If you want a compact daily drivable package that guarantees unfettered access to the backcountry, a modified Wrangler JL with a Smittybilt Scout trailer is one badass setup. But is it right for you? That’s a matter of budget, taste, and mission.
For about $65,000 as tested, this pairing can be had for less than a pre-owned EarthCruiser, much less an EarthRoamer. And without qualification, this combo will take you and your family anywhere the aforementioned products will. You can even uncouple it, commute, and park two-thirds of it in a standard parking stall or suburban garage. On the other hand, for the three-quarter-ton and slide-in camper set, this combo may be under-sized, uncomfortable, and uncivilized. Heck, there’s no toilet. It’s all a matter of perspective.
If your needs limit you to one vehicle that bridges weekday and weekend use at a sub-Sportsmobile price, the Wrangler is probably already on your shopping list. And with its complete redesign for 2018, the Wrangler has transitioned from merely survivable to downright livable. And yes, it can trailer too, which enables the JL to overcome the undeniable weakness of every Wrangler. Interior storage. If you have four people and weekend gear you will struggle to find space for kit as fundamental as a cooler. And who wants to deny themselves a proper camp chair and a cold one after a hot afternoon of wheelin’?
Rubicon Express JL
For those who find front and rear locking diffs in Dana 44 axles, a disconnecting front sway bar, and aggressive 33-inch all-terrains insufficient, this Rubicon Express JL may be for you. Its 2.5” coil spring lift has floating piston monotube shocks, modified front lower arms, lengthened sway bar end links, and extended bump stops. This lift will accommodate up to 37” rubber when installed on a Rubicon (35” on lesser Wranglers). And although we experienced no rubbing, the tight fender gaps agree. But as with all aftermarket performance parts, the real value, good or bad, is more difficult to see.
Rubicon Express and Smittybilt are owned by Southern California-based Transamerican Auto Parts. I had the opportunity to tour their new 24,000 square foot engineering and prototyping facility in Chula Vista, CA. Designing and manufacturing automotive components is time consuming, capital-intensive, specialized work. And based on my 15 years in the automotive aftermarket, this is exactly the kind of organization you want designing the parts you will be relying on at 8,000 feet and 80 miles from the nearest pavement. But more and more companies off-shore these activities. Parts are sent to Asia to be reverse-engineered, modified, prototyped, and manufactured. Foreign vendors are generally professional and highly skilled. But have they invested in North American spec trucks to test fit and run their parts? How about their managers, drafters, and engineers – have they ever even been off-road? For some components, off-shoring is a reasonable way to keep prices in check. But I wouldn’t rely on off-shore companies to calibrate shock damping or ensure the fit of a lower A-arm at full articulation.
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The engineers, technicians, and fabricators at Transamerican are encouraged to check out company rigs on weekends. Not just to experience them, but to challenge their work, and improve their parts. The company also supports race teams running a variety of race series, including King of The Hammers. And although their design > ride > break > improve ethos is not unique, it is exactly what consumers should demand of brands like Rubicon Express.
As tested, the JL Rubicon had about $7,600 in aftermarket equipment, which breaks down as $2,125 in suspension, $2,950 for wheels and tires, and $2,525 in bumpers, winch, and armoring (inclusive of installation). Your pricing may vary.
This modified 2018 JL may ride better than a stock 2017. You read that right. Its shockingly refined driving dynamics are due largely to the refinements Jeep baked into the all-new JL, such as bigger sway bars, wider axles, and reduced spring rates. Rubicon Express had a solid starting point from which it did not need to fix glaring deficiencies. Instead, it sought to maintain OEM ride quality using similarly soft springs coupled with a slavish obsession to maintaining steering geometry. Hence the replacement control arms are more about matching the OEM orientation than improving durability. This Jeep was compliant and communicative with little of the bump steer that normally attends lifted vehicles with solid front axles. Yes, Wrangler has entered the realm of approved daily drivers, even on 37’s.
The Smittybilt Scout Trailer
The Scout offers a common steel box-on-wheels layout. However, it rides on a unique independent trailing A-Arm suspension with a pair of shocks, single coil spring, limiting strap, and bump stop, plus a 10-inch electric drum brake on each side. When riding on 265/70R17 tires it has 12” of clearance. The fenders and spare tire mount accommodate up to 37” rubber. Between the generous clearance and nonexistent rear overhang, it would be difficult to get this trailer hung up.
