after the initial “Wow” factor of your purchase wears off, you’ll begin to notice noises, some more alarming than others. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be racking your brain trying to remember whether the noise you are hearing now was there during your test drive, and what could possibly be the cause.

New noises are the bane of every Jeep owner’s existence. But don’t panic — yet. Some noises are benign and inherent to specific models. If you have a leaf-sprung Jeep like my YJ, for example, you will hear a creaking noise from the springs as the suspension flexes. It would worry me more if I didn’t hear it. Noises that you should take note of and thoroughly investigate include any kind of metallic grinding, whines, ticking, knocking or banging.

Older, higher-mileage Jeeps may have stretched transfer-case chains. If you were not able to thoroughly test the four-wheel drive functionality before your purchase, and you encounter a loud bang that you can feel — not just hear — accompanied by a violent lurch and the inability to drive over an obstacle with the front wheels with the 4WD engaged, you may have a problem.

That is a telltale sign that the transfer case chain is stretched to the point that it is slipping on the drive gears. This can cause serious damage inside the transfer case. You may hear the chain rubbing or slapping the inside of the housing while the 4WD is not engaged.

Your case needs immediate attention.

If you do not have experience rebuilding a transfer case, I would recommend that you have a professional shop perform the rebuild, and that you upgrade to the 1¼-inch chain kit; standard chains are 1 inch wide in an NP231J. I also recommend a heavy-duty six-planetary-gear pinion carrier; three planetary gears are standard.

If your Wrangler is not a Rubicon, and you are planning on lifting it by at least 4 inches, and you need to rebuild the transfer case, this is the perfect time to have a slip yoke eliminator and a custom rear driveshaft installed. Just know there are a number of internal “snap”-style retainer rings that require specialized pliers. That tool can’t be found anywhere but the back of a Snap-On, Matco or Mac truck, and even then, it has to be special-ordered.

Even if all your fluids looked good upon initial inspection, it is a good idea to change them all shortly after your purchase. You want to put your Jeep on a regular maintenance schedule.

Make sure you have a reliable and full grease gun, especially if you like to play in the water and mud. I regrease all greaseable fittings right after I have washed and cleaned my Jeep. This pushes any water and sand out of the joints and ensures the longest possible life for each component. This is especially important for U-joints and drive-shaft slip yokes.

Always clean the mud out of the inside of your chassis frame rails. Mud is fun as hell to play in, but any long-term Jeep owner will tell you it is the devil. It will prematurely wear out every joint. And believe it or not, it can be caustic to metal due to the high acidic content from the rotten vegetation that gives Florida’s black mud its wonderfully fragrant bouquet.

If you did your due diligence when inspecting your Jeep prior to purchase, at this stage, major unexpected repairs should be rare. It is a Jeep, and things do break unexpectedly. But with any luck, you won’t have to experience “J(ust) E(mpty) E(very) P(ocket)” repairs in the early stages.

What’s the Plan?

Planning a Jeep build requires extensive research, the reading of many reviews, and good old-fashioned trial-and-error. It’s that simple.

You call the shots and pick the direction, theme and starting point. If your budget is tight, and larger tires and taller gears are not in your immediate future, there are plenty of smaller upgrades that can be done now to improve both the look and the performance of your Jeep. But if you do opt to go with larger tires without regearing to match, be forewarned that you are going to lose some power, top speed and fuel economy.

If you are going to go that route, and your Jeep has an automatic transmission, I strongly recommend installing an aftermarket transmission cooler, especially in the first-gen JK models. Adding bigger tires without matching the gear ratio makes the transmission work harder. Working harder means it’s going to be getting much hotter much more quickly, especially during a Central Florida summer.

Overheating won’t just ruin the fluid and damage the tranny. JKs require a synthetic transmission fluid with a relatively low boil and flashpoint. Boiling fluid can spew out of the transmission’s vent and fill tube and come into contact with the very hot (up to 600 degrees) catalytic converter, typically resulting in an oil fire that is extremely difficult if not impossible to extinguish. This risk is most prevalent at top speeds. I have personally seen two JKUs burn to the ground on Florida highways.

Curiously, the factory decided to locate the stock JK automatic transmission cooler in the A/C condenser, not in the radiator, as with older vehicles. Since most aftermarket transmission coolers for the JK have much larger diameter tubes for the fluid to flow through than the factory cooler, the fluid will likely flow faster through your aftermarket cooler. A standalone cooler can actually increase transmission temperatures because the fluid is flowing too fast to be adequately cooled.

I installed a Flex-A-Lite aftermarket transmission cooler in my wife’s JKU. Contrary to instructions, I did not bypass the factory cooler. Instead, I cut the aluminum section of the stock transmission cooler return line to the transmission with a tubing cutter and ran the output side — the side still attached to the A/C condenser — into the input of the aftermarket cooler. I then ran the output of the aftermarket cooler to the return line, which is the side still attached to the transmission.

My objective was to slow the flow of fluid down enough to ensure adequate time in the coolers to significantly reduce the temperature of the fluid. Please note that, while I personally believe this to be the best approach, manufacturer specs exist for a reason, and we assume some level of risk whenever we ignore them. Govern yourself accordingly.

