IF YOU haven’t noticed a large shift in the Australian off-road scene over the past 10 years, I strongly recommend you relocate from the rock you’ve clearly been living under.
The days of Cruiser, Patrol and Hilux domination are long gone. There’s now more choice than ever before, with niche 4x4s popping up left, right and centre. Without doubt, one of the most drastic changes has been Jeep’s full-scale assault on Australian shores, with its four-door JKU Wrangler becoming the go-to vehicle for every man, woman and child looking to make short work of their local rock gardens.
The JKU, with live axles front and rear, flexy coil springs and five-link suspension arrangement, was such an appealing off-road package it managed to sway ‘Rangie’ Benn Collings away from a history of near-on a dozen Rovers and Patrols and behind the tiller of a brand new 2013 Rubicon.
“It was a daily driver for the first two and a half years I owned it,” Benn told us. “It’s only really been recently that I’ve gotten a little excited and it’s become a weekend toy, it’s just used for adventures now.”
Depending on what model JKU you pick up, there are a few different engine options you could tick the box for. Earlier models came with a 3.8-litre V6 EGH engine most commonly found in minivans, while there’s a 2.8-litre RA428 diesel four-cylinder option as well.
Benn’s Wrangler Rubicon is fitted with the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6, which offers 10 per cent more torque than previous models and an impressive 40 per cent more horsepower. The bent six breathes through an AUS4WD custom stainless snorkel and an Airraid MXP air box. It’s backed by the standard ’box and transfer case; although, once again, the Rubicon model picks up the highly-sought-after 4:1 low-range ratios.
One of the biggest selling points of a Wrangler is the live axles front and rear. Unfortunately, most models come with a comparatively weak Dana 35 axle up front, which struggles to cope with 35in (or larger) tyres. Benn’s Rubicon replaces the weak D35 front axle with a beefier D44 unit.
It’s fed power by a high-angle Teraflex Rzeppa driveshaft, and it’s shoe-horned full of goodies including Poison Spyder diff covers to protect the Yukon 4.56 gears and factory lockers. The axle has been beefed up with Evo 44 Magnum diff sleeves and matching Evo knuckle and control arm brackets. There’s a custom bracket pushing the Panhard higher and flatter, as well as providing a mounting point for the Fox steering damper. A Synergy high-steer flip kit is included to reduce bump steer.
The stock D44 has matching Yukon 4.56 gears in the rear, this time with a set of chromoly axles included for a further bump in strength. To fix some of the handling issues with a lifted Jeep, Benn has fitted a Teraflex Panhard relocation bracket that pushes the Panhard rod up and flattens it out, helping to reduce body roll in the process. Both front and rear axles are kept in place with bright green Synergy lower control arms that are not only stronger than the stock units but also have an included bend to allow more clearance off-road.
On the suspension front there are three-inch-lifted Synergy coils on each corner kept under control by Fox 2.0 shocks with remote reservoirs and Teraflex bump stops, ensuring a smooth landing on harsh washouts. The stock electronic swaybar disconnect (also a Rubicon special) has been swapped out for a more reliable manual version from Evo Manufacturing, a mob based in sunny California. The suspension set-up allows for the fitment of 37-inch Mickey Thompson MTZ mud terrains wrapped around Mickey Thompson SideBiter II alloy wheels.
While underneath the Jeep might be where the magic happens, saying Benn’s JKU looks alright would be like saying the High Country has a few nice hills. Starting from the front there’s an ARB Stubby bullbar shrouded in Aurora LED light bars – a 20-inch bar on top with two dual bars either side.
On the shoot, Benn’s JKU was fitted with a Road Runner Offroad low-mount winch, but an AUS4WD high-mount Warn will soon be taking its place. The old candle-stick headlights have been ditched, in their place are a set of Narva Free Form polycarbonate upgraded seven-inch headlights nestled inside the angry-eyes grille. Up top there are three more Aurora LED lights, with a 50-inch bar mounted to custom A-pillar brackets and a second set of dual LEDs at the bottom of the pillar.
Down both flanks of the Wrangler the stock bulky flares have been ditched in favour of high clearance ‘flat fenders’ from Double Black Offroad, with a full suite of removable Dirty Flaps from Ranuki Offroad easily removed for the shoot. Benn has also replaced the Rubicon’s standard rock sliders with far stronger units from Melbourne-based Uneek 4x4.
The bulky standard tail-lights have been swapped out for slimline Narva units on Ranuki Offroad mounts, with corner protection coming in the form of Bushwacker corner guards. The rear bar and tyre carrier are AEV-styled units, with twin Narva LEDs on an adjustable mount fitted to the swing-out carrier.
Benn’s Jeep might sound like a one-trick pony so far, but opening the rear door puts that idea to bed. The first thing you notice is the trick drop-down table made by Benn’s business, Ranuki Offroad. “I’ve been running Ranuki Offroad for a while now,” he said. “All the designs we do are noninvasive, making use of factory bolt holes so you don’t need to cut or weld to install things. We’ll use adaptors to plug into the factory loom wherever possible for electronic gear, too.”
The twin pull-out drawers are another Ranuki item, as is the drop-down fridge slide that goes in for longer trips. The slide is home to a 40-litre Engel with a Champion remote fridge monitor to keep an eye on temperatures. On summer days when the lid comes off there’s a Smittybilt C.RES2 cargo restraint system to keep camping gear locked in, with a Rugged Ridge Eclipse sun shade to protect both front occupants.
From the captain’s chair Benn’s got easy access to a Rugged Ridge switch-pod full of Narva Carling switches for lighting, as well as access to the Uniden UHF and AEV ProCal module, allowing for easy adjustments of the stock on-board electrical system for things like speedo calibration and tyre-pressure-monitoring systems.
There are plenty of 4x4s on the tracks that claim to be all singing and all dancing, yet fall down in reality. However, Benn’s Wrangler is different story as it can talk the talk and walk the walk: as soon as we wrapped up a 4X4 Australia photoshoot of serious rock-crawling, he hooked up a caravan and took off exploring Victoria’s east coast for two weeks!