Last year I had the opportunity to travel down to the Atlanta area to have a tour of the Omix-ADA (Rugged Ridge) facilities. It included a tour of their 200,000+ square foot warehouse and museum, along with having the opportunity to drive a selection of the museum vehicles in the Industrial park in which they’re located. We also got to romp around in JK Jeep Wranglers modified with various Rugged Ridge parts.

Invited back once again this year, I was interested to see how quickly they were ramping up to produce parts for the new JL Wrangler and the forthcoming JT truck.

One major thing that has happened for the company since my last visit is that they were sold to Truck Hero, a conglomerate of companies with a focus on trucks and truck accessories.  This was finalized right before SEMA last year, and it’s just now that the fruits of that transaction are beginning to bear fruit.  The sale to Truck Hero will allow Rugged Ridge to have more options when it comes to the manufacturing of their own parts; from customization, to cost and turnaround times.

The introduction of the all-new Jeep JL Wrangler has the Rugged Ridge team in full R&D mode.  Even though they had all the CAD specs for the new Wrangler when it launched, there are often changes in early pre-production models as they work up the assembly line that is not reflected in the documents they receive.

One of the challenges was to see what parts they currently offer that could be ported over to the new model with few if any changes and what had to be developed from scratch.  While the JL looks very similar to the JK, there is very little overlap between the two models.  It goes so far as that even the wheel studs are a different dimension.

The group I came in with was shown some of the early sketches and drawings for parts before they were drafted up in SolidWorks, as well as some of the clay models they worked up for new parts. Rugged Ridge has several new JL models that they are using to prototype parts with, and several parts on them were 3D-printed prototypes that haven’t yet gone into production, including things like a modular snorkel and tail light cages.

Where once Jeep owners were focused on off-road and the more utilitarian nature of the Jeep, with the JK as many or more people purchased the Wrangler as a lifestyle vehicle. To style and profile as much if not more than to take their vehicles off-road.  This is even more likely to be the case with JL as it is dramatically better in day to day usage than the JK.

This is not to take away from the original part of the business, the Omix-ADA side, which is focused on those who are restoring older Jeeps.  In fact, for CJ2’s and 3’s you can literally build a complete Jeep sourced right from their catalog.  From the frame and tub to the final bolt, washers, and seals.

Let’s talk about the new JL Wrangler for a moment.  As a group, we took seven Wranglers to go off-roading, the JL’s and four JK’s.  Unfortunately, the late summer weather in North Georgia where we were headed has been pretty wet, and the combination of red Georgia clay and rain is not a good mix.  So, we headed to a trail that was much simpler, yet still fun to drive with few water crossings and the opportunity to drive up a steep hill.

With a set of 37×12.5 BF Goodrich Mud Terrain tires the JL went up the steep hill (60º incline I’m guessing) like it was nothing, not even having to go into four-low.  The ride and handling with the prototype four-inch lift kit were very good.  On the trails, it handled bumps, ruts, rocks and everything else nicely, and on the road, it felt OEM smooth.  One advantage of the electric steering on the JL is running larger tires has far less effect on the actual feel of the steering.  

As part of the trip we had a little side adventure to drive an armored personnel carrier, and then crush a car!  What I can tell you is that there is no finesse when you drive a tracked vehicle like that, it’s yank and crank on the two levers when you want to turn and stop.  Also, your driving your family crossover over speed bumps in the mall parking lot is more dramatic than the APC rolling over a car!  I don’t say that to downplay it, rather, illustrate just how awesome it was!  You need to put something like that on the short end of your bucket list.

We also had a chance to drive a selection of vehicles from the museum collection on the roads of the resort at which we were staying.  They included a 1990 Grand Wagoneer, a CJ3B, and FC150.  The Grand Wagoneer felt like a late 70’s refresh of a mid-1960’s vehicle, which is exactly what it is.  It’s understandable to see the nostalgia appeal of the GW.  Compare it to a modern vehicle and it’s no comparison.  The GW was considered a large vehicle in the day, now something like an Explorer dwarfs it.  Heck, even something like a modern Grand Cherokee is similar in size.

The CJ3B and the FC150 are a great experience as to why there was no such thing as distracted driving back in the day.  You had to have all your faculties focused on the task at hand so you could live to drive another day.  Four-wheel manual drum brakes, manual steering, and maybe 60 horsepower to get the job done.

Off-roading and Jeeps are not in my normal wheelhouse and it’s fun to get outside of your normal comfort zone and knowledge base for events like this.

[Disclaimer: Omix-Ada provided travel, lodging, food, …and a friggin APC for car crushing.]