Benchmark of Excellence: Jeep Wrangler JL Aftermarket

Benchmark of Excellence: Jeep Wrangler JL Aftermarket

Rugged Ridge Spartacus Bumper

Story by Stefanie Galeano-Zalutko

The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club.

And for the longest time, Jeep didn’t utter a word about its highly-anticipated JL release. Sure, seven-slot nation ventured a guess and even made a few intelligent inferences, but the badge kept production details hush…until the 2017 LA Auto Show, that is.

Wrangler’s cult-like following made but a single request: don’t screw it up. Doing so would only ensure that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” said Car and Driver. Spoiler alert: screw it up, they didn’t. In fact, despite the updated body style being a distant relative to the original Wrangler, the JL “is a carefully considered improvement, if not a wholesale rethink of the family jewel,” continued Car and Driver.

If anything, production of the JL proved the Wrangler’s most challenging obstacle wasn’t a sticking point of capability—true believers knew that even bone-stock trim would still traverse the harshest terrains with practical poise, surgical precision, and reliable performance. On the contrary, like the tale of Edward Norton and Tyler Durden of Fight Club, the Wrangler was, and really always will be, at battle with itself. “It is the spiritual centre of the brand. It’s the icon that lends credibility to the company in the same way that the 911 does to Porsche,” explained Car and Driver.

That’s quite the legacy to live up to with each passing generation. And so, the best way to simmer outside pressures in this situation is to keep primary features “purposefully familiar” as Car and Driver noted, like stable exterior styling, an open-to-the-elements experience, and highly-customizable platform. Instead, the focus shifted to incalculable hours sweating the fine details.

In this sense, there’s little separation between the automaker and aftermarket kings like Fab Fours that, much like Jeep, have nothing to prove when it comes to brand recognition and everything to gain from breathing new life into a bestseller. Remove the infamous steel stamp on its product line and consumers know it’s Fab Fours—that’s the kind of success manufacturers toil their entire existence to achieve, and this South Carolina based biz did it in a decade.


Rubicon Express 2.0 Lift Kit

A Promise of Greatness and Exclusivity

Fab Fours, which markets approximately 65 part numbers, made a vow to its loyal customer base that it would build upon the success of the JK but only carry over the best-of-the-best to the new-generation Wrangler. And in doing so, those parts would have to be reinvented in some brilliant way because for Fab Fours, the biggest insult is to resemble anything or anyone else.

What’s in store for the upcoming JL, you ask? A Grumper, ViCowl, and modular flare system that is fully integrated, spanning a six-foot area that owner and CEO Greg Higgs calls his canvas. When asked how complex of a manufacturing process it is and if the decision took the group outside of its comfort zone, he smiled and replied in genuine Higgs fashion. “This fully-integrated system is absolutely super complex and right in my comfort zone. This is exactly where I want to be and what I want to do. [Standing out], that’s what Fab Fours is all about. Take this [Keystone BIG] show, SEMA, or any other event… who is doing something truly new, special, different?” Without dispute, Fab Fours wins the award for living on the fringe.

Better yet, company front man Higgs remains steadfast in his promise. “The feedback has been 100-percent positive and so I’m ready for that question: when will you have it for the JK? My answer, never. Not going to happen. Of course, we could—that would be easy. But it’s not how we roll. We know our customers and they want the newest, biggest, and very best. The last thing I want to do is make all the JLs look like JKs,” continued Higgs.

A trained eye immediately recognizes the small details that distinguish the JL from the JK, but to everyone else, it’s easy for the next gen to blend with its predecessor. “If you see this full-width integrated system wrapped around the front of a Wrangler, now you know it’s a JL,” Higgs articulated.


Not the only Master of His Kingdom

But Fab Fours isn’t the only name muscling the JL space. Rugged Ridge is another influential brand that’s no stranger to the Jeep scene, with its vast selection of accessories such as LED configurations for enthusiasts who want a brighter path. Now available for the JL are Rugged Ridge’s wildly popular Spartacus Bumper, Drakon wheels, Elite antenna base and fire extinguisher holder, and a variety of smaller add-ons like aluminum hood catches and grab handles.

How could we forget “the desire to run bigger tires and wheels as the driving force behind the sale of lift kits, and the 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL is sure to be a popular platform for suspension upgrades,” said Kris Lavery, contributing writer for The Engine Block. Dennis Wood of Teraflex drove the JL Rubicon in its stock form for a few days, just to get a proper baseline for suspension testing. “My initial reaction was one of surprise. I’ve been through several new JKs and each of the Jeeps in stock configuration drove so mushy. They had so much body roll and head toss that I wondered how they ever left the factory. The JL has an out of the box, surprisingly firm, and stable feel to it. Spring rate, shock mounting, and tuning are big factors, as well as some very noticeable roll centre improvements,” commented Wood.

The aftermarket wouldn’t be the aftermarket without a goal of continuous improvement. Like the garage rat that just can’t stop tinkering, Teraflex and a number of other suspension companies are eager to sink their teeth into the JL. “TeraFlex and Falcon shocks are pouring man hours into the development of numerous JL accessories and enhancements. The JK’s most popular lift system has always been the 2-3.5-in. suspension, and the JL will follow suit,” said Wood.

For those fortunate enough to attend Easter Jeep Safari, an annual Jeepers paradise in Moab, Utah, perhaps the new Rubicon Express 2.0 lift kit caught your attention. “[Rubicon Express] recognizes that FCA got it right with the new JL, so the best way to get larger tires underneath your new Wrangler is with a spacer lift,” said Lavery. “Coil Spacers added to the new JL in this 2-in. JL lift kit from Rubicon Express give nice stance and clearance for 35-in. Tires.”

On the performance side, longtime first-to-market leader Magnaflow made sure there’s an exhaust system option for each individual preference. “The JL has been a long time coming. I think people are really excited about the new features and, likewise, we’re really excited to get those Jeeps on the trail or heading down the street,” said Kathryn Reinhardt, Marketing Manager at Magnaflow. “We have something for everyone, from rock crawler and off-road pro series applications to street (developed for those with getting from A-B in mind.) Applications cover cat-back and axle-back options, with stainless steel and black finishes,” added Reinhardt.

Jeep fans demand the same benchmark of excellence from their aftermarket picks as they do from the vehicle platform itself. Such early-to-market goodies only confirm that the JL and its faithful aftermarket supporters will hit yet another home run.

Categories: Features, Off-Road Plus