It’s human nature to fear the unknown. A loud crash in the night, a rustle in a dark alley, or for Jeep purists, a new Wrangler with even more technology than the last. The ’18 Jeep Wrangler JL was a highly anticipated platform. While fears of an independent suspension and Unitbody construction swirled online for years, the transition from the JK to the JL would be less traumatic than the Dark Web would lead you to believe.
Like with virtually every Wrangler platform before it, there’s always a vocal branch of the Jeep community that believes the all-new iteration will never live up to its predecessor. That’s one of the reasons adventures such as the Nitto Tire 2018 JL Experience garner so much attention. As was the case with the JK Experience trips before it, the JLX (as it’s called) is designed to showcase the versatility of the modern Wrangler platform. It does so by covering 1,000 miles of on- and off-road terrain. There are no trailers allowed, so every Jeep on the trip must be fully self-sufficient.
Located just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, the Cinder Hills is a unique wheeling area comprised largely of extremely loose volcanic cinders. Given the steepness of the terrain and unsure footing, it was similar to driving in sand dunes at times. Ultra4 racer Loren Healy pulled every bit of performance he could out of the 3.6L engine to power up the steep climbs. Fit with Spidertrax axles, 40-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers, and a custom coilover suspension by Jimmy’s 4x4, Loren’s JL would conquer the week with zero issues.
For the first annual JLX, the group would be made up largely of aftermarket manufacturers and a few invited guests. It would serve as a proving ground of sorts for not only the new JL, but for a myriad of bumpers, axles, and suspension systems now offered for it. Leading the trip would be EVO Manufacturing president and JLX founder Mel Wade. Starting in Primm, Nevada, and ending just outside of Las Vegas, the multi-state adventure would cover hundreds of miles of desert two-tracks, hit extreme rockcrawling trails, and take advantage of the amazing and uniquely Southwestern backdrop.
We were fortunate to catch a ride with the suspension pros at JKS Manufacturing and got a firsthand look at how the JL holds up in extreme terrain. Follow along as we highlight some of our favorite stops along the way and dig into what we learned about the cutting-edge Wrangler JL.
The JLX is more than just a wheeling trip. In fact, it often felt like a family vacation as we got to absorb the local culture and sites from around the different areas we stopped at. A group favorite was the journey through the Upper Antelope Canyon, near Page, Arizona. The picturesque sandstone walls made for a great photo opportunity and worthwhile tourist destination.
Our Uber Black driver for the week was JKS rep Justin Mclean. Fit with the company’s all-new coilover conversion, Barnes 4WD armor, and 37-inch Ridge Grapplers, it would get the high-mileage award for the trip. The reason? Justin not only drove the Jeep from Michigan, he piloted the Jeep back solo as well. While a rear fender did submit to a rock wall, the JL managed to emerge from the week of wheeling largely unscathed.
To get a slightly different view of the Grand Canyon, we took to the dirt for an 80-mile dirt road adventure. This is the northern rim, where the views are just as spectacular, but there are very few tourists to bump elbows with.
There were plenty of highway miles to be had and interesting towns to visit along the way. A quick cruise through “Jackass Junction” in Oatman, Arizona, got the group face-to-face with some friendly donkeys and feel of the old Wild West.
Postcard sunsets and high mountain ridges were the norm all week. Synergy Manufacturing’s JL was like most of the Jeeps on the trip; it was an Unlimited Rubicon with a majority of the running gear still in place. This included the front-axle disconnect, which we’re happy to report no one had any issues with.
The first annual JL Experience would be very much like a unique overland adventure. While one night parked participants in rustic cabins, another would have the group sleeping in Conestoga covered wagons just miles from the Grand Canyon at the Bar 10 Ranch.
Dust would be a common theme of the week, and the ultimate test for the JL’s air filtration system. From the famed Mojave Road to parts of the Mint 400 racecourse, the group would get its fair share of desert conditions.
PSC Motorsports’ JL Sport rolled out of the Tribe 16 shop just a few days before the trip. The Tribe crew installed the Dynatrac ProRock XD60 and 80 combo, along with crafting the armor, a 33-gallon fuel cell, and the suspension from scratch. The hydraulic-assist steering kit, however, was a fresh-off-the-shelf system that PSC is now offering for the JL platform. This particular kit deletes the OE electronic pump for a more traditional engine-driven configuration and swaps out the aluminum steering gears for the company’s XD Big Bore box. Obviously, PSC owners Tom and Kim Allen were not afraid of pushing the limits.
Tactical Off-Road owner CJ Breaux knew he was pushing the limits of the third-gen Dana 44 Rubicon axles by running 40-inch-tall tires. Ultimately, the front axle would fail, resulting in a broken U-joint, broken ring-and-pinion, and cracked steering knuckle. Thankfully, a Warn winch was bolted up front and helped get him through the rest of the trail.
Harris Wells is no stranger to off-road adventures and was always willing to lend a hand or spot to those on the trip. While a bent rear axle flange and some new desert pinstripes are reminders of the week, you’d be hard-pressed to find this guy without a smile on his face.
We managed to clock over 400 miles of dirt on this trip. Making that more impressive is the fact that the majority of the JLs on the trip were equipped with little more than aftermarket bumpers, lifts, and 37-inch-tall tires. Though there are still some unknowns with long-term durability of items like the front-axle disconnect, the fact is the JL is extremely impressive right out of the gate.
More technology (aka electronic nannies) in the JL has made many skeptical about its reliability. Someone who knows a thing or two about electronics is sPOD owner John Angelastro. His new Bantam control module allows you to set up your aftermarket power accessories without compromising the Jeep’s complex computer. It’s also worth noting that none of the Jeeps on the trips went into the dreaded limp-home mode, or even had so much as an electronic hiccup.
While the Southwest has an expansive wheeling arena, there are thousands of privately owned ranches as well. George Schultz was nice enough to give us a tour of his property outside of Bagdad, Arizona.
At the end of the private ranch, we were met with an amazing array of petroglyphs. While history books can show you pictures, seeing them up close is something far more memorable.
The big takeaway of the trip is how impressive the Rubicon platform is right out of the box. While we wish there would have been a two-door and a 2.0L four-cylinder in the mix, it just wasn’t in the cards. Despite the new Wrangler being slightly larger than the outgoing JK, it didn’t seem to make much difference on the trail. The eight-speed transmission also seemed to be a game-changer, as few were complaining about the power on- or off-road. As is the case with the JK, the JL’s steering system struggled when the frontend was locked off-road, and with 37-inch tires in the mix. Overall, it was exciting to see how well this new platform is working, and we look forward to watching it evolve over time.