WHEN you can’t settle a debate between mates over who has the best ride, then you organise a serious off-road test across punishing terrain to sort out a result.
This is what happened recently when a bit of online banter among mates eventually led to a no-holds barred challenge up some of Melbourne’s toughest tracks.
Two of the short-wheelbased 4x4s in question – a Defender and an FJ – have been tirelessly tinkered and perfected for the last few years to serve as daily drivers slash weekend warriors. The third vehicle – a Wrangler with the Double Black Offroad (DBOR) catalogue thrown at it – is purely a weekend-getaway machine.
“The idea started with a Facebook post. I said ‘it doesn’t matter what side of the fence you’re on – FJ v JK – it’s all about getting out and having fun’,” Sav Giannoukas, the proud owner of the 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser, told us. “But then Damian Lucev (owner of the 2013 Land Rover Defender 90) started with his comments about the Defender being better. Then Bill Barbas got involved and it all broke out of control.”
When the banter began, Bill Barbas, the owner of DBOR, had only just finished putting the final touches on the 2013 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon for a client. And Bill, with a wealth of Jeep knowledge, knew there was only one way to settle the score: a short-wheelbased showdown. And, of course, we tagged along to see who’d leave with bragging rights.
2013 LAND ROVER DEFENDER 90 LIMITED EDITION DEFENDER
DAMIAN swept this limited edition Defender 90 from the showroom floor back in 2013, and he’s spent the years since tinkering and perfecting the Land Rover to be the ultimate weekday workhorse-cum-weekend warrior.
Damian’s a carpenter by trade, so the 90 was originally purchased as a work rig, but it’s now far more capable than just transporting hammers and nails during the working week. The 2.2-litre four-cylinder-powered Defender – with power hiked from 90 to 130kW thanks to an ECU tune – spends an increasing amount of time helping Damian and his better half scratch their off-roading itch.
“She enjoys the camping aspect of it more, and she grits her teeth on the way there,” Damian laughed. “We like Caledonia River and Butcher Country in the Vic High Country.”
Eager readers may recognise the Orkney Grey hue of this Defender, as it was featured in the April 2017 issue of 4X4 Australia. However, as with any 4x4 worth its salt, progress has been made since we last drove it.
Only recently, after breaking a couple of rear shock absorbers, Damian opted to add Les Richmond Koni long-travel shocks and coils to soften ride and enhance the Defender’s off-road credentials. Since this tweak to the shocks and coils, Damian reckons the 90 has never felt better.
“The suspension has been the biggest difference. I was breaking shockers and it was a much harder suspension. It’s now softer and moulds to everything a bit better. “I don’t have any sway bars in and I’ve got soft coils,” he added. “So handling isn’t perfect on-road, but you get used to it. It’s soft for off-road.”
The suspension work is polished off by the ARB twin compressor, Ashcroft front and rear lockers, Ashcroft CVs, Hi Tough axles, oil-lubed bearings, heavy-duty flanges and a heavy-duty steering arm. Damian also flicked his 35-inch BF Goodrich Mud Terrain KM2s in favour of softer 35-inch Nitto Trail Grapplers M/Ts, which wrap around 16x8-inch Dynamic steel rims with -25 offset.
“For a shorty, it’s not too bad. Normally with short wheelbases you feel everything,” he said. “The new tyres are softer, much softer. They mould better, where the KM2s were more of a soft balloon.”
In fact, it was a previous trip to Alcorns – where we were headed for this drive – when Damian decided the change was inevitable. “The last time we were here it was too muddy, so it made me go from KM2s to these Nittos.”
In the past few months, Damian’s Defender has also received a Glind hot-water system, Front Runner glass gullwing windows and custom Recaro specialist M seats.
“I just got these seats done a couple of days ago,” he told us as we rode shotgun. “The standard seats aren’t the greatest, so these offer more comfort and support. I got them custom-made. I liked the look of the originals, but I just didn’t like the comfort levels.”
Damian admitted there will probably always be things to update and change, but he’s pretty content with where things sit at the moment. If anything, he might look at getting it regeared.
“The only other thing I can think of doing is possibly getting it regeared,” Damian added. “But it drives 35s fine, so it’s not a necessity.”
What's it got?
Mulgo rear corner protectors
Bell auto service intercooler
Redarc dual battery
2 x 8-inch rear led work light
170hp Bell auto service ecu tune
APT fuel guard
Alpine stereo sat/nav
Mantec wheel carrier
In-cabin winch control and winch isolator
Mulgo rock sliders
2011 TOYOTA FJ CRUISER
WHEN Sav Giannoukas purchased this 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser in 2015, it took all but a few short months before the spanners came out and the mods began.
The previous owner had already given it a two-inch lift and installed an ARB bullbar, a Long Ranger fuel tank and an ARB roof rack, but Sav had grander plans than those simple modifications – he wanted to convert the FJ into a hardcore off-roader that doubled-up for family touring duties.