The box is dominated by a 25 cubic foot rear-opening compartment with a pair of 200-lb capacity sliding trays. Forward of the main box are two side-opening compartments. On the starboard side, a sliding tray pulls out to mount an optional generator. On the port side is a handy kitchenette with stove drawer. The spare tire mounts forward, remaining low to preserve the center of gravity and keeping the tire clear of the top mounted tent. Ahead of the spare is a rhombus-shaped tongue box that matches the contours of the trailer as the frame approaches the hitch. Each compartment is water resistant and closes with a locking T-handle. During a weekend in the arid California desert, there were no signs of dust intrusion. When contemplating packing strategy, consider that in the direct sun, this black steel cube can build extreme heat inside.
A trio of manual jacks along with a small bubble level enable horizontal camping. The dual jacks at the rear mount high to preserve departure angle, though cosmetic damage on the main compartment door reminds one that the jacks must be removed to swing out the door. The tent is mounted on struts that telescope skyward up to 12” to allow storage of long lean items, such as surfboards. The tent deploys and stows with an effort similar to a large conventional tent. And a two-inch receiver at the rear is available to expand load capacity via a hitch-enabled racking solution.
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The Scout is a simple, configurable, well-built, non-nonsense implement with a 3,306 lb GVWR. It’s priced at $4,999 unassembled, without tent, generator, or wheels (many owners want to match tires and wheels with their tow rig). If you elect to assemble it yourself, Smittybilt advises four hours. As tested with generator, awning, tent, and 265/70R17 all terrains on Pro Comp Sport Steel Wheels, this trailer retails for $8,253, plus about $500 for assembly. It was a pleasure to tow and camp, but the market is thick with competitors offering similarly robust steel frame, box-on-wheels, off-road trailers. In its favor, is the get-it-tomorrow convenience and serviceability of availability through 90 4WheelParts stores across the land.
Perhaps my perspective has been poisoned by my time as a CJ-5 owner. But when I think of Jeeps I think of them trailing behind a tow platform, not being the tow platform. Short wheelbase, limited displacement, and anemic tow ratings have not traditionally inspired confidence in Jeeps as tow rigs. Admittedly, the JK was a different beast and this JL requires an honest re-evaluation. At 1,543lb dry (about 2,200lbs as tested), and 120” stem to stern, the Scout is a tidy unit that comes nowhere near testing the Wrangler’s towing limits (3,500 lbs when stock). Behind this Pentastar powered 2018 Wrangler, it tracked straight on the freeway and the trail. No wondering. No tugging. And its conventional two-inch ball coupler did not disappoint, even across moderate off-camber obstacles.
A base Rubicon is an incredibly capable platform. Rare is the user who will explore the performance envelope between what the base vehicle is capable of and what this Rubicon Express JL can do. I was only able to scratch the surface, for fear of inflicting real damage to the vehicle and/or occupants. But I did get to experience one major difference between the stock and modified versions, aside from the attention one gets just driving around. My photog and I took it down the El Cariso Truck Trail in the Cleveland National Forest just west of Lake Elsinore, CA. This trail has not been graded in years and when it gets traffic after rain, the ruts build. And when the sun inevitably arrives it bakes the ruts into permanent fixtures. The trail is presently passable for just about any stock 4×4, though longer wheelbase rigs might struggle and low-slung wannabe rigs risk scarring.
The difference between this rig, even with the trailer, and just about any stock four-by is that this modified Wrangler can take any line. Other rigs, include stock Wranglers, must carefully select their lines through technical sections, whereas the Rubicon Express unit can take wherever route its driver selects. The JL’s short wheelbase, tall tires, and shocking articulation allow one to simply point and go. It took some acclimation, but after traversing a couple deeply rutted sections without drama and an unexpectedly flat ride, it became clear that this rig just doesn’t care. It defeats commercial grate obstacles with remarkable casualness. And the Scout did nothing whatsoever to impede its unflappable demeanor, uphill or down. On a dry day, it didn’t even need to go into 4-Hi, much less 4-Lo. And the Pro Comp rubber clung to the trail with nary a slip.
The Verdict: Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Express JL with Smittybilt Scout Trailer Review
If your requirements include go-anywhere capability, coupled with take anything capacity and daily drivability, then this Rubicon Express and Smittybilt Scout Trailer setup should command your attention.
Photos by Garrett Martin
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