Should I Upgrade to a Rubicon from Different Trim Package?
Short answer… If you plan on really taking it off road and putting bigger tires on it, a Rubicon is a wise choice.
Unless you already know exactly why you are considering a Rubicon, you probably don’t need one. However, it may still be the right choice for you.
If you are new to the Jeep world, you may not know just how capable a stock Wrangler Sport is. Every Wrangler is Trail Rated, but what does that even mean? It seems like the badge is on every vehicle Jeep makes. Every new Wrangler is four wheel drive, so what makes it Trail Rated? To be considered Trail Rated, a Jeep has to past tests in Water Fording, Maneuverability, Articulation and Ground Clearance.
What Makes a Rubicon, a Rubicon?
Here are the main upgrades/features of a Wrangler JL Rubicon…
- Rubicon Wide Track Dana 44 Axles Front and Rear
- 4.10 Axle Gear Ratio’s
- Electronic Lockers Front and Rear
- Rubicon Rock-Trac 4:1 Transfer Case
- Electronic Front Sway Bar Disconnect
- Rubicon Power-Dome Hood
- Rubicon High-Clearance Fender Flares
- Rubicon Wheels and 33″ Tires
If you compare a Rubicon to a Sport S, you also get a few more upgrades. These include a bigger alternator, extra tow hooks, Rubicon specific interior trim, etc., but these are not really big enough to sway your choice of trim packages. Is it worth $5,000+? It still depends on what you are going to be doing with your new Wrangler JL.
The Axles, Lockers, Transfer Case and Fenders are the main Reasons to Buy a Rubicon
New Generation Dana 44 Axles, M210 front M220 Rear
Since the Wrangler Rubicon made its debut in 2003, their axles have been sought after by many non-Rubicon Jeep owners looking to upgrade. The main reason, they are strong and have gotten stronger with every generation. The new JL Rubicon axles are no exception. To get technical, the FAD is one weak point, but we can discuss that in another post. People pay over $5,000 for Rubicon “Take-Off” axles. New Dana 44’s can run $10,000 a set, axles which would be considered a worthwhile upgrade can easily run over $15,000 a set.
E-Lockers, Real 4-Wheel Drive at the Flip of a Switch
Wait, aren’t all Wranglers 4 Wheel Drive? Yes, but that just means that all 4 wheels can get power, not that they always get power, or even that they get power when they “should” get it. Without going into a full explanation on how axles work, I’ll just give the the effects, not the cause. In a standard (not locked or limited slip) axle, once a wheel loses traction and starts spinning, the power is sent to that wheel. Obviously, if it is spinning and the other isn’t, it would be better to direct more power to the other (non-spinning) wheel, because it has traction. Limited-slip differentials (LSD) are one solution and they work well, but they do not provide full lock. The only way to have a fully locked axle on a street driven Wrangler is with a selectable locker. These can be electronic, air or cable driven. If you wanted to add lockers to your Jeep Wrangler JL, selectable lockers would run $1,000 to $1,500+ per axle.
Rock-Trac 4:1 Transfer Case
If you plan on any “rock crawling”, consider a Rubicon. If you have ever driven Wranglers, or Jeeps in general, you are probably familiar with “4L.” When engaged, the four wheel drive transfer case gives your transmission a lower set of gears. This is extremely handy off-road, because you have your full set of gears at speeds lower than highway speeds. The Rubicon takes this a step further, almost 50% further, 2.72 to 1 vs. 4 to1!
This gives the Wrangler Rubicon 8-speed automatic a final Crawl Ratio of 77 to 1 with stock 4.10 gears, the 6-speed manual has an 84 to 1!
Electronic Sway Bar Disconnect
To get the most articulation from your Wrangler, you will want to disconnect your sway bar. When the trail gets really uneven, disconnecting your sway bar will give you an edge and you’ll be more sure-footed at the same time. On the street, the sway bar is trying to keep your frame/body parallel with the axle to prevent too much lean in turns. When the street is flat, this improves handling and decreases body-roll. Off-road, this can have negative consequences. If one side of the trail is lower than the other, the sway bar will still do its job of trying to keep the body parallel with the axle. If the axle is uneven, so is the Jeep. Disconnecting the sway bay gives the suspension freedom to travel independently of the frame/body, which allows greater articulation and keeps the body as level as possible.
Yes, quick sway bar disconnects are fairly inexpensive and usually easy to use. If you have used sway bar disconnects in the past, one of two things have happened, possibly both. You forget to disconnect them, or you remember once they are already covered in mud; or you try to disconnect them and you can’t. They can rust, preventing a “quick” disconnect. I have even seen them installed in a way that prevented the “pin” from being pulled. The Rubicon’s electronic disconnect allows you to do it without leaving the driver’s seat.
There are aftermarket sway bar options, like the Currie Anti-Rock system, where you don’t need to disconnect anything. If you are already considering one, you likely didn’t need to read this article. If this is the first time you heard of them, keep in mind that while they are great off-road, you do sacrifice some on-road handling/performance because of increased body roll.
The Rubicon’s electronic disconnect isn’t perfect. You have to be on relatively flat ground to use it and it can also get damaged by rocks and/or water. I don’t consider it a major feature or reason to buy a Rubicon, but it is a nice touch.
