Back in the Sept. '03 issue we included the Jeep Rubicon in a story entitled, "Garbage Trucks, the Top 10 Jeeps We'd Never Own." Every Jeep and Rubicon-specific Web site on the planet lit up and furiously called for our bloody heads on a pike. In reality, lots of people misread what we wrote. We didn't so much bash the Rubicon as we did the Rubicon owners who thought that with a few "upgrades" like external gas cans, a Hi-Lift bolted to the front bumper and a plethora of Daylighters, their Rubicon was the most capable vehicle to ever grace the face of the Earth.
Fast forward one year and a thousand angry stares from Rubicon owners later, and we happened to stumble across Joe Pekala's '03 Rubicon at the '04 Moab Easter Jeep Safari. Not only had Joe turned his Rubicon into a serious trail machine, he was taking it on serious trails and not opting for any of the bypasses.
Chassis & Driveline
For starters, Chrysler gave the Rubicon just about everything it needs to function quite nicely in a variety of nasty terrain. What it lacks most, however, is adequate power and high-range gearing for tires larger than 31 inches. Joe decided to keep the engine stock, save for an Airaid intake system for a squirt of more oomph. Since the stock four-speed auto saps a lot out of the engine, Joe had a set of 4.88 Yukon gears installed on the stock selectable lockers. The only downside was that Joe had the gear swap done before special gears for the Rubicon Dana 44 housings were made, so the shop that did the work had to redo the gear install twice before finally getting it right with custom shims. Of course, the correct gears are now available. To keep breakage away, Superior alloy axleshafts found their way into the front and rear axles.
Going down the line, the stock Rubicon T-case (NV241-OR) with its 4:1 low range and fixed yoke was left alone, but a Tom Wood's CV rear driveshaft was installed with an adapter to hook up to the stock Rubicon fixed flange.
The CV driveshaft is a necessity with the low-pinion Dana 44 rear and the rather tall Rubicon Express 5.5-inch long-arm suspension. 4-Wheel Parts in Denver, Colorado, installed the suspension for Joe, along with a 1-inch body lift. The added height swings enough room to easily clear 35s with no rubbing anywhere, and the long-arm suspension offers tons of flex and way more stability than a short-arm system. Adjustable Rancho 9000 shocks pull damping duties at all four corners. The rig handles well on road thanks to the dropped pitman arm and track-bar drop brackets. A set of JKS sway-bar disconnects ensures the front axle can follow the contours of the trail when the time comes.
Body & Interior
It's not often you find someone who takes a brand-new Jeep and guts the plush factory interior, but Joe went ahead and ripped out the stock seating, carpet and rollcage. Poison Spyder Customs installed one of its full TJ cages with custom gussets, as well as the Mastercraft Rubicon-model seats with custom Spyder logos. A powerful Cobra CB was thrown under the dash and the whole inside of the tub was slathered in Line-X for weather protection.
Outside, there's little left of the factory Light Khaki metallic paint. Poison Spyder Customs outfitted Joe's Rubicon with just about every TJ body armor part in its catalog, from its Crusher Corners to its front tube fenders. The list of PSC parts is long, so in rapid fashion, there's also LED rear lights, a gas-tank skidplate, a power-steering skidplate, Rocker Knockers and a front and rear Stinger bumper with an integrated spare-tire carrier.
Wheels & Tires
For high traction in the rocks, a wide, stable stance and lots of durability, it's hard to beat a 35x13.50-15 BFGoodrich Krawler T/A KX. Joe hung five on 15x10 Pro Comp 1879-series Xtreme Alloy wheels with 3.5-inch backspacing. The extra-wide stance adds a lot of stability at angles and also helps keep rocks and other obstacles away from the body.
Good, Bad And What's It For?
There's enough trail armor between the body and 'cage that Joe's Rubicon could probably get sucked up by a tornado and come out none the worse for the wear. There's also lots of armor and heavy components downstairs like the Currie heavy-duty tie rod and drag-link assembly, Warn diff guard and even little skidplates on the control-arm mounts. A Warn 9.5ti winch with Masterpull 71/416-inch synthetic rope drapes on the front bumper, and a big ol' Hi-Lift jack is ready in the rear.
All of the armor and hard-core parts add up to a rig that's more "go" than "show." It's pretty obvious that this Rubicon sees more time on the trails than in a parking lot surrounded by other diaper-rubbed specimens. The only things we really don't like are the rather tall stance and the placement of the Hi-Lift in the rear. If it were our rig, we'd lay the jack down horizontally, ditch the body lift and swap out the coils for some 4.5 inchers. Then we'd cut the body as needed to prevent rubbing.
What We Think
Jeep did get it right when it designed the Rubicon. Offering front and rear Dana 44s with locking differentials, a 4:1 T-case and a factory warranty seemed like the stuff of dreams only a few years ago. What left a sour taste in our mouths were the minority of individuals who bought these rigs and then proceeded to trash-talk every other vehicle on the trail that didn't sport the word RUBICON across the hood. Most of these yahoos it seemed didn't even know how to air down the tires, but they could smack talk a guy who spent every paycheck upgrading his rig to perform better on the trail.
We're seeing more and more Rubicons in all stages of buildup out on the trail being driven by actual off-road enthusiasts. While Joe's rig happens to be a bit on the extreme side of what they're building, it shows the bones of the Rubicon serve as one great foundation for a gnarly trail rig.
Vehicle: '03 TJ Rubicon
Engine: Stock 4.0L
Transmission: Stock four-speed auto
Transfer Case: Stock NV241-OR
Suspension: 5.5-inch Rubicon Express long arm
Axles: Stock Dana 44 front and rear, stock front locker, rear locker/limited slip, 4.88 gears
Wheels: 15x10 Pro Comp Xtreme Alloy
Tires: 3x13.50-15 BFGoodrich Krawler
Built For: Reliable off-road wheeling
Value: $15,000 plus price of vehicle