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Just a quick note for those of you who, like me, prefer to keep your equipment looking good as well as performing properly. The other day I needed to polish the lovely English-made brass bell on the Thorn Nomad, and remembered to dig out the Simichrome polish. This stuff has been around for ages, but there's still nothing to beat it for shining up virtually anything that should be shiny, from bicycle accessories to chrome bumpers. Just look at the mirror finish on the bell:

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The JL Wrangler Part 2: Rubicon

Scuffing tires on the demo course. Matt Scott photo.

Scuffing tires on the demo course. Matt Scott photo.

I wonder if any of the corporate liability attorneys who signed off on the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon’s front and rear diff locks, anti-roll-bar disconnect, 4:1 transfer case, and 77:1 crawl ratio were ever given a demonstration of the vehicle’s capabilities.

Probably not. “Oh, those modifications? They, um, just help traction. You know, to enhance safety,” the engineers told them, winking broadly at each other. 

And in a very real sense the engineers were telling the truth—it’s just that they were referring to traction on, say, a 30-degree hillclimb studded with boulders the size of engine blocks. Which is where I found myself, with FCA’s Scott Brown in the passenger seat, in an arrest-me-if-you-can-follow-me-red two-door Rubicon, top removed and windshield folded down. The eight-speed auto box was manually selected to first in low range, anti-roll bar disconnected, and both diffs locked. I noted with approval that (along with the anti-roll bar switch) the JL’s diff-lock selector has been moved to the center of the dash for easy access (in a bright red escutcheon to boot), and hugely simplified from the JK’s: Push down for rear lock, up for front and rear. Amazingly, the new electrohydraulic power steering gave me zero indication that the front wheels were rigidly joined; normally a locked front diff firms up even power steering noticeably.

Much-simplified diff-lock control. "Sway bar" button disconects front anti-roll-bar.

Much-simplified diff-lock control. "Sway bar" button disconects front anti-roll-bar.

Through the windshield there was a lot of blue Arizona sky, and spotter Jim Horne’s arms motioning me straight up, and up, and then left across the boulders. Scott and I transitioned from being pressed into our seats to being pressed, respectively, against the center console and driver’s door. The side/down slope was enough to make Scott give a little whoop of excitement, and for me to appreciate the integrated roll cage surrounding us. The Jeep, of course, was loafing, idling in that 77:1 crawl ratio at half walking speed, each BFG All-Terrain tenaciously gripping granite (the techs hadn’t even bothered to air them down). A turn right back towards the sky, a pause while Jim wedged an extra rock under the left rear tire, then we were over, and being waved on to the next obstacle by the next spotter. (That particular hill would shortly be closed down for rebuilding after another journalist repeatedly applying too much throttle while ignoring instructions managed to send a bunch of those engine blocks tumbling down the slope.)

Jim Horne guides a Rubicon Unlimited up the hill.

Jim Horne guides a Rubicon Unlimited up the hill.

The JL Sahara Matt Scott and I had driven to get to the staging area had impressed me with its capability, and driver-independent traction-control systems are getting better with each generation. But the Rubicon is in a different universe. Even the best ABS-based traction control can’t match the ability to manually lock one or both axle differentials in advance of a limited-traction situation. Flip that center toggle switch upward in the Rubicon and you have Four. Wheel. Drive. Period. Combine that with the disconnectable front anti-roll bar, which hugely increases compliance—and comfort—on a rough trail, and a crawl ratio slow enough to let you watch cactus grow on your way past, plus excellent approach and departure angles (44º and 37º), standard BFG All-Terrains, etc. etc., and you have a vehicle unmatched by anything in its class in terms of backcountry capability—either in the U.S. or the rest of the world.

That much capability necessitates a strong foundation to withstand the stresses involved in powering a 4,300-pound vehicle up a torturous slope. While the JK Rubicon was more than up to the task, the JL raises the bar. The fully boxed chassis now employs 80 percent high-strength steel, with five boxed crossmembers. Torsional rigidity is up by 18 percent, yet, the factory claims, weight is down by 100 pounds. The next-generation Dana 44 axles have been improved as well: The front axle tubes are 10 percent larger in diameter, 14 percent thicker, and twice as strong as the previous versions. End forgings on the Rubicon are 11 percent stronger. Components no driver could ever notice have been studied, critiqued, and tweaked.

FCA's Scott Brown rides along. Matt Scott photo.

FCA's Scott Brown rides along. Matt Scott photo.

FCA’s introduction and their excellent driving course left little doubt that the JL Rubicon is everything the JK Rubicon was, and more. (Some might see the move from BFG Mud-Terrains to All-Terrains as a retrograde step, but it’s not. In a majority of situations not involving mud, ATs are the equal of if not superior to MTs. And the new tires certainly help reduce road noise, and definitely bump fuel economy.) So the Rubicon’s bona fides for competency in extremely rugged terrain remain unmatched by anything in its class. If you’re looking for a vehicle that can serve as a perfectly comfortable daily driver, then be nearly invincible for weekend explorations of any trail you have the skill to drive, it remains the icon.

The question is: If I were considering a Wrangler as an overlanding vehicle—that is, for long-distance, self-sufficient travel on a mixture of paved and dirt roads, with four-wheel drive sections definitely in the mix but little emphasis on difficult passages unless they were unavoidable due to route or weather—and if my funds were not bottomless, which way would I go? I evaluated two approaches, both of them the Unlimited (four-door) body style:

