Project XK Defined

I’ve been doing a lot of staring and measuring and poking around my new Jeep Commander, gearing up for Project XK — for which this post is the inaugural issue, I suppose. As with the build-up of my beloved LJ (sold and living in Texas), I’ll be documenting the process here as I pass the rig through stages en route to its glorious fulfillment. I’ll also be holding to the same general principles I did with the LJ; the build-up will be aimed at creating a vehicle that balances and maximizes:

1. Street-safe.
2. Trail-conquering.
3. Cheap.

First things first, though …

Why Sell the Wrangler Unlimited (LJ)?

As stated elsewhere on this blog, I loved that rig.  Hell, I still love it, even if another fellow has the keys to it.  The LJ Rubicon is an almost perfect foundation for building an off-road dream come true, and some of the upgrades I’d put on ours still make me drool (the Nightcrawler bumper on Stage 3 comes to mind). 

But there were problems.  Not mechanical or anything like that.  More like philosophical.  Or perhaps existential.

We live in Charleston, South Carolina.  We do the vast majority of our off-roading out West, in Colorado and Utah.  In between is, well, America.  And it’s not a lot of fun to drive across it in a soft-top Jeep with poor gas mileage and not many creature comforts (like, say, good AC to the back seat, or stretching room).

And that’s not to mention the general lack of space in the LJ.  True, the LJ significantly increases the room versus a short-wheelbase Wrangler/CJ, but it still isn’t roomy.  And when you stick a dog and a kid back there things start to really get tight.  We managed to fit everyone with the addition of a rather custom roof rack, but with the impending (now arrived) second child, we were imagining a bulging top. Plus, the two-door problem was growing with the children.  It’s a pain to get one kid in the backseat; we didn’t hardly want to think about doing two (plus dog).

Another thing the LJ lacked was towing.  Both Sherry and I grew up doing a lot of camping, and we’d like to get a tent trailer one day (or a small travel trailer).  The LJ can tow a lot more than its shorter siblings, but a look at trailers revealed that we’d be pushing it to go much beyond the tiniest ones on the hitch.  

Fair enough, you might say.  We needed to change from the LJ.  But you might still be wondering …

Why Buy a Commander (XK)?

It really is pretty simple when it comes down to it.  I like Jeeps.  It’s in my blood.  Oh, I don’t have to have one (I was running a modified Isuzu Amigo for a good stretch), but all things being equal I favor them. Looking at our list of “problems” with the LJ — and our immobile requirement of powerful off-road capabilities — quickly narrows down the list of potential vehicles, and three of them are made by Jeep: the new 4-door Wrangler Unlimited (JK-Unlimited), the Grand Cherokee (WK), and the Commander (XK).

The first of these we crossed off the list pretty quickly.  To get one trail-conquering (by my personal estimation), would have required too big of a lift and tires, thus going against our efforts to stay street-safe and cheap.  In addition, the cross-country drive would likely have meant getting a hard-top, which pretty much negates the point of a Wrangler.

That brought it down to the WK and XK.  Both great vehicles on-road and (surprisingly to Wrangler-lovers) off-road.  Indeed, the differences between them are almost entirely cosmetic: the XK is built on the WK frame and core.  A tough call between them, therefore, but we were swayed to the XK for four basic reasons.  First, it has a 3rd row seat when needed; not likely good enough for long trips, but great in town, as we’ve found with our Kia Rondo.  Second, my folks have a WK, and it could be nice to be not quite identical, you know?  Third, I honestly like the look of the XK better.  Last, but hardly least, the XK is (currently) cheaper.

So an XK it is.  And the one we got is a terrific foundation on which to build: an Inferno Red 2006 Jeep Commander, Limited edition, with a lot of quite pleasant extras: 5.7L Hemi engine, off-road skids, class-IV towing capability, GPS navigation, DVD for the long hauls, luxury conveniences, and a saddle-brown leather interior that I happen to like (some members of my family are admittedly not quite as keen on it). Oh, and Quadra-drive II, which is the creme-de-la-creme in newfangled automated four-wheel-drive systems.  It’s this last item that really allows a properly outfitted WK and XK to stand toe-to-toe with the JK-Unlimited off-road.

Planned Changes

The XK ain’t perfect, though. Not hardly. But my LJ had undergone a lot of modification, too, with even more planned (and, alas, never to be fulfilled).  What follows, therefore, is a rough sketch of my XK-modding plans at this point. We’re still early in the game.

Suspension Lift

I’ll naturally be getting a suspension lift. I had a small one on the LJ and had been planning to get something more substantial for it, but our growing uncertainty about its future held the modification off.  Since the XK is looking far more likely to be long-term, we’re going for the big one right off the bat: a 4″ lift from the good folks at Superlift (with the EGR module from AEV).

Bigger Tires

A big lift means more room for rubber, so I think I’ll be slapping some 285s under there.  I’ll use wheelspacers so I can keep my stock wheels and save some money that way.

Front End

One of the things particularly pressing on my mind has been the front end, which needs help. Problem is, there aren’t a lot of options. Mopar offers a small bumper cover and hoop, but it costs quite a bit for something that’s mostly just aesthetic.  A guy in Wyoming is hand-making a complete front end replacement (i.e., cutting fenders, trashing everything under the grill), but I like neither the look of the results nor the idea of the radical operation.  Plus, it’s pricey.  So I’ve been giving some thought to engineering my own.  It’d be a fun challenge! 

Cold-air Intake

I’m likely to get one from AFE, if I get one. The mathematician in the family (Sherry) will crunch numbers on the increase in mpg against petroleum prices and the lifetime of the vehicle to help determine the ultimate usefulness of it. There are other factors, but that’s a big one. (Remember: one of our principles is cheap, which means not a lot of frivolousness!)

Assorted Accessories

A number of other possibilities are out there, listed in no particular order and under no pretense of surety about whether I’ll get ’em: bug deflector, window ventvisors, tail-light guards (Aries), extra lighting (PIAA), on-board air (ViAir), winch and recovery system (Ramsey).

So it’s still early, and things aren’t likely to happen quickly.  Oh, and did I mention my dangerous plans to add not just a rear-view camera, but at least two other cameras to the exterior of the vehicle?

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