Welcome to the Club

Now that you’re the proud owner of a mechanically sound Jeep, you have the opportunity to join an ever-growing family of likeminded enthusiasts. Jeep clubs are made up of some of the most loyal, generous and charitable people I have ever met. I personally owe our Jeeps a debt of gratitude for introducing me to some of my closest and most trusted friends.

I truly hope that you find yourself with the same level of love and passion for your Jeep and the Jeep community that I have for mine, but your involvement and depth of commitment to this family is completely up to you. There is never too much or too little.

Whether you just wanted an open-top SUV that never leaves the pavement or you can’t wait to get your Jeep off the road and into the woods, there is a niche in this community for every Jeep owner. Hope to see you out on the trails, and don’t forget to wave!

The Sum of Its Parts

After consulting Robert Rose and other experts, the publishers of JCF finalized the parts list for the 2005 Wrangler Rubicon to be raffled off at Jeep vs. Harley. Working with Mike Hughes and Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of New Port Richey, the following parts were purchased:

  • ARB 7-inch LED floodlight
  • ARB 7-inch LED spot beam
  • Bartact flashlight holder
  • Bartact Mil-Spec front seat covers
  • Bartact Mil-Spec rear bench seat covers
  • Bartact rollbar fire extinguisher holder
  • BF Goodrich M/T 37×12.50R17 tires
  • Currie front antirock sway bar
  • Currie rear antirock sway bar
  • Fabtech 8-inch coilover
    front shocks
  • Fabtech lift component box
  • Fabtech rear shocks
  • G2 front and rear gear and bearing set
  • H3R MX100C fire extinguisher
  • Hi-Lift 48-inch Jack X-Treme with hood mount
  • JW Speaker 279 LED taillights
  • JW Speaker 8700 Evo 2 dual burn headlights
  • Maglite LED flashlight
  • Metalcloak 4-inch front flares and mounting base plates
  • Metalcloak 4-inch rear flares and mounting base plates
  • Metalcloak aluminum
    vented panels
  • Metalcloak gas tank
    skid plate
  • Metalcloak oil pan skid plate
  • Metalcloak Rocker Rails
  • Metalcloak dual-function LED marker and blinker light
  • Poison Spyder Dana 44 Bombshell differential covers
  • Poison Spyder lower
    A-pillar lights
  • Rigid brow mount kit
  • Rigid D-series PRO spotlights
  • Rigid E-series PRO 50-inch lightbar
  • Rigid rock lights
  • Rubicon Express 5.5-inch long arm lift kit with
    rear tri-link
  • RVC front axles Ultimate Dana 44
  • Spicer Lifetime upper and lower ball joint kit
  • sPOD and custom
    rocker buttons
  • TeraFlex high steer system
  • Tom Woods drive shafts
  • TrailReady beadlock
    custom rims
  • Tuffy underseat drawer and mounting brackets
  • Warn Heavy Duty Epic recovery kit plus Warn receiver shackle
  • Warn Rock Crawler
    rear bumper
  • Warn Rock Crawler stubby front bumper
  • Warn Rock Crawler
    tire carrier
  • Warn ZEON 10-S winch with Spydura synthetic rope
  • WeatherTech floormats

The experts at Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of New Port Richey have generously agreed to perform the following services!

  • Air filter
  • Differential service and
    cover installation
  • Front and rear brake pads and rotors
  • Gas pedal bushing assembly
  • Lube, oil and filter change
  • Radiator hoses and flush
  • Serpentine belt
  • Transmission service
  • Tune-up
  • Two additional keys
  • Wiper blades

The JCF team will have over $30,850 in parts, and the labor will be donated by Bear Offroad Alliance, Blackwater Jeepers, Trail Monkeys 4×4, Tri County Jeepers, and supported by Ferman CJD NPR. Each group will have their own Jeep build, and we think you will be very impressed with the final product.

Beyond the Stock: The Journey to Jeepness

So you’ve purchased your first Jeep! Congratulations on your soon-to-be addiction. Thankfully, this an addiction you can control. … Sort of. Well, mostly. … OK, who am I kidding? Some say “JEEP” stands for “Just eats every penny.” With one of the largest aftermarket followings in existence, the Wrangler is a metal canvas that many a mechanical artist has lavished with ideas, accessories, upgrades and wild customizations.

You can pass 10,000 Jeeps on the trail and never see two that are completely identical. This is a good thing, but with so many choices, deciding what to tackle first can be daunting. After all, most of us have limited funds to invest in our Jeeps, so we want every dollar spent to count. Let’s take a fun but practical approach.

The First Ride Is Free

The first step on your journey to ultimate “Jeepness” is free. Yes, it won’t cost you a cent. It’s really rather simple: Get out and ride. Go find places off-road to drive. Learn what your vehicle can do in its current state and how it feels out there in the wild.

Think about where you will actually drive your Jeep. Few of us will need to scale tree trunks and boulders on our morning commute to work. Yes, I mentioned the four-letter word that pays for our obsession, but with good reason: Unless you have the luxury of building a dedicated rig for exclusive off-road adventures, you will need to keep its on-road performance in mind as you plow forward with your off-road upgrades.

I want to give some love to the daily drivers that do double duty as off-road weekend warriors. As the sticker on the back of my WK2 proudly states, “Remember, Stupid, you have to drive this home!” Thanks to my lovely wife, I shall never forget these sage words of wisdom.