  1. Go basic and order a Wrangler Sport with suitable options. On FCA’s new Wrangler build site I specced a Sport with the same Pentastar V6 and excellent ZF eight-speed automatic transmission as the Rubicon, the standard black hardtop, Anti-Spin rear diff, all-terrain tires, and a few other relevant bits such as heavy duty electrics (240-amp alternator, 700-amp battery), etc., for $36,305. It would have the simple Command-Trac part-time four-wheel-drive transfer case with ABS-based traction control (which Jeep refers to as a differential brake). To be honest, this system is capable of handling 99 percent of the terrain I have experienced on extended journeys in South America, Australia, and Africa, even completely off-tracks forays into Egypt’s sand seas. (The Anti-Spin diff is designed to seamlessly handle slight differences in cross-axle traction; the more intrusive ABS- based traction control kicks in for more extreme variations.) Jeep lists the cargo capacity if the Sport at a middling 1,000 pounds, not including the driver. (One of the few disappointments of the JL redesign is the lack of a heavier GVWR option. I wonder if the upcoming pickup version will raise this.)
  2. Finance a bigger chunk and go for the Rubicon. In addition to the drivetrain and suspension features—4:1 transfer case, electric locking differentials front and rear, driver disconnectable front anti-roll bar, 4:11 diff ratios—the Rubicon boasts other standard features not available on the Sport: premium seats, an AC power outlet, a seven-inch touch screen, power heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, plus several premium options. I went through its build list, not going crazy with leather upholstery or any similar spurious extras, but nevertheless equipping it more upscale than the Sport, and came to $48,090. (I could easily have added another $4,000-$5,000 in bling.) Cargo capacity of the Rubicon is even less than the Sport—890 pounds.

Despite the slightly higher GVWR of the Sport, I’m pretty sure that for either vehicle I’d want heavier-duty rear springs and shocks if I planned on traveling with a passenger and a full load of equipment, food, and water. Even a load nearing but not surpassing the factory limit would depress the stock rear springs enough to upset the ride height and headlamp alignment. So that modification would cost about the same for either vehicle. Otherwise, what does one get for the extra $12,000 of the Rubicon besides—let’s not diminish this—the knowledge that anywhere in the world you traveled you would be able to tackle the toughest routes passable by any stock vehicle? 

One answer worth considering lies in those next-generation Dana 44 axles, a significant step up in strength and durability from those fitted to the Sport. Note: I absolutely do not think the Sport is under-equipped in that category (as long as you don’t try to cram stupidly oversized tires on it), but the overwhelming priority for an overland vehicle is reliability and durability, and there is no doubt that the Dana 44s would optimize that in a Wrangler. 

On the other hand, the higher (i.e. numerically lower) final drive ratio of the Sport—3.45 vs. 4.10—might make for slightly more relaxed freeway cruising at the expense of low-range crawling. However, with the eight-speed auto transmission on each, and taller tires of the Rubicon, I’m not sure how noticeable this will be, and I did not have a chance to directly compare the two, as I only had access to the Rubicon in the dirt. 

Of course the extra comfort (I wouldn’t classify them as “luxury”) items standard or available on the Rubicon would make traveling a bit more relaxing.

In the end—and I hope this doesn’t sound like a copout—I would buy the Rubicon if I had the funds, and be completely happy with the Sport if I did not. In fact, I’d leave for a trans-Africa trip in either with no hesitation.

Remembering to pack carefully, of course. 

Thanks for the photos, Matt!

Thanks for the photos, Matt!

Testing the (all new?) Jeep Wrangler JL


As the owner of an FJ40 Land Cruiser in the 1980s, my attitude toward its Jeep corollaries—then the shorter-than-FJ40 CJ-5 and longer-than-FJ40 CJ-7—was one of arch superiority. 

And with good reason. Those Jeep models were competent backcountry vehicles, but prone to numerous problems. The CJ’s undersized two-piece axle shafts were notorious for breaking, if the axle tubes themselves didn’t bend first. Frames cracked around the steering box, crossmembers, and suspension mounts frequently enough to spawn a host of aftermarket reinforcement bits. The suspension itself looked toylike alongside the mighty leaf springs on the Land Cruiser. Other issues—pitman arms, steering shaft couplers, power-steering box mounts—were well-known among owners, even if they didn’t admit them during trailside debates with drivers of foreign competitors.

In 1986 the YJ was introduced, with a better frame and beefier suspension. But the new track bars, added to increase on-road stability, could tear off at their mounts under hard trail use, and many owners simply ditched them. The Central Axle Disconnect (CAD) system proved troublesome as well. And then there were those ghastly rectangular headlamps, which made the YJ look right at home parked next to a 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo . . .

This just ain't right (Chrysler image)

This just ain't right (Chrysler image)

Thankfully, with the 1997 TJ Chrysler returned to the round headlamps God intended for Wranglers—and, in a move that made this Toyota driver take notice, installed supple all-coil suspension (although this came more than a decade after Land Rover had done the same on the Defender). When the Rubicon Edition appeared in 2002, with Dana 44 axles, front and rear diff locks, and a 4:1 transfer case, owners of FJ40s (and Tacomas, and Pathfinders, and . . .) suddenly found pressing household chores that needed doing when asked out on trail runs by friends eager to show off their new ride.

Then came the JK and, critically, its 116-inch-wheelbase, four-door Unlimited version. In 2009-2010 I spent a year with a review Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, during which I covered slightly over 35,000 completely trouble-free miles. I was less than impressed with the 3.8-liter V6, which offered neither a surfeit of power nor impressive fuel economy. The vehicle’s cargo capacity and GVWR were also underwhelming. Other than those gripes, I found the Wrangler to be . . . extraordinary. Here, at last, I thought and wrote, was an American vehicle fit to pit itself against the best expedition machines on the planet—the Land Rover Defender, the Land Cruiser 70-series Troop Carrier, the Mercedes G-Wagen. A couple of years ago I tested another Rubicon Unlimited, this time with the vastly improved 3.6-liter Pentastar engine and five-speed automatic transmission. In low range, with the front anti-roll bar (not “sway bar,” as the button incorrectly claims) disconnected, and both diffs locked, it would traverse terrain I would never have dreamed of tackling in the FJ40—or even in a late and lamented 80-series Land Cruiser with its own diff locks but inferior crawl ratio and no anti-roll bar disconnect. Around the same time, Tom Sheppard and I included the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited in the fourth edition of the Vehicle-dependent Expedition Guide, in a four-vehicle comparison chart of what we considered the best choices for long-distance backcountry travel. 

When FCA confirmed that it was working on a redesign of the JK Wrangler, those trolls who love to make others as unhappy as they are began flooding the forums with the worst sorts of fake news. It was “confirmed” that the new Wrangler would have independent front suspension, abandoning the sturdy solid axle. Then it was confidently announced that the new vehicle would have all-independent suspension, and furthermore that the separate, fully-boxed chassis would be swapped for unibody construction. It was by then actually known for a fact that the new Land Rover Defender, due out in 2018 or 2019, would follow the unibody/IFS/IRS template, so it took little for Wrangler fans to begin pre-emptively drinking heavily in dread anticipation. 

