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1997 Jeep Wrangler - Project Steal-J Wrap-Up

Posted in Project Vehicles on April 15, 2008
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It's been roughly a year on the calendar and 15,000 miles under the tires since we put the wraps on Jp's '97 wrangler, Project Steal-J. Part I of the build series appeared in the Jun. '06 issue and ran nearly straight through to the Aug. '07 issue. True to plan, the Jeep has served mostly as a daily driver with occasional forays to the desert and across unimproved roads. For the most part, we're pleased with the outcome. It's been an easy vehicle to live with on a daily basis, but there have been a few issues that have arisen.

For starters, while we love the look and performance of our 265/75-16 BfG at tires mounted on factory rubicon wheels, the larger tires hit the sway-bar links and lower control arms at full lock. Otherwise, the Mopar Performance Rubicon flares allow full suspension movement with no tire rub. The rest of the undercarriage has proved problem free. The 2-inch pro comp springs have broken in nicely, and the rear settled just enough to provide a level stance with our 3/4-inch front spacers. The JKs adjustable upper and lower control arms are as quiet and tight as the day they were installed. The MX-6 shocks are set on the second softest setting, and in conjunction with the Currie Antirock front and factory rear antisway bars, deliver good off-road flex and stable on-road handling.

As for the exterior accouterments, the powdercoating on the Kilby front bumper, rocker armor, gas skidplate, and steering skidplate look as good as ever. We've had zero mechanical issues with our M.O.R.E. rear bumper/tire carrier and have found its latch and release mechanism easy to live with. The spray-paint job we gave it has seen better days, but otherwise, we haven't noticed any rattling or vibration from our 32-inch spare. Our tan two-piece Bestop hardtop seems to be fading a bit, exhibiting a chalky film much like the way a factory TJ fender flare fades. It's more prevalent on horizontal surfaces than the sides, but the top's weather seals and latches all function as if they were new. Finally, while our Superwinch EP 9.0 winch has never had so much as a mechanical hiccup, we have noticed the chrome is rusting, and the plastic solenoid pack cover is fading from black to chalky gray.

Inside, we installed a pair of reclining Mastercraft Baja RS suspension seats. The seats' fabric has held up extremely well and they still offer sublime comfort. The seats are slightly wider than the factory buckets, and we've noticed some interference issues. Namely, when fully slid back for tall occupants, the steel of the lower rear seat corner will make slight contact with the rollbar. Likewise, when the seats are slid up for short occupants, the side bolsters make contact with the Misch armrests we installed. however, both are minor inconveniences that are far outweighed by the comfort and performance offered by both parts.

To add a little power to the stock 4.0L, we installed a full Edge Trail Jammer system complete with a 62mm throttle body, a cold-air intake, and an electronic module for increased fuel delivery. Our first control module tripped the check-engine light, so Edge sent us another module. After some time, the new module began tripping the check-engine light, throwing a DTC for map sensor voltage either too high or too low, so we've just been driving with the unit unplugged.

Our Dana 44 front and rear axles from Drivetrain Warehouse arrived loaded with 4.56 gears and ARB Air Lockers. The ARBs have thus far performed flawlessly and our gears run smoothly and quietly. We did suffer leaking front and rear axle seals very early after the axle swap, however. The rears had moderate weeping and the passenger-side front was letting enough oil by to make a small puddle in the morning. We had TAG Motorsports in Escondido, California, swap out the leaking seals, but it required disassembly of both axles-not something we really appreciated, considering the newness of the units. Furthermore, our front axle was slightly bent when it arrived, most likely from when the brackets were welded on at the factory. the alignment rack showed a 3-degree difference in camber. it doesn't sound like much and we haven't noted any handling or tire-wear drawbacks, but it's enough to notice with the naked eye when you look at the front tires and is to what we attribute the premature failure of the front axle seals.

The TCI th700r4 transmission we swapped in place of the factory tf999 is a monstrously durable unit and has consistently delivered firm, crisp shifts. But we do perceive a loss of power with the larger GM tranny. It just plain takes more oomph to spin than the stock three speed. Even with our 4.56 axle gears, acceleration seems on par with the tf999 and 3.07 gears. we had planned for a GM V-8 swap (maybe an Ls1 or a 5.3L Gen III engine), but the factory 4.0L just keeps on ticking, so we're delaying those plans. Also, the mechanical linkage that connects the Lokar shifter to the tranny can give a slight buzz now and then, but it's not enough to make us swap to the cable operated shifter.

Finally, one thing we didn't really consider until after the tranny swap was the electronic aspect. Our TJ's factory ECU requires a signal from the tf999's lockup converter, so it would constantly throw the check-engine light on. Every time we cleared the DTC, it would reappear, and all efforts to bypass the problem failed. In the end, we wound up purchasing a $450 ECU for a manual-transmission wrangler to solve the problem. If you're starting with a manual-transmission wrangler, you won't have an issue, but be aware that you'll also need to swap the ECU when swapping out the factory auto tranny.

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