Pay close attention to the terrain you will be turning those tires over, and be mindful of how much time you spend on different surfaces. If you are driving on the highway at 70 miles per hour several times a week, that will temper your choices for suspension, tires and gearing. Remember that what makes a vehicle perform better off-road will typically reduce its performance on-road.


Join the Proverbial Club

Before you decide to go out trail-riding, try to find some likeminded folks to go out there with you. There are numerous Jeep organizations out there, and it’s not hard to find other locals who share your love for the outdoors and off-roading. It’s always a good idea to venture off-road as a herd — or at least with one other Jeep — for the sake of safety and getting back home.

Shortly after buying my first Jeep, I discovered the Ocala Jeep Crew on Facebook after one of my wife’s co-workers recommended we check them out. It has been both educational and inspirational to associate with others that know the area well, and have been wheeling longer than you have.

Group leaders are often asked by new folks, “What should I do first to my Jeep?” The most common reply is, “Where do you plan to drive it?” This is a simple thing to overlook, but one should give it consideration.

You would be surprised just how capable a bone-stock Jeep is, be it a Wrangler, Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, Compass or Renegade. Before you go spending your hard-earned money on upgrades, you need to determine what is necessary and what is optional for where you will actually be taking your beloved machine.

Back on Traction

Over the past year, I’ve been involved in numerous conversations pertaining to traction. Traction is the frictional grip a tire has with the road surface. Dedicated highway tires have smaller lugs, closer together, with multiple sipes, whereas dedicated off-road or mud tires have much larger voids between the tire lugs and tend to have few sipes and much thicker, blockier tread lugs.

Understanding that many Jeeps, trucks and SUVs serve as daily drivers and weekend off-road warriors, tire companies have been very busy producing treads that can handle both pavement and sand, mud or snow well. They trade some of the extreme performance features of the dedicated use tires to fit in the middle and be a good choice for all around use.

Tires like the BF Goodrich Comp TA KO2 or Goodyear Duratrac come to mind. But while these tires might seem like a logical first upgrade to the stock tires on your Jeep, you also need to consider your drivetrain and its ability to put the power to the wheel with traction.

We’ve all heard the word “locker” before. It refers to an axle’s differential having the ability to lock itself so both wheels turn at the same speed as the driveshaft turns it. For pavement and hard-packed dirt roads, an open differential will allow the left and right tire to spin at different speeds, allowing the inside tire to turn less than the outside tire in a turn. This greatly helps with the maneuverability of the vehicle.

A problem arises when the terrain offers little traction: While one tire spins on an open differential, the other can stay motionless, since all of the torque is being applied to the wheel that can spin freely. It’s a good idea to learn about what kind of drivetrain your Jeep came with. Some have electronic locking differentials both front and rear, which is ideal for selecting what you need when you need it. Others have fully automatic systems, like the Quadra Drive II system in the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and some other trim levels.

Nuts and Bolts

Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew and the proud owner of “Black Widow,” a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. He recommends considering your own usage and driving habits before committing to a modification of your stock Jeep.

This system can dynamically change the differentials from full open to full lock and anywhere in between. Having the ability to send 100% of the engine’s torque, any tire that has grip — even if it’s only one — can really get the most out of the traction available to the tires. It’s putting the power to the road that makes going off-road possible. Plow a front-wheel drive sedan into some sugar sand and you will quickly find yourself stuck with three tires not spinning at all and one just digging a hole. If you can keep all four tires turning, you have a much better chance at getting through and keeping your forward progress.

Just as the drivetrain and tires give you traction to pull yourself through the terrain, ground clearance gets you over the terrain. Getting “high-centered” is a dreaded event in which the center line of the vehicle is laying right on the ground and the tires are just spinning in the air, dangling in the ruts. This is why it’s key to keep the tires on top of the high ground so your Jeep doesn’t belly flop and become a solid mass of dead weight.

Call of the Wild

So after all this talk of tires, drivetrain and ground clearance, are we any better off figuring out what to upgrade first? Yes! By driving your Jeep out there in the wilderness, you will quickly discover where your particular vehicle is in need of modifications.

I would consider drivetrain first, tires second and lift third. However, you may want to include a winch in there, near the top, if it’s feasible. The winch will not only help you get out of a sticky situation, it will help get others out too, and helping others is at the core of Jeep culture, in my book.

Mechanical front and rear locking differentials are the pinnacle of drivetrain goals, but they may not be necessary based on your driving habits and how your existing drivetrain and four-wheel-drive system manages its available traction.

Huge, deep, knobby tires might look fantastic, but are they necessary? Remember, bigger tires bring on their own domino effect of required upgrades to compensate for driveshaft angles, transmission and differential gearing. You will likely have to lift the suspension to clear the tires. Each modification can lead to 10 more. It’s easy to get carried away going bigger, taller or stronger, but it may be more than is necessary to simply go for a ride off-road with friends.

But come on — we all know that “more than is necessary” is kind of built into Jeep’s DNA. So that Jeep is your own. Customize it to fit your needs and your taste. Build it for you, not for others. You just need to get out there and drive it and connect with the soul of your machine. The first upgrade is the beginning of a long and endless journey as you evolve your Jeep into an extension of yourself. Jeep life is not a destination; it’s a journey. Adventure calls. Let’s answer that call prepared.