Perhaps in an altruistic attempt to stem a rising tide of alcoholism among loyal customers, FCA initiated a studiously rationed trickle of leaked specifications, and photos of test mules “disguised” with little more than a few cardboard panels. Slowly, as these circulated, sighs of relief could be noted in those fan threads. Clearly the new Wrangler would still ride on solid axles. The body still sat on a separate chassis. The sun would still rise in the east.

Okay. But what about changes? Improvements? This was, after all, the first redesign of an iconic model in ten years, yet at a glance the vehicle looked virtually indistinguishable from its parent. The windshield appeared to be a little more raked, indicating improved aerodynamics and suggesting to the cognoscenti that the traditional fold-down capability (originally designed into the WWII Willys MB simply so it could be crated) was probably deleted. No big deal as the procedure in the JK was such a monumental pain no one did it anyway, even for fun-in-the-sun beach drives. The seven-slot grille was still in place—not even the leisure-suited and blow-dried designers responsible for the YJ’s headlamps had messed with that—but it, too, seemed to have gained some slope. Other than that it was difficult to detect many differences.

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Thus, both diehard fans and newer converts such as myself were at the same time relieved that FCA had not messed with the basic recipe of the Wrangler, and curious as to how they would justify the label of “new” rather than simply “updated.” 

Sitting in the press introduction at Tucson’s swank Dove Mountain Ritz Carlton, and listening while Mark Allen, Ryan Patrick Joyce, Dave Bustamonte, and Brian Lee discussed their respective roles in the design of the new Wrangler, I began to understand. Whether describing something as routine as the layout of the dash, or as critical as the construction of the chassis, there was a remarkable sense of assurance in the team, a confidence that the basic design and look of the Wrangler was in no need of spurious marketing-driven change for the sake of change. Not once did I hear anyone use the phrase, “Dynamic styling touches,” or, “Bold new lines.” Instead I was informed that:

  • The chassis—still fully boxed of course (listening, Toyota?)—now comprises 80 percent high-strength steel. It is 18 percent more torsionally rigid than the previous chassis, yet lighter.
  • The hood, doors, hinges, and windshield frame are now made from aluminum. The rear swing gate frame is magnesium. Overall weight savings is claimed to be 200 pounds on the Unlimited.
  • The already stout Dana 44 axles have been further strengthened. Crawl ratio on the Rubicon is now 77:1 with the auto transmission, and an astounding 84:1 with the manual.
  • Despite (or because of) a 2.4-inch longer wheelbase, the Rubicon Unlimited has improved approach and departure angles. Even the ramp breakover is said to be improved. Fording depth is an excellent 30 inches.
  • Despite the longer wheelbase, the turning circle has been shortened by a foot. Electro-hydraulic steering is now standard.
  • An optional front bumper is winch-compatible and has removeable side sections to enhance clearance.
  • Not only does the windshield still fold, it now does so by removing only four bolts, and actually folds flatter than the JK’s to enhance visibility. Additionally, the optional Sky One-Touch powertop opens the entire roof at the touch of a button.

There was more—much more. But see what I mean? A huge majority of the changes to the Wrangler—which in the amalgam certainly warrant the term “all-new”—are invisible on a cursory inspection. Even the actual external styling updates—which lower the Wrangler’s drag coefficient by nine percent—could easily be missed when a new Wrangler drives past you in the opposite direction.

After the introduction, FCA first sent us on a 15-20-mile road trip in a mixture of Sport and Sahara models, some with the carried-over 285-hp/260-lb-ft 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 (now with stop/start technology), some with the new and intriguing 2.0-liter, 270-hp/290-lb-ft turbocharged four-cylinder “mild” hybrid. The latter has what looks like a massive alternator mounted low on the passenger side of the engine, connected to the crank via a serious-looking belt. It powers a 48-volt system that returns power to the crank at low speeds (thus essentially eliminating turbo lag), and incorporates regenerative braking. This engine will actually be an extra-cost option, and whether that flies with American buyers, who traditionally view the larger engine as the premium choice, will probably depend almost entirely on its fuel economy numbers, which have not yet been released. In terms of power the consensus among the journalists who tried it was that it felt a bit stronger at low RPM than the V6—an impressive performance. Personally I have long argued that a four-wheel-drive vehicle’s engine should produce more torque than horsepower, so three cheers there. Transmissions include a six-speed manual and an eight-speed auto.

(It was also confirmed that a turbodiesel engine is on the way, but not until late in 2018. Damn. But Oh boy.)

I teamed with Matt Scott (U.S. distributor of MaxTrax in his off-journalist hours) for the on-road drive, on a mix of freeway, two-lane, and dirt roads. I felt immediately familiar and comfortable in the driver’s seat; Matt, however, who is six-something and long-torsoed, had to adjust the passenger seat carefully to avoid interference between the roll cage and the back of his head. But I have no sympathy for tall people. I liked the simple horizontal orientation of the major instruments and vents on the dash, and the manual as opposed to touch-screen adjustments for the climate control. Our Sahara model had the smaller display screen (they vary depending on model and options from five up to 8.4 inches), but it was still legible. I was pleased to note some rudimentary insulative fabric panels in the fiberglass roof. The ’09 had none, and would fry one’s hair driven in 110º southern Arizona weather. I was disappointed to find the window controls remain in the center binnacle rather than on the doors—in a year I never got used to that.

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All the interior materials seemed absolutely first-rate and suitable for the Wrangler's intended use. The stitching is real, not stamped, and all the controls operate deliberately, indicating you could still use them confidently on a rough road. The seats are supportive, the steering wheel is comfortable, and the major instruments visible, including the screen between the speedometer and tach, which scrolls through a wide range of functions, including tire pressure and a "tilt-o-meter," as my wife refers to them derisively.

