Arguably the most significant product to grace the Jeep lineup since the all-coil TJ debuted for the '97 model year, the JK has made quite an entrance into the world of wheeling. As soon as we drove the first 2007 Wranglers last summer, we started making plans for how we would build a JK if we were to get our hands on one.
At the end of last year, we received a call from Kevin Metz, Jeep's Wrangler Brand Manager asking if we'd like to expand our project vehicle fleet to include a new JK Wrangler. Truth is, we had already submitted a proposal for an Unlimited shortly after our trip to Africa, and Kevin was about to honor our request with the added bonus of allowing us to option it ourselves.
Not being ones to shy away from optional equipment, we checked just about every box possible, and our fully loaded Red Rock Wrangler Unlimited arrived in January sporting an option-laden price of $32,760, up from the base price of $28,235. This included the Dual Top Group, Power Convenience Group, Trailer Tow Group, tinted windows, and side airbags. The only option not available on the Rubicon at the time of build-out was the multimedia MyGIG radio option, which we hope to add at a later date.
By this point we had decided that Project Teal-J has become our aspirational Jeep, so while the JK is relatively new, we would limit our initial build to things that would improve upon the already robust Rubicon package without taking away from it-leaving the basics such as drivetrain, transfer case, and axles alone for the most part. The JK project in our minds was destined to be a real-world rig, attainable by the average reader, and something that would be capable on the trail while maintaining enough civility to be driven daily on commutes to the office. Important goals to aim for were a comfortable ride, a cruising speed of 70 mph and 15mpg highway fuel economy. We also have plans to keep it completely street-legal.
After a barrage of fourwheeler.com blog suggestions, we chose "Project 'Con Artist" for the name, both as a nod to the Rubicon trail and model, as well as the skillful way a long-wheelbase daily driver on 35s will need to use to get through obstacles on the 'Con and other difficult trails.
Project 'Con Artist experiences its first stuck.
Before we start working on any new project vehicles, we like to take them out on the trail in their stock form to see how they do. This way we can gauge any improvements that the aftermarket parts may bring to the vehicle. So, we drove our JK around for about a month to get initial fuel economy figures (15.17 mpg average so far) and break in before taking it out on its maiden voyage to Southern California's Anza-Borrego desert.
Joining us for the ride was good pal Shane Casad from Bilstein in his stealth XJ, as well as another friend, Mark Mathews from JBA in his TJ Rubicon. We tackled trails in and around the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and had an enormously fun time, with trails ranging from fast washes to technical rocks. We put about 425 miles on our Jeep-close to 100 in the dirt. We even encountered a flooded trail, which was deeper and muddier than expected, also concealing some rocks that caused the JK to get hung up.
No worries, as a quick yank with Mark's winch freed our JK, and we noted the increased sense of urgency to get our suspension system and 35s on the Unlimited, especially since we ripped off the useless (to us) front air dam. We don't plan on ripping off any other stock parts on the trail, but this day on the trail gave us some good ideas for what we should change, and what we like stock.
Especially built for Four Wheeler Magazine.
Our overall impressions are similar to what we wrote in our FWOTY competition (Feb. '07). The JK really is a pretty awesome wheeler out of the box-just get rid of those electronic nannies and add some ground clearance with bigger wheels and tires. The stock travel and flex are very good, although the heavy Unlimited tends to land on its bumps much more often than the two-door (if you plan on leaving stock, upgrade your shocks). That said, with a little massaging, this is a vehicle that could be an animal on the trail.
So let's see, we accomplished everything you need to get a new vehicle broken in for trail duty. Scratches? Check. Rip off useless parts? Check. Hate stock electronics? Check. Scrape skidplates? Double-check. Ruin new car smell with funky, funky desert mud stench? Check. Return home with no weird noises or breakage? Check. Looks like this is going to be a great project vehicle build, both to wheel and generate cool ideas for you guys-we hope you'll agree.
Excellent wheel travel and articulation, great stock tires, good ride, fantastic on the trail, a real back seat for friends, reasonably quiet, tons of fun.
Needs rear-cargo tie-downs (seriously, who left that out?), ESP sometimes kills the fun, hardtop panels creak in the dirt, manual tranny needs skidplate protection too (we'll be addressing this), too long for height in stock form, lockers can't be engaged in 2-Hi or 4-Hi.
The companies that have pledged their support so far are:
* 4WD Hardware (www.4WD.com)
* AEM (www.aempower.com)
* American Expedition Vehicles (www.aev-conversions.com)
* ARB (www.arbusa.com)
* Bilstein (www.bilstein.com)
* Cool Tech, LLC (www.cooltechllc.com)
* Don-A-Vee Chrysler-Jeep (www.donavee.com)
* Dynatrac (www.dynatrac.com)
* Huntington Beach Chrysler-Jeep (www.hbjeep.com)
* Hi-lift (www.hi-lift.com)
* JBA (www.jbaheaders.com)
* Jeep (www.jeep.com)
* Kilby Enterprises (www.kilbyenterprises.com)
* Misch 4x4 Products (www.misch4x4.com)
* Mopar (www.mopar.com)
* Off Road Evolution (www.offroadevolution.com)
* Optima Batteries (www.optimabatteries.com)
* Rubicon Express (www.rubiconexpress.com)
* Skyjacker (www.skyjacker.com)
* Skid Row Offroad (www.skidplates.com)
* Spidertrax Off-Road (www.spidertrax.com)
* Superior Axle & Gear (www.superioraxle.com)
* Toyo Tire (www.teamtoyo.com)
* Warn (www.warn.com)