How To Buy A Used Jeep

This is the first in a series of articles that will document the search for and customization of a used Jeep that will then be raffled off at an upcoming event. 

So you decided you would like to purchase a Jeep, but the purchase price and payments for a new one exceed your budget range. That puts you in the market for a good used one. If you have owned Jeeps before, you probably have a specific idea of what you want and what to look for. If you are new to the world of Jeep, you may find yourself lost in a sea of choices. Let’s review the FAQs.

1. Which Model Do I Choose?

Since World War II, the name “Jeep” has been synonymous with the Wrangler model, even though there are many different models of Jeeps to choose from. There really is a Jeep model out there for almost everyone, so only you can determine which model suits your intended purpose and your budget.

Although our list of factors to consider will generally apply to almost all used vehicles, due to its popularity, we will be focusing on the Jeep Wrangler model in this article.

2. What’s Available in My Price Range?

Set a maximum dollar amount for your purchase. You will most likely find Jeeps that are in your price range that have had some upgrades done to them, and some that are mostly (or all) factory stock. While the total costs to upgrade a stock Jeep to your liking will be much higher, a stock Jeep is a blank canvas and a great way to go if you want to make sure that all upgrades are done properly and to your own standards.

If you are in the market for a “turnkey” Jeep, one that is already modified is the obvious choice. Buyers beware: A modified Jeep may come with hidden headaches that are not instantly obvious at the time of purchase. The optimal choice is buying a modified Jeep that you are very familiar with from a friend or acquaintance.

3. How Can I Find a Bargain?  

For the most part, Jeep owners know what they have, and they know what it’s worth. Trying to negotiate the price down will usually be a tough battle. However, price can also be a subtle indicator to the overall shape and condition of a Jeep.

If you find a Jeep that appears to be in great shape on the outside but is priced significantly lower than what the market commands, it should be an instant alarm bell. There is a very good chance that there is something wrong with it and someone is trying to unload their problem onto you.

Inspect the vehicle thoroughly, and remember: “Putty and paint make what ain’t.” In other words, just because it has fresh paint and it looks good, that doesn’t make it a mechanically sound vehicle. Dents and rust are easily covered up. High-volume oil pumps and thicker engine oil mask low-oil-pressure issues. “Stop-leak” products may temporarily stop a leak long enough to sell the vehicle, but ultimately makes all seals swell and creates more leaks down the road.

Finally, pull a Carfax report or have your auto insurance agent run the vehicle identification number (VIN) through their database to check the vehicle’s title status and accident history.

4. What Are My Options?

You will find Wranglers classified as CJ (built in 1944–’85), YJ (1986–’95), TJ or TJU, a.k.a. LJ (1996–2006) or the current model, JK/JKU. Each model has different trim packages available that drastically affect the resale price.

The Rubicon package is going to be the top price point, but will also be the most off-road capable without any modifications, so there is a benefit to the premium resale price. Any Jeeps equipped with the 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine are going to cost less than the same model that is equipped with a six-cylinder, but it may cost more to upgrade in the long run, depending on your intended level of modification.

Almost all Wrangler models, except for earlier CJ models, were offered with manual or automatic transmissions. The majority of Wranglers are four-wheel drive, but they were also offered in two-wheel drive, and you will find them at the bottom of the price point range. It’s really just up to you to choose the best Jeep and trim package that is suited for your planned use of the vehicle.

5. What Inspection Tools Will I Need?

When inspecting a used Jeep, I strongly recommend wearing clothes that you don’t mind ruining, because to thoroughly check one out, you will definitely be getting dirty, oily and greasy. The first and most important tool is safety goggles that are form fitted to your face. The last thing you want is a piece of rusted metal in your eye. Been there, done that. It’s extremely unpleasant.

A 3/8-inch drive ratchet is a must to check the differential fluid levels and conditions. Bring a good flashlight or droplight, a good quantity of rags, and mechanic’s waterless hand cleaner.

6. What Do I Check?

Jeeps are known for their longevity — as long as they are properly maintained. Engine overheats, rust and lack of maintenance are the three biggest Jeep killers. It is my personal experience and opinion that any seller that is not willing to allow you to do a thorough inspection of the Jeep they are selling is probably trying to hide something. For a complete list, check out the sidebar.

7. How Do I Make the Right Decision?

There are a lot of factors to weigh before you make the decision to purchase a Jeep. Small issues that can be easily repaired shouldn’t kill the deal. They can give you leverage to negotiate the purchase price.

The best advice I can offer you is this: Make an educated purchase after you have thoroughly inspected the vehicle. Don’t let someone make their problem child yours. Don’t be afraid to walk away and pass on it if it needs costly repairs. Don’t buy on impulse because you fell in love with the look of a particular Jeep even though it needs extensive repairs.

You can turn any Jeep into the Jeep of your dreams. There are too many Jeeps out there for sale that are in great shape within your price range to settle on a pile of junk. You will find the right Jeep for you. You just have to take your time, do your research, thoroughly inspect it, and have enough patience to find it.