One of the Wrangler's glaring disadvantages in comparison with other iconic expedition vehicles has been cargo volume and GVWR. Looking at the rear of the new one, the space appeared no larger but seemed more square, which is an improvement. Thankfully the goofy floor-mounted speaker is gone, although its vertically oriented replacement is larger in diameter and still intrudes on precious cargo space. A welcome addition is the brace of tie-down tracks to secure gear; however, they are inset so far toward the center of the space—and that minimal space will be so packed with stuff—that usability when loaded for a long trip will be questionable. For a traveling couple who can lower the back seat (which folds flat), the cargo situation improves significantly as volume goes from 31 to 70 cubic feet, but for a family of four it's going to be tight. 

Also problematic is the load capacity.  The Sahara lists 1,187 pounds including passengers, etc., but the Rubicon Unlimited (the natural choice for an extended journey in dubious terrain) allows just 900. While your friends with Land Cruiser Troopies, Land Rover Defenders, and Mercedes G-Wagens are tossing in fridges, chuck boxes, and oversized sleeping bags with running deer on the lining, you'll be packing very carefully indeed. (Given the identical chassis, brakes, etc. between the Sahara and Rubicon, I suspect the lower figure for the Rubicon has to do with the spring/shock rates and concern about the effects when the anti-roll bar is disconnected, so as an owner I wouldn't hesitate to upgrade the rear springs and shocks and use the higher limit. But you're still well below the ton or so allowed in the others.)


So—on the road? I’m always amused by the journalists who wave the flag to have the Wrangler cleave to body-on-frame construction and solid axles, then purse their lips and remark on the “harsh” or “unforgiving” ride quality. Really? Do they complain because a Carrera 4S doesn’t deliver the fuel economy of a Prius? Or because a Prius lacks the cargo capacity of a Suburban? “Horses for courses,” as the saying goes. If you want a body-on-frame 4WD vehicle with solid axles built to withstand extended use in the backcountry, it’s going to ride like a body-on-frame vehicle with solid axles. Even the original Range Rover, imbued by the wizards in Solihull with perhaps the best ride ever coaxed from the arrangement, only rode superbly within that context. When Land Rover decided to tilt the platform toward on-road comfort, they went unibody and all-independent suspension. 

In fact the Sahara rides very well. The body structure feels vaultlike no matter what the surface, and the all-coil suspension does a fine job of harnessing the considerable unsprung weight of the solid axles. The single significant fault I found with the ride of my long-term ’09 was severe sideways head toss from bumps or washboard (corrugations) on only one side of the vehicle. We didn’t find a similar surface to try on this drive so I’m not sure if that’s been addressed. But having put in a couple of 800-mile days in Wranglers, I have zero complaints about on-road comfort.

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After a short 80mph freeway blast, we swapped drivers. (Those same journalists who whinge about the ride also praise the Wrangler’s staunch foursquare looks, then complain about wind noise. Seriously? Come ride in my FJ40 if you want to hear wind noise.) Matt took us through Saguaro National Park West and onto a dirt road marked on our route. We were curious about the Selec-Trac full-time four-wheel-drive transfer case. In its automatic mode, it is biased toward rear-wheel drive, but can direct more power to the front wheels as needed when slip is detected. Matt decided to give it a quick test, and came to a stop, then buried the gas pedal. The Jeep surged ahead with no sign we could detect of momentary rear-drive fishtailing or a noticeable shift of traction to the front. Interesting. (When shifted to low range, the Selec-Trac transfer case locks so you always have power evenly divided between front and rear wheels.)

A short section of washboard failed to upset the Sahara’s aplomb, and the street-oriented tires (and Selec-Trac) had no problem when we were directed off the dirt road and onto a twisted and steep trail leading into the heart of the Tortolita Mountains. In a clearing among the saguaros we found a raised lunch platform, an expansive buffet—and a line of Wrangler Rubicons. 

To be continued . . . 

Trust your spotter (if you trust your spotter)

Jim Horne guides a 2018 Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited up the demo course climb.

Jim Horne guides a 2018 Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited up the demo course climb.

At the recent press launch of the new Jeep Wrangler JL, the organizers laid out an excellent driving course for the Rubicons to show off their capability, which is likely unmatched by any production four-wheel-drive vehicle on the planet. The course, in the rocks and hills of the Tortolita Mountains outside Tucson, included several challenging sections, and in particular one climb up a boulder-strewn hill that had several experienced journalists in the driver’s seats saying incredulously, “I’m going up that?” 

At each section, spotters (or “marshallers” if you’re from outside the U.S.) were positioned to guide each vehicle through the dicey bits. It seems reasonable to assume that FCA would have made sure these guys knew what they were doing, right? And they did—those who watched them and followed their hand signals and guidance invariably made it through each section handily. But several drivers were apparently so freaked out by the boulder hill (or else so arrogant they assumed they didn’t need marshalling) that they took their eyes off the spotter and ignored hand signals to turn and shouted commands to slow down, fooling themselves into thinking that large applications of throttle were the only way they could get up that hill. As a result, a few wound up perched in precarious positions, having spat out rocks they could have crawled over, which required the spotters to crawl under the vehicles to reposition them. Finally a single driver managed to eject enough calf-sized boulders that the hill had to be shut down for the day to be rebuilt.

It’s axiomatic that a person standing in front of your vehicle has a much better view of where the front wheels are going than you do, no matter how experienced you are. (It’s also axiomatic that if he has already guided a couple dozen vehicles across the obstacle, he pretty much knows how to help you nail it the first time.) In situations where you must place your tires precisely to negotiate obstacles, a spotter is invaluable, as is a clear prior understanding of the visual commands to be given. Then, once you are committed to the line, you keep your eyes on the spotter, not over or around your hood where you won’t see anything of use anyway.

However, the corollary is, your spotter must know what he or she is doing, or the guidance could be worse than none at all. If you’re on a trail and come across a group negotiating an obstacle, and their spotter motions you forward, you’d be wise not to place your safety and the integrity of your vehicle in his hands until you’ve watched him guide others through and are satisfied of his skill. Also critical to spotting is that only one person should be doing it. If that same group has three or four people shouting and gesticulating at each driver, stay away. 

