FOR AUSSIE Jeep fanatics the eternal wait for the Jeep JL Wrangler is over, with the local launch officially taking place in Tasmania. Beating Jeep Australia to the punch, however, was Melbourne-based Jeep gurus Double Black Offroad (DBOR), who revealed the first Australian-modified Wrangler a few weeks prior.
This bright and brutally tough four-door Overland promises even more off-road fun and capability. More impressively, DBOR’s head honcho Bill Barbas invited 4X4 Australia to drive the thing. Bill was happy for us to get as down and dirty as we liked with the big orange beast, but there was a bit of a tussle to get to the keys...
SO HOW does a niche specialist business get a hold of a vehicle before the big boys? Well, Bill is an ambassador for Brighton Jeep and he drew on that strong relationship to (excuse the pun) wrangle himself a very special delivery in the form of a Euro-spec JL Wrangler a few months before the official Australian launch (which, ironically, used Euro-spec vehicles). Once the Overland arrived, Bill and his team got stuck into the modifications they were keen to implement and then showcase.
The Jeep Wrangler isn’t short on available accessories, but the fact that the majority of JLs are, at this stage, still mainly drawn from the USA meant Bill and the team had to solve a few mechanical and engineering problems for this right-hand drive version.
The big one – especially for anyone with an inclination toward off-road touring – is the position of the steering damper as it comes from the factory. In the stock Wrangler the steering damper sits quite low and is exposed to potential crunching when approaching a steep obstacle.
“It’s actually really bad,” Bill affirmed. “And that was the first choice: how to make that work properly to fit and suit right-hand drive.
“So that was one of our first projects; just to flip that dampener and grind off the existing mount. We gained nearly three inches just by doing that,” he said.
Looking at the finished product you’d be hard-pressed to know the steering damper’s revised and far more common-sense location wasn’t like that fresh from the factory. It makes you wonder what the Jeep boffins were thinking when they positioned it down low like that.
A Mix of Flavours
IF THERE’S an upside to Australia having to wait so long for the JL Wrangler to arrive, it’s that by the time this orange rig arrived in the DBOR workshop there was already a vast amount of accessories available for it.
The caveat was that, as Bill found out, what may seem like a straightforward fitment in the Jeep’s home country isn’t always the case for the right-hand drive version. Fitment of the vehicle took a couple of months, with some of the team’s time spent rejigging aftermarket accessories from the USA to fit the Australian/Euro-spec Wrangler. Plus, they had to wait for accessories to be made for the significantly smaller RHD Wrangler market.
“What a lot of it (the timeframe) was … it was more a case of what accessories were available,” Bill explained. “This is the problem … you had a lot of the US companies that are understandably so caught up in their market, and a lot of stock wasn’t available at the time.”
This included the tough-looking Smittybilt Stryker front bar (complete with Smittybilt 10,000lb winch) that was, when fitted by DBOR, still at prototype stage and came with its own US-market quirks.
“We put that on and then lo and behold we worked out that none of the US bumpers have got front sensors, because the US Rubicons don’t come out with them,” Bill laughed. “That was an issue with our (Euro-spec) Overland, as it has the front sensors.”
With that sorted the build continued, with the team drawing on its extensive off-roading experience to produce a sensibly modified rig that is equally at home among the really rough stuff as it is rumbling – it rumbles nicely courtesy of the Injen Cold Air Intake (one of Bill’s favourite mods) – around the streets.
Build it once, build it best
I asked Bill, “Why the Overland and not Rubicon?” He laughingly responded, “Because I couldn’t get a Rubicon.” He then answered more seriously by touting both the Overland’s inherent capabilities – something he attributes across the entire JL Wrangler range – especially off road.
“The way the electronics work on the JL versus the JK is leaps and bounds ahead,” he said. “I don’t know if you notice the difference, but the hill descent is actually usable; it’s not a pain in the arse, where as in the JK it’s just annoying.”
He’s also a big fan of the revised traction control system in the JL, ranking it as “not a diff lock, but damn close”.
4x4 feature: JL Wrangler Rubicon hits the Rubicon Trail
So it was from this already-capable base the Punk’n Orange beast was born, with its mix of standard kit and smart accessories fitted by a mob that are specialists in this vehicle. The most noticeable mod is the Pro Comp two-inch coil-spring spacer lift kit in combination with a trick set of 17-inch Pro Comp beadlocks and beefy 35-inch Mickey Thompson MTZ hoops. Interestingly, the beadlocks were a bit trickier than you’d think, but one for which Bill found a slightly unique resolution.