Inspect Your Gadget

• Check Engine Light

Make sure the check engine light has not been disabled by the seller. Verify the light illuminates briefly when you first turn the key to the run position, and check to see if it stays illuminated while the engine is running. An illuminated check engine light can mean too many things to list here. It is something to be wary of, but not a trigger to walk away from the vehicle, unless it is accompanied by a poor engine running condition.

• Coolant Stains

Look for coolant stains on the underside of the hood. They are usually found near the front of the engine compartment, above the radiator. This is a sure sign of a past overheat condition or a leaking radiator or water pump.

If you find this kind of stain, check the radiator, water pump and fan clutch to see if they have recently been replaced. If there are any obvious leaks, let the engine cool off, then take off the radiator cap and check the coolant’s condition. If there is rusty coolant in the radiator, it’s a sure sign that the vehicle has (or had) a severe overheating problem.

Please note that JKs get H.O.A.T. (pink) or O.A.T. (orange) coolant from the factory, and those colors make it nearly impossible to detect rust in the cooling system. If you own or buy one of these models, the factory coolant should never be mixed with any other type! It will turn to an acidic gel and clog up the cooling system.

Once a cast-iron engine block has severely overheated, it will continue to rust from the inside out until it is removed from service and is sent to a machine shop to be rebuilt and chemically treated. Even if the overheat condition has been corrected, a severely overheated, non-rebuilt block will have rusty coolant, even after a recent coolant change.

• Oil/Coolant Mixtures

Look for signs of oil in the cooling system and vice versa. Grayish oily sludge on the inside of the radiator cap, gray sludge in the oil cap, chocolate milk-colored oil on the oil dipstick, or a rainbow-colored film floating on top of the coolant, and oil residue in the coolant overflow bottle are signs that the integrity of the oil/cooling systems are or have been compromised.

This could mean that the cylinder head is (or was) warped or the head gasket blew. Leaving the radiator cap off, start the vehicle and allow it to come up to operating temperature. Go back to the front of the vehicle and observe the coolant in the radiator. If you see a continuous slow stream of bubbles in the coolant, with the engine running, it means that exhaust gases are present in the coolant. This is a worst-case scenario, and you should walk away.

• Weak Oil Pressure

Anytime oil pressure is below 20 psi, or is fluctuating at steady RPMs, it’s a warning that the engine is worn out, and may need to be rebuilt or replaced. If the oil pressure sending unit is reading at all, it is most likely not bad, regardless of what the seller tells you. Low oil pressure is another walk-away condition.

• Leaks

Time to get your safety glasses on, get under the vehicle, and start inspecting. Personally, I have never seen an older Jeep that didn’t have at least a slight oil leak. Pinion seals, front inner axle seals, valve cover gaskets, and the rear main engine seal are the most common sources of oil leaks in Jeeps.

If the pinion seals or axle tubes are leaking, pull the differential (a.k.a. “diff”) fill plugs and insert a finger into the oil. If it is black and smells burnt, it is indicative of lack of regular maintenance. Grayish/brown, chocolate milk-colored diff fluid means that the diffs have water in them. Oil leaking out of the front axle tubes means the differential has to be removed to replace the inner axle seals.

You should also check the pinion yokes for play. Leaking pinion seals are indicative of bad bearings or grooved pinion yokes from high mileage. If there is play, the differential will need to be rebuilt. This condition can go either way, and is up to the buyer. It is a very expensive repair, but if you were planning to increase tire size, and to regear anyway, it would not be a walk-away situation, because all the bad components would be replaced during the differential regearing.

• Bad Transmission Fluid

You should also pull the fill plugs for the transfer case and the manual transmission, or check the dipstick on an automatic transmission for dark, burnt fluid. If you find strawberry milk-colored fluid in the automatic transmission or transfer case, it means it has water in it. Water in an automatic transmission is a walk-away situation. Manual transmissions have gear oil in them, so look for dark fluid or chocolate milk.

• Bad Brakes

While under the Jeep, inspect the visible portions of the brake rotors for grooves or metal on metal conditions. Check all hydraulic brake lines for rot, leaks, and cracks in the rubber sections of lines. If the vehicle is equipped with drum brakes on the rear, the rear wheels and brake drums will have to be removed in order to inspect the rear brake shoes, wheel cylinders and axle seals for leaks.

• Rust and Rot

Inspect the frame and tub for rust, especially on older CJs and YJs. Be sure to check the frame on the inside of the belly pan where the three (per side) belly pan bolts go into the frame, at all of the lowest points of the frame where water can collect, where the roll bar bolts to the floor pan, and all of the body mount locations.

This is especially important if it was a Northern Jeep. Salt and calcium chloride are used to de-ice roads. They are extremely caustic to metal and rubber components and can cause extreme rust on non-undercoated parts like the exhaust and suspension.

Excessive rust or rot is a walk-away situation. If there is rot on the frame of the Jeep, don’t walk away. Run!

You will also want to check on the inside of the tub for rust and rot. Check the quarter panels in front of the lower door hinges, where the seat brackets bolt to the tub and where the factory roll bar bolts to the floor. Any place you see a cluster of small drilled holes with hardened putty oozed through them is a place in the body where a dent has been repaired.

Finally, inspect the steering and suspension components. Look for any rotted bushings, play in steering joints, elongated bolt holes, irregular tire wear and oil leaking from shocks.

