2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited - Grand Score: Part 1
Prepping our new WJ for the backcountry
Do you believe in unicorns, sasquatch, leprechauns, marriage material at the strip club, the perfect tire for all conditions, or plentiful .22LR ammunition? Nah, me neither (kind of on the fence about the leprechauns, though). But I’m starting to question the existence of all things mythical after nailing down my latest find -- an 2004 Grand Cherokee Limited with a V-8, Quadra-Drive, and a mere 29,000 miles on the ticker. On the hunt and ready to pull the trigger on a late-model WJ to serve as a daily driver and backcountry pack mule, the last thing I expected to find was one that had been mothballed for damn near 10 years. If you’re not impressed with my WJ radar yet, here’s the kicker: This cream puff was, in fact, (wait for it…) previously owned by a little old lady. Knowing I wouldn’t stumble across another museum-quality WJ in my price range anytime soon, I made haste across three New England states to lay claim before someone else beat me to the punch. For connoisseurs of the final iteration of solid-axle Grands, it was the proverbial pot o’ gold.
With the new WJ in my driveway, I started laying the groundwork for my ideal everyday rig. Sketchy handling and the roar of Swamper lugs? Not on the checklist. Besides, if a highly visceral experience on my way to work is what I’m after, I have a few other rigs I can jump in to get my fix. I needed the right measure of on-road civility and off-road capability, without the usual compromise that comes when trying for both. This was my third WJ, and each before gave pretty handy insight on the pitfalls of various suspension systems, as well as what’s involved in creating a capable dual-purpose rig. This time around, I was on a mission to find a no-compromise suspension system -- one that mitigated undesirable traits both on and off-road while not breaking the bank in the process.
Nearly without fail, adjusting your WJ’s altitude above 3 inches of lift with a short-arm suspension opens the door to common demons, some of which can be rectified and some you’ll likely end up living with. This wiped the common and affordable 4-inch short-arm kits off my list. My other consideration was the fact that I wanted to run 32s without breaking out the fender-trimming tools or folding back pinch seams. In the end, the kit that came closest to meeting all of my criteria was the 4-inch Critical Path Long Arm system from Iron Rock Offroad. The company has been steadily making a name for itself in the world of aftermarket Jeep suspension and components, particularly with the WJ platform. Iron Rock Offroad offers a total of six different in-house suspension systems for the WJ (from a base 2-inch spring lift, all the way to a full long-arm 6½-inch kit), along with long-arm conversions, individual suspension and steering components, rocker armor (which you’ll read about in the next installment), and many other WJ-specific goodies. It’s as close to a one-stop shop as you’ll find for the underside of your WJ.
Looking at the components of this kit, you’ll notice a couple deviations from the norm, namely the omission of the front-passenger upper-control arm. Savvy wheelers have known for years that this particular link contributes to binding and limits axle articulation. Removing it might seem counterintuitive at first, but with our limited testing to date, we’d say it pays noticeable dividends on the trail. Time will tell on the street -- you’ll have to wait for the next installment for our final impressions after we’ve had a month of thrashin’ it under our belts.
In another stray from convention, you’ll also notice that this is a hybrid system, with a long-arm arrangement up front and short arm in the rear. With a conventional 4-inch short-arm system, the bulk of undesirable traits can be traced to the front end, not the rear. A dump-truck ride quality, tendency to death wobble, and pronounced bumpsteer come from the steep control arm operating angles of short-arm lifts over 4 inches. Moving the front links further back on the frame not only makes the control arm geometry correspond with the lift height, it also opens the door to significantly more wheel travel, better overall ride quality, and (usually) better handling. The front long-travel portion of the IRO 4-inch Critical Path kit is 100 percent bolt-on, with no welding required and minimal drilling. In other words, installation is only slightly more involved than a short-arm kit, and tackling it on your garage floor is well within the realm of do-a-bility. The rear -- like any short-arm kit -- slaps in with relative ease.
To help document the suspension install, we brought the Jeep over to our preferred shop here in the Northeast -- Importech. Despite the rice-burning image the name may conjure up, this shop is chock-full of Jeep and Dodge enthusiasts, and talented fabricators, as well as ex-Chrysler/Jeep technicians, all of whom are ASE-certified and fully capable of tackling anything we throw at them. We’ll be covering in detail our choice in rolling stock, armor, and recovery solutions in Part 2, so stay tuned.
The IRO front control arms feature greasable pivoting Super Flex joints on the unitbody ends for a high degree of misalignment and non-binding travel, and standard rubber bushings on the axle ends for shock damping and durability. Threaded adjustable arms are an option, as are high-clearance arms. If you check the latter box, however, you’ll need to lop off the factory front lower control-arm mounts on the frame.