“The biggest issue we had initially was finding a wheel specific for the JL that would sit just outside the guard, or just under the guard,” Bill explained. “That was a real issue in the 18-inch diameter; finding the right wheel. That’s why we ended up going with a 17-inch JK wheel.” Amusingly, the team also worked out that the wheel runs the same stud as a Commodore.
The Pro Comp lift kit works brilliantly to control ride and handling and keep it aligned with how the factory-spec suspension behaves, as the kit retains the factory dampers (utilising shock extensions) and the factory springs (steel coil-spring spacers provide the extra lift). This means the kit is a straightforward fit; there’s no need for drivetrain mods or extension of brake lines, for example.
Fitment of the kit also provides ample clearance for those beefy 35s on the Overland (and it means you can go up to 37 on the Rubicon) that sit under the DBOR custom flares. Add in the obvious ‘free lift’ from these bigger tyres and the icing on top in the form of a DBOR swaybar disconnect kit and you’ve got, on paper, what looks like an uber-capable Wrangler. In case you need to ask, yep, it definitely goes like it looks.
Orange is more than the new black
IT’S A WET, cold windy day when snapper Cristian Brunelli and I leave Melbourne to venture into the off-road unknown. The bitumen surfaces are slick and traction is at a premium – especially with those big 35 muddies rolling beneath us – which leads me to take advantage of the new JL’s auto 4x4 mode straight away.
Despite those big chunky hoops and the lofty ride height the four-wheeled Jaffa stays pleasantly planted on the road, with the only moments of discontent coming from blasting Antarctic-cold side winds that shove the Jeep around a bit when at freeway speed.
I soon become an even more fanatical adherent to the DBOR way. After a few kays of loose and slippery dirt roads, we point the Wrangler’s nose up the first of what will be, by day’s end, many challenging off-road obstacles.
A steep, seriously potholed, mud/sand-covered pinch climb is up first and, remembering Bill’s favourable comments on the Overland’s TC, we don’t disconnect the front swaybar. The thing crawls up with ease, with the TC working away quietly and those Mickey Thompsons digging in to aid forward momentum.
Even with this four-door’s longish belly, there’s no contact with terra firma; the taller tyres, beadlocks and two-inch lift providing ample clearance. However, we do lift a front wheel – for photos, of course – which leads to a short stay in proceedings while we disconnect the front swaybar, just to see how much wheel travel this thing has.
The DBOR swaybar disconnect system, designed and manufactured in-house, is quick and easy and takes less than a minute. The swaybar is disconnected then reattached to a specific chassis-mounted bracket, with the result being a notable increase in wheel travel – DBOR claims up to 28 per cent more wheel flex – and tractive capability. This is well-tested during the next few big climbs that offer more of the same deep potholes, but at an even steeper angle and over a longer distance.
The Overland requires a slightly heavier right foot, but all four wheels stay in contact with the ground thanks to the additional droop as the vehicle despatches the climb, albeit with a bit more noise and a touch of tyre spin.
The overall performance on these off-road sections – tracks you’d likely think twice about if travelling solo – was no-fuss, with little feeling that we were anywhere near reaching the pointy end of this vehicle’s capabilities. When I recount my experiences to Bill, he’s not surprised, mentioning a tougher test of his own on a snow trip up Mt Kent in Victoria two weeks earlier.
“There were about eight or nine Patrols that couldn’t make this one hill,” he recounted. “As soon as we turned up they laughed at us and said, “No, you’re not going to make that!” and I just replied “Oh well, let me just have a crack” and I dropped the tyres down to 6psi and got up. Running beadlocks helped!
Smart always beats smash
MODIFYING 4x4s for serious off-road duties often brings with it some expected sacrifices, most notably in regards to on-road ride and handling but also often in terms of being able to live with the vehicle day-by-day.
Go too far down the off-road modification path and the result can be a vehicle that is a royal pain in the arse to drive around town during the week. Sure, you can always have a ‘town car’, but not everyone can afford two vehicles.
The smart mods undertaken by Bill and his team have produced a vehicle that is capable enough to tackle the most challenging terrain, without on-road performance being sacrificed.
It’s a great combo of said clever mods and the base vehicle’s improvements from the previous-gen Wrangler, something Bill brings to my notice when he mentions the fact he’s now averaging around 12 to 13L/100km of fuel consumption. That’s bloody impressive considering those big 35-inch tyres, and he attributes a lot of it to the improvements in the Pentastar V6 and that sweet-shifting eight-speed automatic gearbox.
Add the relatively benign on-road manners and mix it with the exemplary off-road performance and this DBOR JL Wrangler is a very appealing package, something confirmed by DBOR’s phone running hot with excited JL owners since this rig first broke cover. An excitement we can definitely relate to.