Sav also loved the look of the FJ, so his intentions were clear: he didn’t want any modifications to rob the vehicle of its retro aesthetics. Job well-done, we say. Sav opted for a 4-inch adjustable lift kit to enhance the FJ’s clearance and off-road capabilities. “The difference between the 2-inch lift and the 4-inch lift is that I now have suspension,” he joked.
Pre-runner King remote reservoir shocks and Icon coils are used in the back, and “the coilovers in the front are set to three inches over standard to maximise droop”. Blackhawk upper control arms with three degrees of caster and tilted ball joints ensure increased clearance and travel, and the front diff was dropped 30mm to fix CV angles. “My actual CVs are completely horizontal. Same level as a stock FJ,” Sav said.
The diffs have been rebuilt with a 4.56 ratio to turn the 35-inch Mickey Thompson MTZ P3s, and a body-mount chop up front was done to clear the tyres. The off-road rubber covers 17x8.5-inch Walker Evans Street Legends wheels with a 0 offset.
The current suspension set-up has been fine-tuned to keep the FJ comfortable on bitumen and on coarse off-road tracks, with its owner more than pleased with the outcome.
“You can really hammer along and it keeps the car very stable and very level,” he said. “If it does drop down, I’ve got the airbags to level it out. The turning circle on-road with the upper control arms; we just brought it back to factory spec, and on-road it glides like you’re on a cloud.”
Sav also spared no expense when it came to lumens, as his FJ lights up brighter than a Christmas tree thanks to STEDI. Lighting includes an ARB-STEDI fog light replacement, 8.5-inch Type X LED driving light, 50-inch ST2K curved roof LED bar, 4x10W side floodlights, H4 LED headlight conversion, and 2x20W Wurton flood cubes at the rear. Plus, all internal and reverse LED globes have been installed.
“The quality of the light bars from STEDI is second-to-none,” Sav explained. “It’s the dream team of lights!”
With almost 200L of on-board fuel – factory tank is 72L, plus a 127L Long Ranger sub tank – Sav reckons he can get between 1100 to 1300km with constant highway driving.
However, Sav felt the FJ needed more work done to it before it could seriously be considered a rock-crawler, and so, since our adventure, Sav’s made plans for his Toyota.
“I’m flying up to Brisbane to see Brad from King Shocks to get my rears extended and rebuilt. So I’ll have a rear compressed length of 435mm and extended 735mm. That’s 3.5in more droop over what I had,” Sav told us after the shoot. “Shocks will be just shy of 29-inch-long open, then my set-up will be the way it was supposed to.”
A rear bar and bash plates are also the next pieces of the puzzle before Sav will be completely satisfied, then it’s off for a trip to Fraser Island and/or Tassie.
2013 JEEP WRANGLER RUBICON – 10TH ANNIVERSARY
ERIC Castillo’s 2013 Wrangler Rubicon is a rare 10th Anniversary edition – in fact, FCA secured only 12 two-door and 18 four-door models. Eric purchased the scarce shorty back in 2014 completely stock, and it’s taken him three years from go-to-whoa to end up with this trailblazing hunk of metal.
For those three years, the Wrangler has spent much of its time in the trusty hands of the folk at Double Black Offroad, who have taken care of every aspect of this neat build. From the showroom, the special edition Rubicon is trail-ready, with a 13mm hike in ride height, Dana 44 axles, part-time 4WD system, Rock-Trac transfer case with a 4:1 low range, Tru-Lok electronic remote-locking diffs, and an electronically-operated front anti-roll-bar disconnect.
However, Eric knew there was still room for improvement. “The best investments I’ve put in it are the suspension and tyres,” Eric told us. On that front, the Rubicon runs 35x12.5 R17LT Nitto Trail Grapplers M/T tyres wrapped around 35-inch Walker Evans Beadlock wheels. Suspension componentry runs to a heavy-duty Dana 60 axle (rear) and 44 (up front) and ARB Air Lockers.
“The DBOR Wild Kit has been installed on this Jeep,” Bill Barbas, the owner of DBOR, told us. “The kit has successfully passed the swerve test and is certified compliant by Vic Roads.”
DBOR’s Wild Kit includes Synergy adjustable control arms, Synergy double adjuster sleeve and pinch bolt assembly, extended ADR-approved brake lines (front and rear), 3-inch or 4-inch Speedbumps (front and rear), heavy-duty Synergy chromoly tie rods, and Fox rebuildable shocks and rebuildable steering dampener.
A Poison Spyder front bar houses a Warn Zeon 8S winch should the need for a recovery arise, while the EVO rear fascia down back is more style than substance. Rigid Industries lighting and Smittybilt Guard Protectors surround the Rubicon, and a Trektop NX soft top can be manually opened should Eric wish to get his daily dosage of vitamin D.