If you are the marshaler, you have a responsibility to the driver to issue unmistakable instructions, and when possible they should be visual rather than vocal, as voices can be masked by engine and trail noise. Large movements with an arm and hand to indicate direction are better than small ones with a finger. Avoid confusing signals such as motioning “left” with your right arm arcing over your head or across your body. A closed fist or fists held up universally indicate “stop.” You can wave a driver forward and motion direction at the same time if necessary. 

If close-up vocal commands for turning are necessary through the driver’s window, many experienced marshallers use “driver” and “passenger” to indicate, respectively, left or right. This is fine as long as you are in the U.S. with a left-hand-drive vehicle. However, I spend a lot of time in right-hand-drive countries (and own a right-hand-drive Land Rover here), so I prefer to use simple “right” and left” to indicate direction. The trick here is that if you are facing the driver it is your responsibility to make sure you indicate his or her right or left, not your own.

It’s also the responsibility of the spotter to make sure he can be seen by the driver. If you are spotting and can’t see the windshield of the vehicle you’re guiding, the driver cannot see you.


Roof racks . . .

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I can tell you the exact moment I decided that roof racks on four-wheel-drive vehicles should be, 1) left off if possible, and, 2) loaded as lightly as feasible if not.

I had to ferry a cased, rigid-floor 14-foot Zodiac inflatable and a Yamaha outboard motor to a research station in Mexico from Tucson, using my 1973 FJ40. Neither boat nor motor would fit inside, so I decided to strap them on the roof rack—where, I noted with satisfaction, they looked purposeful and very, very stylish. Thus with almost exactly 500 pounds of equipment—in addition to the 100 pounds of my reinforced Con-Ferr rack—secured seven feet above my 90-inch wheelbase, I headed south. And all went perfectly well—until, on the apex of a blind right-hand curve, I discovered a very slow-moving cow in my lane. 

Having successfully circumvented that cow—and with the Land Cruiser back on all four wheels—I decided, Okay, this is dumb

It’s natural when you’re just starting out to want your vehicle to look like a proper expedition machine, and to a lot of us that means a roof rack, probably further enhanced with a bank of driving lights, a few NATO jerry cans, those awesome perforated sand tracks, a Hi-Lift jack, a Pelican case or three, and perhaps a roof tent. After all, for our inspiration we have those inspiring images of the Camel Trophy Land Rovers, high-mounted Bosch driving lamps blazing, forging paths through the jungles of Papua New Guinea or the black cotton soil of Tanzania. Those Range Rovers and Defenders and Discoveries remain unsurpassed as the epitome of expedition cool.

Two things are important to remember, however. One, the CT vehicles were navigating remote areas of the planet and overgrown tracks in stunningly bad conditions, and required huge amounts of recovery and survival equipment. Inside the vehicle were always two team members plus at least one journalist, so much kit simply had to go on the roof. And, two, those Land Rovers ended up on their sides very, very frequently in the midst of Special Tasks requiring greater than prudent speeds.

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Any weight above the center of gravity of your vehicle tries its best to tip it over in the midst of an emergency maneuver, or at low speed when tilted on a side slope. And good old Newtonian-esque laws of mass, leverage, and velocity are always conspiring to do their worst. Two hundred pounds of driver sitting a few inches above the CG exerts much less force than 200 pounds of gear sitting a foot above the driver’s head. Excess weight on the roof affects braking as well. When the brakes are applied sharply, the weight on the roof tries to tip the vehicle over forward, unloading the rear tires. Modern ABS systems will prevent rear brake lockup, but braking distance will still be compromised.

So far we’ve only discussed handling and safety. But a roof rack and its load hugely affects windage as well. My FJ40 gets exactly one mile per gallon more without a roof rack than with it mounted. That might not sound like a lot, but the difference between 16mpg and 17 adds up—and this on a vehicle with the drag coefficient of a Motel 6. Imagine the effect on a modern, aerodynamic SUV. 

All well and good. But what if you simply cannot fit all your gear inside the vehicle, because you, a) have a spouse and two kids, or, b) a very small vehicle, or, c) just too damn much stuff? An obvious solution presents itself for (c), but let’s discuss the other situations. If you decide you really need or want a roof rack, it’s smart to go with the lightest one possible that retains the rigidity you need. It also makes sense to go for the lowest profile possible, so that when it’s not loaded with gear it creates the least amount of windage. Front Runner, among other companies, produces low-profile aluminum models that are lightweight but exceptionally sturdy. Then decide if you really need a full-length rack, or if a half-sized rack would suffice, mounted well behind the air flow coming up the windshield. 

As to what to put up there, choose the light but awkward items that take up the most room inside—camp chairs, tables, bedding, for example. How much is too much? It depends on numerous factors, of course, high among them the weight of the vehicle itself. Two hundred pounds on the roof of a Suburban will affect it less than 200 pounds on a RAV4. If you need a rough guide, try to keep the weight of rack and gear to significantly less than five percent of the curb weight of a vehicle with no suspension lift. On a 4,500-pound Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, for example, that would give you enough leeway to mount a Front Runner rack and a two-person roof tent without dangerously affecting the handling—although I guarantee you will feel the difference. 

Then, please skip the Pelican cases and jerry cans, okay? 

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All images courtesy Peter Sweetser, Camel Trophy Owner's Club

Trust . . .

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For the first ten or so years of our marriage, not another human besides me touched the mechanical components of our vehicles. I rebuilt the engine of a BMW 2002 we bought in pieces in boxes; I changed the clutch on our first 2wd Toyota pickup literally in the street in front of our first house; I swapped the engine and transmission in our FJ40; rebuilt the knuckles on our FJ55—many more fairly major jobs besides the gentle but regular tides of normal maintenance.

Mind you, I am most definitely not an expert mechanic. “Competent amateur” would be the highest category with which I’d be willing to label myself. Nevertheless, while we were still in school and then striving to build careers freelance writing, and thus too poor to afford “real” mechanics, I was able to keep our various vehicles mobile.

Things began to change once we started making better money, and changed more quickly once we’d established ourselves as writers, and later when the Overland Expo began to grow so quickly. I found myself in a position in which I actually saved money by taking our vehicles to a mechanic, so that I could continue my main functions in the business. Fortunately, by that time we’d found (and made a dear friend of) a master Toyota mechanic named Bill Lee, someone in whom we could place implicit trust on any mechanical matter. We got to know him as a mechanic at a Toyota dealership, when he rebuilt the engine of the FJ55 we’d just bought that had been traded in. Once he opened his own shop, we didn’t need to think twice when we needed work on the 40 or any of the Toyota pickups we cycled through.

