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2014 Jeep Wrangler - A Soft Top System For Jeeps That Can Carry 300 Pounds

The Rugged Ridge Exo-Top soft top system can carry up to 300 pounds

Stuart A. BourdonPhotographer, Writer

One of the main reasons Jeep owners (regardless of what model they have) wanted a Jeep was to get outside and explore the backcountry. As such, it only seems natural that a soft top you can be peel back to allow more of that outdoor experience to get inside the cabin would be so popular. Don't get us wrong, there's nothing wrong with a hardtop, but you just can't get that same sun on your face, wind in your hair, getting outside sort of feel stuck under a solid lid on your Jeep.

However, one of the biggest complaints we hear about soft tops is that they are noisy. It's not just that they are basically made out of cloth and therefor don't have the sound insulating properties that most hardtops have, but they flap about and create even more noise. In addition, a soft top doesn't provide the sturdy upper surface of a hardtop that allows you to mount a rack upstairs for carrying gear.

When we saw the Rugged Ridge Exo-Top Roof Rack System, we thought we might have found the perfect solution. It combines a sturdy steel tube cage and a soft top that can be slid back or completely removed to let the outdoors inside. Before we began the installation of the Exo-Top Roof Rack System to a '14 Jeep Wrangler JK Unlimited, we had a conversation with Patrick Bennett, the design engineer for the Exo-Top.

Bennett is a Jeep guy and has many years of experience with soft tops on his rigs. He told us, "The concept originated from the Sherpa, a traditional style Rugged Ridge soft top, but we wanted to incorporate the roof rack into it and make it functional. So we really had to solved two major problems with soft tops: How do you move the top back and forth, and how to you not have lots of wind noise?"

"The soft top's slider system was inspired by the old VW topless systems I had seen, and we worked closely with Lakeside Canvas, a company that has decades of experience designing custom Bimini tops for boats, to develop the right material and design for our needs," continued Bennett. "We went through a number of working models before we hit on the right combination of top shape, material, bow shape and placement, and the use of the loops over the cage to get as quiet a soft top as possible and still make it a convertible with the slider system."

What Rugged Ridge ended up with was a high-quality soft top that can be easily slid open to uncover the front seats, moved farther back to uncover all four seats on a JK Unlimited, or removed completely and stored in the rear compartment of the Jeep. The front and rear windows use zips and tabs to go on and off easily, although we do recommend they be laid out in the sun so they will stretch a bit before assembly. There is enough clearance under the Exo-Top cage for easy actuation of the soft top back and forth, and according to Rugged Ridge, the cage will support up to 300 pounds of evenly distributed weight.

We took a quick spin after the install was complete, and to be fair, it's a soft top so it will certainly not be as quiet as a good hardtop. However, it didn't sound as if a flock of pigeons was taking off just above or heads, and we found it less noisy in general than many of the soft tops we've ridden under. We've shown the basic steps involved here. The instructions included with the kit are detailed and need to be followed explicitly for a proper installation, but the Rugged Ridge Exo-Top Roof Rack System is fairly easy to install. There was no drilling required, it can all be done with basic hand tools, and you should be able to finish up in one day.

01 One of the many advantages of the Rugged Ridge Exo-Top Roof Rack System is the cage that forms its backbone. Not only does it help support and protect the soft top, it also allows for mounting gear atop the skeleton-like cage.

02 Kit-supplied bolts, washers, and lock nuts are used to assemble the pieces of the Exo-Top cage. We used a power driver to speed up the operation. With hand tools, this would have taken 30 minutes, but we had the job done in 10.

03 Once the Exo-Top cage is fully assembled, it's a good idea to go back over all the hardware to be sure everything is tight. You don't want the cage falling apart on the road or trial because a few nuts and bolts vibrated loose.

04 You will need a buddy around for this install. There is more than one operation that would be very difficult to perform on your own, such as hoisting the completely assembled cage on to the vehicle.

05 As series of nut-plates that go under or behind the sheet metal and bolts that go through mounting holes in the Exo-Top cage secure the cage to the Jeep's body. There are three nut-and-bolt sets on each side for the cage's rear and one on each side of the front of the cage.

06 The two pieces that form the rear surround are assembled using a rubber seal in between and a threaded knob to attach the two parts. A one-piece flat front surround is bolted onto the top of the Jeep's doorframe first, and then the assembled L-shaped rear surround is attached to the top of the doorframe.

07 The rear bow for the Exo-Top was attached to the Jeep's factory in-cab rollcage using the mounting brackets supplied in the Rugged Ridge kit and the factory hardware. The front bow attaches to the Jeep's rollcage in much the same way.

08 The bow sliders were assembled and then test-fit into the rails to make sure they easily slid all the way from front to rear in the rails. If they don't slide smoothly, we suggest using a little wax on the rail edges. Surfboard wax did the truck for us.

09 Three sets (rear, middle, and front) of bolts and mounting brackets (front shown here) are used to attach each of the slider rails to the Jeep's factory in-cab rollcage. Keep all of the mounting bolts loosely tightened until the slider carriage assemblies are cycled through the length of the slider rails and adjusted properly.

10 The factory soft top header is re-used and attached to the leading edge of the Rugged Ridge soft top. Hardware from the factory setup is used to tie the two together, but you must be sure the channel in the soft top is clear of the lip in the header and that cable running through both sides of the soft top is properly connected to the header.

11 This step is another one in which a buddy is very helpful. The assembled soft top and header must be carefully pulled from the rear, between the Exo-Top cage and the factory in-cab rollcage (over the rear and front bows), and all the way forward to the top of the windshield.

12 We found it easier to install the slider carriages into the header at this stage rather than doing it before the soft top and header were threaded between the Exo-Top cage and the factory in-cab rollcage. Otherwise the slider carriages would have to be inserted into the rails from the rear and pulled all the way forward with the header and soft top.

13 Make sure you fasten the rear of the spring cables that run inside the side edges of the soft top to the rear slider rail brackets. A handy carabiner makes hooking the spring cables to the brackets quick and simple. This is what helps keep the soft top's edges taut when it's closed and the header is locked in place at the top of the windshield.

14 The sides of the Rugged Ridge soft top attach to the Exo-Top cage with flaps that have a hook-and-loop closure. The truck is to pull them as tight as you possibly can over the bar on the cage before securing to keep the top as taut as possible.

15 Aside from keeping the flaps on the side edges of the soft top as tight as possible around the cage bars to keep noise to a minimum, the adjustable loops on the top of the soft top should also be pulled as tight as possible to help secure it.

16 The final step to enjoying the conveniences of the new Rugged Ridge Exo-Top Roof Rack System is attaching the rear and side windows. They zip onto the soft top and fold under edges along the body and door surrounds.