High Clearance Fenders
You can put 35″ tires on a Rubicon without a lift. Although the suspension sits a bit higher, much of the room for larger tires come from the high-clearance fenders. In general, you can use a 2 inch taller tire on a Rubicon when compared to a similarly equipped a Sport or Sahara. A stock Rubicon can fit 35’s, a stock Sahara or Sport can only fit 33’s. A Rubicon lifted as little as 2 inches, can easily accommodate 37″ tires. A Wrangler Sport, Sahara, etc. with factory fenders, will require at least 3 inches of lift for 37’s.
Can’t you just lift the vehicle an extra inch to get the clearance?
Even if you plan on a fairly expensive, “complete” lift kit, which addresses all the “lifted-geometry” concerns, a low center of gravity (COG) is preferable. This is why so many people are using fender chop kits or buying aftermarket “high-clearance” fenders. If you plan on changing the fenders anyway, your “take-off” Rubicon fenders can fetch a pretty good price.
This is very important to understand. When you lift a vehicle, the steering and suspension geometry change This changes the way the Jeep drives and “feels” on the road.. Once you go above 2 inches of lift, the negative effects on handling, comfort and overall drivability become apparent. On a Wrangler JL or Gladiator JT, this is when control arms, track bars and high-steer kits start getting discussed.
4.10:1 Gear Ratio (non-392 or Diesel)
If you are planning on 35″ tires, although not be ideal, the Rubicon’s 4.10:1 axle gear ratio is a lot better than 3.45:1 found in base models. If you were re-gearing a non-Rubicon for 35’s, I’d recommend 4.56 gears, but most people with 4.10’s and 35’s are happy.
If you plan on 37″ or larger tires, 4.10’s are better than 3.45’s, but you will notice loss of power and you won’t see your top gear(s) as much.
Power Dome Hood
Mainly for looks, the Mopar Power Dome hood was first seen on the 10th Anniversary Rubicon in the 2013 model year. Since then, many “Special Edition” JK Rubicons have been produced with this unique hood, from the Rubicon X, to the Hard Rock and Recon.
Starting with the 2018 JL, all Rubicons come standard with it. It may not be something you would care about if it didn’t come with it, but it is a great looking hood.
Wheels, Tires & Suspension
Even if you plan on lifting it and not using the factory wheels and/or tires, there is still value in them. The factory wheels can be used with tires up to 37″. If you have your heart set on different wheels/tires immediately, “take-off” sets go for well over $1,000 with little or no miles on them. You can even get a hundred bucks for the suspension from a non-Rubicon owner.
Unfortunately, there is not really a market for the parts taken off base model Wranglers.
Would it be Cheaper to Start with a Sport or Sahara?
That Depends… How far are you taking this build?
If you already know that “Tons” and an Atlas Transfer Case are in your future, a Rubicon may not be the most economical place to start. If you don’t know what those are, just forget I mentioned them, I’ll cover those in another post.
If you are new to Jeeps, but would like to do some trails, I would strongly consider a Rubicon. If you have friends with Jeeps ask them about lockers. It’s likely you will be doing trails with them and they would know if you would be better off with lockers from the start.
If you are planning on 37″(or larger) tires and ever plan on taking it off-road, consider a Rubicon. There is always a guy on Facebook with 40″ tires on his Dana 30 Sport axles that wheels hard and never broke a thing, this is not the norm. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but the odds are against it.
If you will ever take your Jeep to a place where it might start spinning a wheel, consider a Rubicon. This is for a different reason than lockers, axle strength. Although its is not the only way to break axles, it is certainly one of the most common. When a 100 pound wheel/tire gets spinning, there is a lot of momentum, which increases exponentially with weight. Rubicon axles are considerably stronger than other models, except the Gladiator Mojave. There are even differences between between Rubicon and non-Rubicon Dana 44’s, beside the lockers.
If you are absolutely positive that you will never take your Jeep anywhere you might get stuck and going with tires 37″ or less, a Sport or Sahara might be a better option, as you will be able to get more creature comforts for the money. I know that is a very generic statement, as it is meant to be. Obviously, you wouldn’t take it somewhere that you know that you will get stuck (unless you have a reason), but that is the point. It’s better to have lockers and not need them, then to need lockers and not have them. Same applies when breaking an axle because of larger tires, you don’t know that you need stronger axles until you actually need them.
Here are a couple things to consider…
Rubicon “Take-Offs” are valuable
The internet is full of fellow Jeepers looking to buy/sell/swap parts. There are Sport owners looking for the extra clearance Rubicon Fenders provide. There are TJ/LJ Owners looking for JL Rubicon Take-Off Wheels & Tires for their rig. The Rubicon Take-Off axles alone can be sold for the $5,000 difference in price. On the other hand, there is no market for non-Rubicon Take-Off Axles or other non-Rubicon parts.
Rubicon’s hold their Re-sale value
Just look at the prices of used Jeeps, especially Rubicon’s. Don’t get me wrong, other models do hold their value, but not always for the same reasons. If you plan on leaving your new Jeep “stock” and not put too many miles on it, it will attract a different type of Jeep buyer in the used market. Just look at the price of an “un-molested”, rust-free, 2003-2006 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon with under 100K miles on it. Now price a 2004-2006 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon! When someone starts to build a serious project Jeep, they know exactly what they want to start with. If they really want a Rubicon, they’ll pay top dollar for one.
Jeeps can be addictive
From my experience, most Jeeps “grow” during the time of ownership. Two years after it gets a lift and 35 inch tires, 37’s are being considered. They also grow in their skill level. The 37 inch tires are being considered because the trails they are going on are getting harder.