Then the bastard moved. First 250 miles away, then 500, to northern New Mexico. We shipped the FJ40 to him when it was time for a complete powertrain renewal, but for more run of the mill procedures that’s a bit much. So on advice of another friend we took a 2002 Toyota Tacoma Prerunner we had bought for the business to a prominent local shop for a major service. 

Something over $2,000 later it was back (and had me reconsidering whether we were actually saving money with this approach . . .). All seemed well, but several months later we decided the Prerunner was just not the right vehicle for what we needed at the Expo, and sold it to a friend of Bill, who needed a solid truck on which to mount a Four Wheel Camper, but who did not require four wheel drive.

Needless to say, Bill gave the truck another thorough going over with his own critical eye—and sent me an email that was disappointing. Checking over what had been done by the Tucson mechanic, he found a $5 generic PCV valve for which we had been charged the Toyota price ($25.56), and a Toyota part—a window master switch—which lists for $403.20 but for which we paid $535.71, not counting labor. Also, the intake boot, which was rotten and torn and should have been replaced, had been “repaired” by wrapping it with electrical tape. 

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Sigh . . .

Is this what so many vehicle owners have to put up with on a day-to-day basis? Not knowing if your mechanic is trustworthy? I know it’s possible to make an honest living as a mechanic because Bill does so, even in a remote one-horse New Mexican town which is (did I mention this?) 500 miles away from a perfectly decent supply of loyal customers in Tucson.

Trust. Notice that once it has been compromised by a single incident, it is essentially gone? One can be pretty certain that a shop does not overcharge on a factory part just once, or install an aftermarket part and charge a factory price for it just once, or bodge a repair just once. It’s like discovering a lie told you by a friend or business associate. Once you have that proof of duplicity you quite rightfully doubt everything.

Fortunately the diesel mechanic who takes care of our Ford F350 has proven to be not only competent but honest to a fault. But a 50-percent success ratio is nothing to brag about. In the meantime, I wonder if I lodge enough false complaints about Bill Lee on Yelp, he’ll lose business in Farmington and have to move back here?

Decisions . . .


It was getting late in the afternoon of what had been a long day driving down the west coast of Tasmania. We were exhilarated but looking forward to camp, sundowners, and dinner. 

We had two choices. Our map showed a developed campground near Zeehan, just a few minutes away. We’d found these surprisingly nice in Tasmania, with decently spaced sites and good facilities—not bad for a transit stay as we needed. We could be set up and relaxing with plenty of daylight left.

However, the map also showed an intriguing spot on the coast called Trial Harbor, about 25 kilometers down a winding road. But it would add at least an hour to the day, and while our map indicated there was camping available, it gave no further information. We’d have to chance that there would be a spot left. 

How often have many of us faced similar dilemmas? It was a close call, but the coast beckoned, so we turned off the C249 and headed west. The road was convoluted but, at first, surfaced, and it immediately dived into a verdant eucalyptus forest. There was a heart-stopping moment when an echidna ambled out in front of us and the Troopy’s brakes—all disc but still less than superb—barely spared the spiny little thing as it did a slow U-turn and waddled back into the undergrowth. Then we broke out into open hills fringed with massive forests blanketing the slopes. The surface turned to gravel, and with zero opposing traffic we wound our way into shaded ravines and out and up again under fast-moving clouds. 

The detour had already proven its worth, but then we turned a corner, topped a rise, and beheld the Southern Ocean stretched in front of us, surprisingly only 50 meters below. Whitecaps hyphened the sea into distant windblown salt mist—sail west from here and your next landfall would be Tierra del Fuego; head south and only icebergs would prevent you running into Antarctica.

A sparse scattering of red and green prefab houses clustered behind the breakers—we later learned that Trial Harbor boasts 19 permanent residents. But camping? A hand-lettered sign pointed right. We followed it down a muddy single-track through the brush, spray from waves nearly misting the windscreen. And then there were openings, and a few campers: a Troopy with a pop-top remarkably similar to ours, a Mitsubishi Delica van—and a miraculous open space at the very end of the track, out of sight of anyone. The ocean crashed on to a rocky beach one wrong sleepy step below, and—more miracles—a gin-clear brook tumbled out of the hills just over a rise behind us. Incredulous, we raised the Troopy’s roof, staked out the Eezi-Awn Bat awning, and went looking for where to pay. There was nowhere to pay, just a clean outhouse reached via a charming wooden bridge, and another hand-lettered sign directing us to the “Ringing Rock”—an F350-sized boulder on the beach, decorated with ancient circular Aboriginal carvings, and which, when tapped with a small rock, rang like a metallic gong. (We found out later these are called lithophones, and are know from anthropological sites around the world.)

Back at the Troopy, we had a visit from fellow campers, a hilarious couple of gay Australian men in their 60s, who joked about whose turn it was to play “wife” and wash dishes or fetch water. I broke out the rum and mixed Dark’n’Stormies—appropriate given the setting—Roseann grilled the lamb we’d kept frozen from the superb Springbok’s Delight butcher shop in Sydney, and I played “wife” and washed up before we gazed up one last time at the Southern Cross winking in and out of view behind the clouds. The crashing surf became white noise as we drifted off to sleep.

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Before we left next morning, we visited the town’s museum, run by resident Shirley Smith. It was a one-room marvel crammed with photos, memorabilia, and history from Trial Harbor’s early and recent days, along with the occasional curiosity such as the giant sunfish eyeball floating in a jar of formaldehyde. Cost? No cost, just a donation box. We left a lot, then turned the Land Cruiser back up the winding road, taking one last look as the colored houses of Trial Harbor faded into the ocean mist.

The moral of the story? I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now.

Take the road.