• Deathwobble

Take the Jeep on a long test drive. Steer the front tires over any potholes or bumps you see at 30 miles per hour or above to attempt to trigger the dreaded “deathwobble.” If you do, apply the brakes hard until it stops. Deathwobble can be extremely scary and dangerous at highway speeds. It is indicative of loose or worn steering components that are not easily visible without specific component testing.

Bad steering stabilizers do not cause deathwobble, regardless of what anyone tells you. While on the test drive, listen for any irregular brake and drivetrain noises. Check if the Jeep pulls to one side or the other during hard braking, or if the steering wheel shakes on hard braking situations.

• Not So Clutch

Even if the Jeep runs and drives well, shut the engine off and check how it restarts when hot. Check to see if the emergency brake will hold on an incline. If it has a manual transmission, with the engine running at idle, apply the emergency brake, depress the brake and clutch pedals, shift into third gear and slowly release the clutch pedal until the engine stalls.

Take note of how high the pedal got before the engine stalled. Now try the same procedure in all gears. This will give you a general idea of the health of the clutch. As a general rule, the closer to full release the pedal gets before a stall, the more worn out the clutch is. Clutch replacement is also a costly repair, but not necessarily a walk-away condition. Use it as a price negotiation point.

• Air Leak

If equipped, be sure to test the four-wheel drive functionality. If it is an earlier Rubicon model with air lockers or has aftermarket air lockers, verify the air pump comes on and does not run continuously. If the air compressor runs every few seconds as pressure drops and then shuts off when the system comes up to pressure, then repeats as soon as pressure drops, that means there is an air leak.

The cost to repair a locker system air leak is dependent upon where the leak is, i.e. inside or outside of the differential housing. If the air pump does not come on at all, it can be a costly repair if the pump itself is bad.

The Jeep Wave: Not Just for Wranglers

I am relatively new to the Jeep community. I purchased my first Jeep only six months ago. However, I’ve been amazed at how deep this rabbit hole of “Jeepdom” is once you take your first peek through the looking glass. I have suddenly found myself studying up on topics like approach angles, suspension articulation, lockers, torque vs. horsepower, and the never-ending debate on wheels and tires.

Thankfully, I was in familiar territory, having been in the UTV world for several years. Perhaps it’s the off-road lifestyle in general that these machines promise that draws a certain type of personality. Jeep owners, however, are a very special breed of adventurer. They are an ancient race of warriors that has survived the tests of time and combat. At least that’s how I see myself behind the wheel of my four-wheeled beast.

Armed with that newfound confidence, I proudly drove through town on that first day of ownership, just waiting to finally signal my arrival to the tribe that I had so long dreamed of joining.

Thanks for Nothing

Shortly after hitting the road, I spotted my first “brother in arms” in the oncoming traffic. It was a red Wrangler, a JKU with a black hardtop, lifted slightly, rolling on what appeared to be 35-inch tires. (Yes, we all look at other Jeeps and take inventory.) As we neared the apex of visual confirmation, I centered my left hand on the top of my steering wheel in anticipation of the moment I had often heard spoken of but never participated in: the “Jeep wave.”

As my tribal brother was about to pass me, in one glorious motion, I raised my fingers, extended my thumb, and — keeping my palm firmly on the wheel — I executed what I thought was a textbook perfect wave.

And with a whoosh of air, he drove right by me without waving back. Not even a casual glance. Nothing. I was as deflated as slashed tires after an encounter with a crazy ex-girlfriend.

Was I not driving a Jeep? Was I not a member of this brotherhood now? Perhaps he just didn’t see me wave, you know, with the sun in his eyes and all? “Sure, that was it,” I told myself. “It’s OK. This is Central Florida. You can’t go two miles without passing a Jeep, right? I’ll just catch the next brother I pass. Come to think of it, I might be passing a sister next. After all, Jeeps are every bit as popular with girls are they are guys. You gotta love that!”

I spent the next few weeks discovering that getting someone to respond to my Jeep wave was proving to be an endeavor in frustration. I had to research this phenomenon. Had the Jeep wave become passé? Was it me? Was I doing it wrong? I needed to know.

No Easy Answers

I began by researching the Jeep wave in the most reliable and trustworthy way known to modern man: I Googled it. I found YouTube videos in which the narrators said, in effect, “For about as long as Jeep vehicles have existed, the ‘wave’ has been a way for drivers to acknowledge each other as kindred spirits.”

Oh, really, Mr. YouTube? That what I thought, too, but now I was beginning to doubt it. As I continued my research, I learned that the Jeep wave is as old as the Jeep brand. However, its true origins are a bit murky.

Some say it began in World War II as a way for passing Jeeps to acknowledge friend or foe, or perhaps to acknowledge an officer without a salute, which would give away the presence of a high-ranking official to the enemy. Others speculate that after the war, returning soldiers wanted to own a Jeep of their own, and so this acknowledgment was a silent salute to other Jeep drivers who had probably served as well. However it began, it’s as much a part of Jeep as the seven-slot grille, and it embodies the friendly culture of Jeep.

Nuts and Bolts

Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew and the proud owner of “Black Widow,” a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. He believes the Jeep wave should be shared with all Jeep owners, regardless of model, as a sign of friendship and respect.