The Critical Path kit comes standard with hydro shocks, but for an additional $70, you can substitute for the Doetsch Tech 8000 shocks with built-in bumpstops. The bumpstops are a pretty neat addition. Not only do they serve as a compression buffer, but if your tire-to-fender clearance is questionable at full stuff, they can also make the difference between rubbing or not. So far, the valving seems spot-on perfect, both on- and off-road.
Attacking the rear first -- with the factory shocks and sway bar links removed, the axle will drop out far enough to yank the coil springs from their buckets. If you’re tackling this at home on your garage floor, a couple jackstands placed in front of the lower control arms on the frame to support the vehicle and a jack underneath the differential to control droop will give the same results.
One of Chrysler’s crowning achievements within the Jeep brand has to be the WJ rear suspension. Its three-link design not only creates bind-free travel and articulation, it also doesn’t require a track bar to keep the axle centered. All that’s needed to keep geometry in check with 4 inches of lift is the included bolt-on A-arm spacer, shown here sitting between the axle and the ball-joint connection on the A-arm.
With the A-arm spacer installed, we lowered the rig back down to a comfortable working height to muscle in the new rear lift springs. Actually, without shocks or sway-bar links installed to limit axle droop, the springs went in pretty easy both front and rear by simply pushing down on the axle ends and popping them in place. In some applications (depending on the spring and lift height), a spring compressor may be required.
With the new springs, shocks, sway bar links, and A-arm spacer all buttoned up out back, we slapped a “done” label on the rear install. Initially, we had our reservations about the stock rear lower control arms being sufficiently long for the amount of lift. Testing our theory out with the rig on the ground wearing its wheels and tires set our minds at ease. However, the tires were as centered in the wheelwells as they could get.
Moving to the front, the list of factory components that needed to part ways included the sway bar links, drag link from the pitman arm, track bar, shocks, and coil springs. With the springs removed, the small hole in the center of the upper coil buckets needs to be enlarged and tapped in order to bolt on the new anodized aluminum spring retainers. With gobs of wheel travel on the horizon, these will help ensure you don’t spit out a coil spring at full-droop.
The IRO long-arm brackets sandwich between the transmission crossmember and unitbody frame, so with a screw jack in the center of the crossmember to support the drivetrain, we were safe to gun out the four bolts on either side. At this point, we were now clear to lower the jack enough to slide in both the long-arm brackets and the anodized aluminum spacers that help alleviate driveline angles.
Bolted in place with the crossmember and spacers, the long-arm brackets require that you drill four new holes in the unitbody frame. Once drilled, nut plates will get fished up through the unitbody via the large holes at the front of the brackets, and when the four new bolts get threaded into the nut plates, you’re good to torque everything to spec. Having a total of eight bolts now holding each bracket in place, we’re confident these things aren’t going anywhere.
After removing the factory driver-side control arms, loosening the passenger-side arms, and adjusting both new control arms to the exact same length, we were ready to hoist the driver-side arm in place and run some bolts through it. IRO doesn’t specify a particular adjustment length as a starting point, so just try to get it in the ballpark. So long as they’re set to equal lengths to begin with, you can thread each of them in or out by an equal amount of revolutions to gain the desired overall length.
IRO supplies a drop pitman arm with this kit to maintain proper steering geometry. In drier venues (where metal parts don’t get “rust-welded” together), a pitman-arm puller may do the trick for removal. Otherwise, a simple and effective way of liberating the factory arm from the sector shaft is to carefully cut a slit down the side with a cutoff wheel.
With the tension relieved, it should pop off with a couple taps of a hammer. You’re now ready to line up the new arm and torque it to spec.
With the steering buttoned up and the new shocks, springs, sway bar links, and brake line spacers installed, we bolted the new heavy-duty adjustable-drop track bar in place. Like the control arms, the track bar uses a vibration damping rubber bushing on the axle and a rebuildable Super Flex joint on the frame end for bind-free travel. To center the axle under the Jeep, final track bar adjustment will be done on the ground under load.
One of the coolest components in this kit is the unique caster-adjustment plate that makes the connection between the left-front upper control arm and axle. By simply loosening the bolts, setting the proper caster angle (between 3 and 5 degrees for the WJ) can be made by tapping or prying the bracket toward the front or rear. It’s super easy and super quick, and the bracket itself is a pretty stout piece of hardware.
This before-and-after illustrates the drastic change in lower-control-arm mounting points, as well as the fact that the new long arms are virtually mimicking the angle of the factory control arms, providing ideal geometry.
After this photo was shot, we lengthened the arms by about 5⁄8 inches to center the tires in the wheelwell. If stuffing as big a tire as humanly possible is on the agenda, this adjustability will be key.
This image offers a sneak peek of our new AEV Savegre wheels and General Grabber AT2 tires (which you’ll read all about in the next installment) and how they fill out the wheelwell. After dialing in the control-arm adjustment to perfection, we found that a small amount of trimming was required on the lower edge of the front bumper cover and plastic fender liner for tire clearance. A pair of tin snips got the job done quick and easy.