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Open diffs, lockers, and traction control

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Many years ago I was exploring a trail in the mountains east of Tucson, Arizona, in my FJ40, and came upon a couple in a shiny new 4x4 Toyota pickup. They had managed to high-center the transmission skid plate on a rock ledge, so that the right front and left rear tires of the truck hung just an inch or two in the air and spun uselessly when the fellow applied throttle. The couple, new to backcountry driving, was bewildered that their “four-wheel-drive” vehicle had been rendered completely immobile by such a minor obstacle, and were convinced something was wrong with the truck. I picked up a fist-sized rock from the side of the trail and kicked it solidly under the hanging rear tire. “Try it now,” I said—and the Toyota bumped free. They were astonished and even more bewildered—until I explained how a differential works.

When any four-wheeled vehicle makes a turn, each wheel needs to rotate at a different speed because it travels a different line than the others, and thus a different distance. If, for example, the two rear wheels were locked together with a solid axle, the tires would scrub horribly every time the vehicle turned, and handling would be affected dangerously. Thus we divide that axle in two and connect them with a differential—a system of gears that transfers power from the driveshaft to the wheels while allowing them to rotate at different speeds in a turn. In a four-wheel-drive vehicle we add another driveshaft and differential at the front, so those wheels can be driven as well.

But an open differential, as this is known, has a major inherent flaw, especially for those of us who own 4x4s: If one tire loses traction, the differential gears, in effect, route all power to that side of the axle. Thus if you stop with one wheel on a solid surface and the other in mud—or hanging in the air—the tire with grip will remain stubbornly motionless while the other just spins. (Technically both wheels are receiving the same amount of torque, but the amount required to spin the low-traction tire is not enough to move the vehicle with the other tire.) So my friends in the Toyota pickup found themselves in a situation in which the power being delivered to the front axle was expended on the tire that was off the ground, while the same thing happened in the rear. Once I stuffed that insignificant rock under the hanging rear tire, the full torque of the engine was available and the truck pulled itself free.

Ironically, the drawbacks of open differentials became more apparent with the advent of so-called full-time four-wheel-drive vehicles such as Land Rover’s Defender. In a part-time 4x4, the front and rear driveshafts are locked together at the transfer case when four wheel drive is engaged, so power is always equally distributed to both axles and therefore to at least one wheel in front and one in back—but you cannot drive on pavement with four-wheel drive engaged or the tires will scrub and the gears will bind. The Defender (along with other vehicles such as the Mercedes Benz G-Wagen) allows engine power to be directed to both ends of the vehicle, regardless of the surface, by employing a third differential in the transfer case to allow the front and rear driveshafts to turn at different speeds on pavement and prevent binding. To ensure equal power to both ends of the vehicle on trails, the center differential can be locked manually. But if that lock fails—as happened to me in a Defender 110 on a remote route up the west wall of Kenya’s Great Rift Valley—you are left with a one-wheel-drive vehicle. When my front axle unloaded on the steep grade, all power went to that axle through the open transfer-case diff, and as soon as one front wheel unloaded I was completely immobilized with a single tire spinning fruitlessly—on a scary 40-percent grade with a steep dropoff. (I was towed the rest of the way up the escarpment when, improbably, a battered Land Cruiser appeared driven by none other than Philip Leakey . . .)

Over the decades, various attempts have been made to allow the differential to function properly in turns while maintaining full traction when needed. Way back in 1932 the engineering firm ZF, at the request of Ferdinand Porsche, invented a “limited-slip” differential to prevent the high-powered Auto Union Grand Prix cars Porsche had designed from spinning their inside tires when exiting turns. In the succeeding decades, many American manufacturers installed limited-slip differentials in their trucks to help enhance traction on slippery surfaces, and several types were developed. Some used clutch packs to transfer power, others (Torsen, Quaife) used gears, and some—especially those designed to be installed in transfer cases—used hydraulic fluid. 

But limited-slip diffs are just what their name implies—they cannot completely prevent loss of traction in challenging conditions. The best way to ensure full traction when it’s needed is to lock both halves of the axle together, thus ensuring ideal power delivery even if one wheel is off the ground. But once you do that you’re right back to our initial problem with tire scrub and gear windup. The trick, then is to have the differential lock only in conditions where it would be beneficial—or to have it locked all the time except when turning. This can be accomplished either automatically or manually.

In 1941 a fellow named Ray Thornton patented an automatic locking differential he called the  Thornton NoSPIN Differential. It was manufactured by the Detroit Automotive Product Corporation and installed in many WWII military vehicles. The NoSPIN employed a series of clutch packs and a spring-loaded cam gear, which kept the axles locked together unless the vehicle was turning a corner, when the cam disengaged the clutch packs from the spider gears and allowed the wheels to rotate at different speeds. In the 1960s American truck manufacturers began installing the NoSPIN in light-duty trucks as an option—and it gained its nickname, the Detroit Locker. While extremely effective, the Detroit Locker suffered from noisy operation on pavement as the gears engaged and disengaged, and handling that could sometimes be jerky as power transferred between one and two wheels. (Later models have attenuated these characteristics somewhat, but the transition is still noticeable to the driver.) A similar product made by the Eaton Corporation was introduced on 1973 General Motors light trucks, and Eaton subsequently bought the parent company of the Detroit Locker. 

The mechanism of the Detroit Locker and its relatives replaces a large part of the differential, requires precision resetting of pinion backlash, and is thus expensive and time-consuming to install as an aftermarket option. Not so with so-called “lunchbox” lockers such as the clever Lock-Right, which replace only the spider gears and can be installed in an afternoon by a competent home mechanic. The Lock-Right and its kin keep both axles locked together until the vehicle turns, at which point the internal drive plates ratchet past each other and allow the outside wheel to turn faster than the inside wheel. On the trail, full power is available to both wheels, even if one is airborne.

The Aussie Locker is typical of so-called "lunchbox lockers."

The Aussie Locker is typical of so-called "lunchbox lockers."

Opinions differ on the “lunchbox” nickname—some claim it’s because the unit will fit in a lunchbox, others because you can install one in the time it takes to eat a sandwich and chips (somewhat optimistic). Regardless, this type of locker is the most affordable and easy way to gain true diff-locking capability for your 4x4. However (there’s always a however), the Lock-Right-type lockers are restricted in strength depending on what the carrier is designed for, and are generally not recommended for tires over 33 inches in diameter. They can also be noisy on the street, as the ratcheting becomes noticeable around corners. And I would strongly dis-recommend them for installation in the front axle, as steering will be significantly affected (and, as with the Detroit Locker, they should never be installed in a front axle that does not have free-wheeling hubs).