An AEV snorkel feeds air through an Airaid filter to the 209kW/347Nm 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine; a set-up which came in handy when Eric set off on a jaunt across the Simpson Desert in 2016 – an expedition impressively completed in one day. “We started at 6am in Birdsville, and by 6pm we were in Dalhousie Springs,” Eric told us.
From the pilot’s seat, Eric has access to a Bully Dog controller perched on the dash, as well as a GME radio for remote-area communications. The interior is otherwise standard.
“The build has been absolutely awesome,” Eric said. “I have taken my rig to pretty much some of the hardest tracks in Victoria and it has delivered.”
Eric told us he wouldn’t hesitate to use DBOR for another Jeep build in the future. “I am absolutely pleased with the overall product, and the wealth of knowledge that Bill has about Jeeps is invaluable.”
A massive expedition is on the cards for Eric in the next few weeks, and it looks like he has the perfect companion for it. “The vehicle is about to embark on a journey to Cape York, Fraser Island and then finishing off at the Glasshouse Mountains, so watch this space!”
What's it got?
35-inch Beadlock Walker Evans
Teraflex Tyre Hinge Carrier
Rigid Industries lights
JW speakers headlights
ARB rear lockers
Bully Dog controller
Fox reservoir shocks
NX soft top
Smittybilt Guard Protectors
ALCORNS Track in Cobaw, Victoria, was the ideal setting to push each shorty to its limits, with a variety of challenging terrain – plus it was a wet winter’s day, so the track was slippery and sections were highly difficult. In fact, Damian learned the limitations of his Defender here during one of his first visits to this region of the Macedon Ranges.
“Alcorns made me go from 33s to 35s,” he told us. “The first time I did it, I couldn’t get past because I didn’t have enough clearance, so that’s what generated my mind to go to 35s. That track makes me modify!”
As we rode shotgun with Damian, the comfort provided by the new long-travel shocks and coils was instantly recognisable. In combination with the front and rear lockers, CVs and axles, as well as the new Nittos, this shorty has incredible off-road credence.
As the non-stop banter filtered through the communications, I swapped into Sav’s four-inch lifted FJ and we traced our way to the base of a challenging hill climb. With tyres set at 12psi, the FJ’s soft suspension soaked up the juts and ruts with aplomb. “The suspension is so soft; it just absorbs all the bumps,” Sav added.
The incredible work the DBOR team put into Eric’s Wrangler Rubicon was evident when we went for a run through the rough stuff. The improved suspension courtesy of the front and rear axles and air lockers meant the 10th Anniversary shorty danced through the tamer stuff with ease.
After traversing relatively simple tracks, we soon arrived at the base of the challenging hill climb up Alcorns, where we’d inevitably spend the majority of the day – “200 metres in two hours,” Damian would later say.
Upon arrival at the gnarly-looking climb, Bill from DBOR admitted: “A standard Rubicon could do this track easy, but it’s now a mess so you can’t do it. I used to do customer drive-days out here and do a whole loop.”
The lads prepared their rigs, planned the best route to tackle the hill’s obstacles, and prepared to mount the arduous climb, which wasn’t helped by the fact the track was wet, sloppy and traction was hard to come by.
The banter reached its crescendo when Sav almost put the FJ on its side on his first (and only) attempt at the climb – highlighting the FJ’s need for a front locker.
Bill was the first to lay into Sav following the rescue. “It’s all about suspension, tyres and drivetrain,” he laughed. At least Sav could see the funny side. “The FJ always produces the good photos,” he quipped.
While the FJ took a smoko break – because of its perched angle when it almost fell into the side of the track, oil had gone past the seal and started to burn – the Defender and the Rubicon were fired into life.
Both eventually made it through the first phase of the track, before surrendering upon arrival to a smooth, slippery, boulder that took up the width of the track (which, admittedly, would have been overcome had time permitted).
It took the LWB black JK (see above) with its massive flex and clearance to prove to the shorties that Alcorns could be conquered in its entirety. Yet, despite the massive 37-inch Pit Bull Rocker tyres and 4.5-inch lift, the JK didn’t climb the slippery track with ease – a bit of winch support was needed to ascend to its highest point.
This proved a LWB vehicle may have the edge when it comes to serious rock-crawling, but the trek also highlighted how shorties can stand tall on corrugations, whoopty-doos and hardcore tracks with the right drivetrain/suspension/tyre set-up.
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The Defender and Wrangler are hard to split as they’re both hugely capable off the beaten track, and both have been meticulously and expertly crafted. Plus, they both have a leg up over the FJ due to their live-axled front ends. But, as mentioned, plans have since been made for further modifications to the FJ, which should see it make up the ground it lost on the hill climb.
One more thing was settled: each owner still reckons their ride is best. Let the banter continue.