My curiosity got the best of me. Much to my disappointment, I learned that some Jeepers believe the Jeep wave is not to be given freely to all fellow Jeep owners. Some believe that this “salute” is to be reserved only for “worthy” Jeeps.

Strength in Numbers

I found varying opinions as to what constitutes a wave-worthy Jeep. Some say it must be a lifted Wrangler. Others only acknowledge two-door Wranglers, as they think the four-door is a soccer mom’s poseur wagon. Then there is the camp that won’t wave unless the Jeep is covered in mud and is most definitely not a “mall crawler.”

The most hurtful consensus I discovered said that only a Wrangler and no other model deserves a Jeep wave. That one explained, however painfully, why I rarely received a wave: I drive a “lowly” Grand Cherokee. My heart was broken.

Thankfully, it’s a really big internet, and the more I dug, the better I felt. As it turns out, the Jeep wave has no rules, no standards and no guidelines, and that most definitely makes it a Jeep thing. Embracing the best ideals of Jeep culture, I vowed to wave at each and every Jeep I pass, regardless of the model. Lo and behold, I’m getting more returned waves these days. We are all Jeeps, after all, and this tribe is better by being bigger.

When you hear “It’s a Jeep thing,” that means we understand each other in a special way that others may not get. Jeep owners and aficionados carry the Jeep culture with them as well as spreading it to others. In my experience, off-road adventurers need to stick together and help each other out whenever possible.

We are a family of like-minded individuals, I’d like to think. We see a Facebook post that someone is stuck, and we jump at the chance to get them going again. We love to flex the capabilities of our vehicles. They are more than basic transportation. They are adventure machines! We are the warriors in the woods! The Jeep wave is absolutely for all Jeeps! It’s a token of both friendship and respect.

Share the love, brothers and sisters! You never know — you might just get a wave back from a Toyota Land Cruiser. Kindness is contagious, after all.

Trailhawk: More Than a Fancy Badge

When you hear the name “Trailhawk,” what image does it conjure? The one-off concept SUV spotted at the 2007 North American International Auto Show? The limited production 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, of which only about 2,000 were built?

Both would be correct, but this is 2017. So picture this, if you will: a daily driver SUV that can comfortably handle your commute to work, haul the kids to soccer games, and still follow your friend’s Wrangler down rutted forest trails on the weekend.

Style and Performance

You will spot a Trailhawk by the red recovery hooks protruding from its front bumper, the signature matte-black anti-glare appliqué on the hood, red stitching on the steering wheel and shifter, and embroidered Trailhawk logos on the seats.

And let us not forget that snazzy Trailhawk badge on the rear liftgate. That badge is always accompanied by a much more important badge: the “Trail Rated” endorsement, which Jeep takes very seriously. It means the chassis beneath is the most off-road-capable version the manufacturer offers. That includes a long list of built-in features that makes the Trailhawk far more than a bolt-on accessory.

The factory has established standards for traction, water fording, maneuverability, articulation and ground clearance that must be met to receive this coveted badge of honor. These standards are measured not only with tools and calculations worked out on paper, they are tested in real-world trail riding through very specific obstacles.

Nuts and Bolts

Craig Simons is a member of the Ocala (Fla.) Jeep Crew. He has the rundown on all four of the off-road-ready Tailhawk models available in the 2017 model-year:

•Jeep Renegade Trailhawk

•Jeep Compass Trailhawk

•Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk

•Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk

The Trailhawk Lineup

There are currently four vehicle platforms that have a Trailhawk version, each seating five passengers:

1. Jeep Renegade Trailhawk
The Renegade is the entry-level small SUV powered by a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. The Trailhawk version sets itself apart from the other models with standard all-wheel drive and the addition of “Rock” mode to its Jeep Active Drive 4×4 system, which includes 4WD Low, 4WD lock, Auto, Snow and Sand modes.

Each mode makes changes to the throttle input, stability control and transmission shift points. Don’t mistake this vehicle as an off-road poseur. It is far more than a reskinned Fiat 500X. It may not be a Wrangler, but it’s still very much a Jeep, with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, 30-degree approach angle, 34.3-degree departure angle and 25.7-degree breakover angle. Low range is accomplished by using the nine-speed transmission’s first gear at a 20:1 ratio. The 4WD lock is a computer-controlled brake application to keep the wheel with traction rolling. The Jeep Renegade is designed to spend most of its time on asphalt, but still be very competent in heavy rain and snow and your favorite forest trail.

2. Jeep Compass Trailhawk
The Compass shares a similar platform with the Renegade, but it’s stretched to accommodate the larger dimensions of this crossover. Using the familiar 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine and nine-speed transmission from the Renegade, the Trailhawk gains 0.5 inches of suspension lift over the standard Compass, includes 17-inch wheels with all terrain tires, and unique front and rear bumpers to achieve 8.5 inches of ground clearance, a 30.3-degree approach angle, 33.6-degree departure angle, and 24.4-degree breakover angles.

The Compass Trailhawk also includes high-strength steel skid plates protecting the important components lining the underbelly of the small SUV. The nine-speed transmission is also recalibrated to use first gear as a 20:1 low range. The vehicle starts standard acceleration in second, similar to the Renegade. Also like the Renegade, it is intended to be used mostly on-road with the occasional off-road adventure.

3. Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
The Cherokee nameplate has been around for quite a while. Most hardcore off-roaders will fondly remember the solid axles of the Cherokees of yesteryear. But the 2017 Cherokee (or “KL” in Jeep speak) is an Alfa Romeo Giulietta-based crossover SUV with four-wheel independent suspension and a transverse engine under the hood.

The Trailhawk model is not your father’s Cherokee, but it retains the soul of what made the older Cherokees so popular. It is practical, functional and dynamically useful. It’s one vehicle for many roles.

Powered by either a 3.2-liter V-6 or 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine mated to a ZF nine-speed transmission, the Cherokee is the largest of the Fiat-based Jeeps. The Trailhawk model features full-time four-wheel drive, 48:1 low range in the V-6 model, 56:1 low range in the four-cylinder variant, a true mechanical locking rear differential in addition to brake lock differential up front, “Rock” mode for the Selec-Terrain system, more suspension travel than the other Cherokee models, full undercarriage skid plates, and optional steel rock rails.

The 17-inch wheels shod in all-terrain rubber contribute to the Trailhawk’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance, 29.9-degree approach angle, 32.2-degree departure angle and 23.2-degree breakover angle. The new Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is not quite the off-road enthusiast ideal platform on which to build a hardcore wheeling rig. But it shines as an outside-the-box solution for someone who wants excellent on-road manners combined with more than adequate off-road ability for everything except the most extreme trails.

It’s a well-balanced vehicle blending modern comfort and amenities on the highway with off-road prowess. What also must be noted is that, while all the Fiat-based Trailhawks lack the ability to be lifted enough to fit 35-inch tires under them, they can still be driven most places if you pick your line carefully.

Pride and Joy

Name: Black Widow
Model: 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk with 5.7-liter Hemi V-8
Owner: Craig Simons
Our story: This vehicle is the achievement that followed a lifelong quest to own a Jeep. I grew up in the foothills of the Berkshire mountains in Western Massachusetts. Ever since my dirt road and logging trail childhood days, I’ve dreamed of owning a Jeep. Naturally, I wanted a Wrangler, and I followed their progression from CJ-5 through the new, about-to-be-released LJ. But this Grand Cherokee Trailhawk caught my eye in 2012, when I first saw it demonstrated as a concept vehicle. It could tow like a Ram pickup, carve the highway up like a Charger, and tear its way off-road like a Wrangler. It was this very blend of do-anything engineering that caused me to trade in my Toyota Tundra for this “Black Widow” earlier this spring. When I saw this rare find on the lot as I drove by my local Jeep dealership, I had to have it. I have never been so happy with a vehicle.

4. Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk
The 2017 Grand Cherokee Trailhawk marks the return of the off-road model to the SUV’s lineup after a three-year hiatus. Initially debuted in 2013, only 2,000 units were built. The current-generation Grand Cherokee chassis is named “WK2” in Jeep speak, a platform that is derived from the Mercedes-Benz W166 platform.

The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk has three engine choices: the venerable 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 it shares with the Jeep Wrangler JK, a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, and a 3.0L EcoDiesel V-6, all of which are mated to the ZF eight-speed automatic transmission with a proper 4×4 transfer case with a 2.72 low-range ratio.

The standard 18-inch wheels are wrapped in 30-inch all-terrain tires. With Quadra-Lift adjustable air suspension, ground clearance can be raised to a max of 10.8 inches — more than a stock wrangler and higher than the other GC models with Quadra-Lift. The WK2 is one of the most popular overlanding vehicles in Australia with its 25.7-degree approach and 27.1-degree departure angles, which can be increased even more by removing the lower front air dam with the hand twist of seven locking connectors.

The Trailhawk is the top of the line for off-road enthusiasts who want to travel in luxury and style, both on- and off-road. A 22.8-degree breakover angle helps it traverse obstacles, and the full-undercarriage skid plates and optional steel rock rails keeps the WK2’s guts intact.

The phrase “lockers over lightbars” is often heard when someone asks what to upgrade on their Jeep first, but this is a moot point with the Trailhawk’s Quadra-Drive II 4×4 system. Its electronic limited slip differentials are automatically adjusted between full open and full lock as the system delivers up to 100% of engine torque to a single wheel if needed. This is full-time four-wheel drive taken to the next level.

Like the other Trailhawk variants, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk features a “Rock” mode in addition to the standard Auto, Sand, Mud and Snow modes. It also features hill ascent and descent in addition to 4WD Low. There is simplicity in the seamless integration between the engine, suspension, transmission and steering response. Just rotating the knob tunes each of these systems to perform best for the terrain selected. For instance, selecting Rock mode engages 4WD Low, lifts the suspension to its maximum “Off Road 2” ride height, softens the throttle response and holds gears longer for better low speed control and changes the stability control programming.

Even wearing humble street tires, the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk can chase your friend’s Wrangler down most trails and over most obstacles. Don’t get me wrong: None of the Jeep Trailhawk models can be lifted as easily as the Wrangler to gain more ground clearance, nor are they solid-axle vehicles with the suspension articulation to match.

Then again, they are not trying to compete directly with the Wrangler. They are just additional options available to choose from when you want a comfortable and capable SUV that you can live with every day, all year long, both on- and off-road.