Automatic lockers have their fans, but arguably the best locking differential is one the driver can control. The Australian company ARB popularized the air-activated locking differential after buying the rights to the Roberts Diff-Lock in 1987—and it transformed the capability of the Land Cruisers and Land Rovers in which it was first deployed. For most driving, a differential with an ARB unit installed acts as a normal open differential—no noise, no steering effects or increased tire wear. But when traction is lost—or, significantly, when the driver observes a spot ahead of the vehicle where traction might be lost—the locker can be engaged and the obstacle traversed smoothly and easily. Once back on a solid substrate the diff can be unlocked and returned to normal function. A small compressor (which can double for filling tires) activates the locker by pushing a sliding pin in the differential. The ARB locker is now available for a huge range of vehicles, and while its installation is as complex as that of the Detroit Locker (with the wince-inducing addition of needing to drill and tap a hole in the differential housing for the air line), its reliability and astounding capability has been proven over millions of miles.

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It took a few years, but vehicle manufacturers caught on to the benefits and capabilities of selectable diff locks. Toyota introduced an electrically operated rear differential lock in its TRD package for the Tacoma, and optional front and rear diff locks in the 70 and 80-series Land Cruisers. The Mercedes G-Wagen has front and rear locks, as does the Rubicon version of Jeep’s Wrangler, and the Ram Power Wagon, among other vehicles. Until you’ve climbed a 45-degree slope in a vehicle with both diffs locked—and, thus, true four-wheel drive—it’s difficult to imagine the gravity-defying traction available. Even experienced passengers gasp and scrabble for handholds as high-noon sun floods through the windshield. (Showoffs are advised to keep in mind that with the front diff locked steering is very difficult; it should only be employed when absolutely necessary and for as short a distance as possible.)

To explore the next step in making four-wheel-drive vehicles truly four wheel drive we need to do a 180-degree turn and look at . . . brakes: specifically anti-lock braking systems. 

While ABS has been around in one form or another since 1929, when a primitive mechanical system was developed for aircraft, it was Mercedes Benz that introduced the first fully electronic, multi-channel four-wheel anti-lock braking system as an option in 1978. ABS relies on a deceptively simple system of sensors at each wheel, individual hydraulic pumps for the calipers, and a computer control. The sensors do nothing more than count the number of rotations per unit of time for each wheel. When one or more of the sensors detects a wheel turning slower than the others during braking—as when a tires locks and stops rotating altogether, increasing braking distance and hampering steering control—the computer reduces braking force to that wheel, pulsing the pressure many times a second to maintain static friction between tire and surface. Soon this system was exploited to provide electronic stability control (ESC), to help road cars maintain traction in slippery conditions.

And then—lucky for us—a light went on in an engineer’s head that this system could also be used to enhance traction in four-wheel-drive vehicles. It’s accomplished by exploiting the characteristics of the open differential.

Recall the offside wheels on that poor Toyota pickup spinning helplessly in the air. With an electronic traction-control (ETC) system, those versatile ABS sensors send that information to the computer, which applies braking force to the spinning tire or tires. The open differential is “tricked” into increasing torque to the tires on the ground, and the vehicle pulls itself free. Land Rover debuted ETC on its 1993 Range Rover, and off-road driving has never been the same. Advances in programming and technology have since brought us to the point that some vehicles can maintain forward progress with traction to only one wheel.

That would be miraculous on its own, but engineers weren’t finished yet. One of the most challenging conditions facing a driver on trails is a steep descent. In an older vehicle such as my FJ40, if you stomped on the brakes in a panic on a steep downhill section, the unloaded rear brakes would lock and the vehicle would instantly try to swap ends. Descending such slopes meant using first-gear-low-range engine braking and careful cadence foot-braking to make it down safely. In a vehicle with automatic transmission (and thus little engine braking) the situation was even dicier. Enter hill-descent control: Punch a button, point the vehicle downhill, and steer. The ABS and computer can selectively brake individual tires if necessary to maintain a steady walking pace and prevent lockup on truly hair-raising slopes. No driver, no matter how skilled, can equal that.

I remember my initial experience in a vehicle equipped with ETC and hill-descent control. At first the chattering, juddering progress up and down steep ridges was alarming—it sounded like something was seriously wrong. But I soon got used to it and realized how effortlessly I was conquering obstacles that had required all my attention in the FJ40. 

Is electronic traction control, then, superior to manually lockable differentials? The definitive answer is: It depends. Remember that a skilled driver using manual diff locks can anticipate the need for extra traction and respond in advance, thus frequently avoiding drama of any kind. By comparison, a traction-control system must detect a difference in wheel speed before it reacts, and the computer must decide if action is required or if the driver is simply turning. In some vehicles I’ve driven a considerable amount of throttle—and trail-damaging wheelspin—is necessary before the system kicks in. Increasingly, however, manufacturers are incorporating driver-selectable, terrain-specific algorithms that quicken response when the vehicle is in low range, for example. These algorithms can also modify throttle response and shifting to suit conditions. Land Rover was a pioneer in this technology with their Terrain Response dial. Some vehicles, such as Jeep’s Wrangler Rubicon, incorporate both ETC and manual diff locks—the very best of both worlds.

The Nissan Titan XD's traction control will pull it through situations such as this, but not without some wheel spin.

The Nissan Titan XD's traction control will pull it through situations such as this, but not without some wheel spin.

One could argue that these computer-controlled tricks reduce the skill formerly required of the driver. Indubitably true to an extent—surely I feel I paid my dues with my leaf-sprung, open-diffed 1973 Land Cruiser over the years. Yet in the sybaritic, climate-controlled cockpit of a Land Rover LR4 or Jeep Wrangler Rubicon I can traverse terrain that would have the FJ40 struggling. If technology makes it easier for new enthusiasts to get out and explore the backcountry, I’m all for it—even if I don’t get to show off as often getting them unstuck with a fist-sized rock.