Five dollars, a cheap motel room and a tank of gas. That’s all it cost me for almost two full days of adventurous off-road driving in Southern California with a SEMA show truck. While in L.A. for my first drive in the 2016 Mazda MX-5 Miata, I padded my trip with an extra day and a half of free time to allow me to explore the wilderness in a 2014 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon.
As fun as my trip would have been with a bone stock Jeep press vehicle that I normally have access to, this particular car was built and owned by aftermarket Jeep parts supplier Rugged Ridge. This souped-up JK is effectively the result of what would happen if you went on a shopping spree in a Rugged Ridge catalog, and it was mine for the next several days!
Ladies and gentleman, meet Kilroy. If you’re wondering, the origins of the Kilroy name and logo come from World War II where soldiers would graffiti the face accompanied by the words “Kilroy was here.”
I had the easy job of driving Kilroy, but all the hard work was done installing the gear at the 2013 SEMA Show. This beast of a JK has been upgraded in almost every possible way from a stock version, and even the majority of styling upgrades were done to improve off-road performance.
All-in, the Rugged Ridge upgrades (excluding non-Rugged Ridge parts like the tires, Hi-Lift jack and axle) cost almost $17,300 (€15,225). Of course, that’s on top of the price of the donor Wrangler Rubicon, which in base form sits right around $36,000. Seriously, the idea of a $53,000 (€46,645) Jeep Wrangler isn’t that much of a stretch when you consider that a fully loaded 2015 Rubicon can easily reach $45,000.
Before I get into the details and experience I had with Kilroy, let me first describe how awesome the Jeep community is. For starters, I used social media in an attempt to find a good place to take ol’ Kilroy out to get muddy... without killing myself or destroying the Jeep.
After consulting the Facebook page Jeep Talk (and several California-based friends in the automotive industry), my destination was the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area in Gorman, California. Now all I had to do was get there.
Upon landing at LAX, I headed to pick Kilroy up from the parking lot. If ever there was a time I loved the four-hour time difference as a result of cross country flights, it was grabbing the keys to Kilroy at about 9:30 a.m. PT, and not having any definitive plans until 6 PM the following day. While I was at the counter, the parking attendant brought me the key.
He had a mischievous grin on his face – one that I would soon be wearing for the next few days.
Right off the bat, this Jeep has an imposing presence. Combine its four-inch lift with massive and meaty 37-inch tires and door openings were almost at hip level for me. I don’t often have to worry about grab handles, but I’m sure glad Rugged Ridge added a set of their handles to Kilroy’s roll bars.
That tall ride height and raised center of gravity are great for off-roading, but the 76-mile freeway drive from LAX to the off-road park proved to be plenty of time to realize that if you’re looking for a commuter Jeep, going this hardcore is not the right choice. There was certainly none of the terrifying death wobble that some tuned (and factory) Wranglers experience, but I found that hitting expansion joints in a sweeping highway bend could cause things to get hairy fast.
As such, I just cruised up I-5 at about 55 mph (88 km/h) getting passed like I was standing still. I couldn’t have cared less. In all honesty, though, I’m pretty sure that this Jeep’s extreme setup might have been just a step below requiring a trailer to haul it to the trails.
Once at the sprawling off-road park, the thousands of dollars of upgrades were quickly put to the test. It might be easier to list parts of the Jeep Wrangler that Rugged Ridge didn’t fiddle with: the engine and transmission.
While many people are swapping out the factory 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 for bigger V8s and even smaller diesel engines these days, at no point did the stock engine ever feel underpowered with its 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet (353 Nm) of torque, which was just more proof of how great this engine is.
A $300 exhaust system upgrade (behind the rear axle) did make Kilroy sound meaner than the average V6, but that being said, an engine swap or a supercharger install would have made Kilroy far more enjoyable. Kilroy also retained the Rubicon’s base six-speed manual transmission. Before driving Kilroy, it had been quite some time since I had been off-roading in a vehicle that I had to worry about obstacles and a clutch pedal, so it took me a little while to get used to. Thankfully, Hill Start Assist worked perfectly even on extreme inclines.
From there, just about everything on a stock JK Rubicon has been replaced starting with the wheels and tires. The 20x9 Drakon wheels were painted to match the exterior and included the Kilroy logo, and they were wrapped in 37x12.50 BFGoodrich Mud Terrain T/A KM2 tires that retail for $870… each!
In total, the wheels and tires alone were worth close to $6,200. Had I known that at the time, I probably wouldn’t have slept as soundly as I did with the Jeep sitting in the motel parking lot right off the interstate.
These tires had so much traction that I went through a couple obstacles not realizing I was in two-wheel drive, and on top of that, the fact that I had to drive another 80 miles back to L.A. the following day (with no access to an air compressor or tire gauge) meant that all my driving was done on tires inflated to street pressures.
Perhaps the single area that I was most impressed with these tires was how ultra-quiet on the road with no loud roar that you commonly get from aggressive off-road tires.
To accommodate the bigger tires, Rugged Ridge added its four-inch suspension lift, which combined with the big tires made it impossible for any obstacle to slow Kilroy down. At 6’1”, Kilroy probably sat a little higher than I’d prefer if this were my daily driver, but it made easy work of the off-road park. This is good, though, since I broke one of the main rules for off-roading: never go alone.
Fortunately for me, Jeep owners are the nicest and most talkative enthusiasts I’ve ever encountered. After a few hours of getting accustomed to Kilroy on some of the lighter trails, I introduced myself to some other Jeep owners out on the trails and spent the better part of the afternoon following them on some of the park’s most difficult trails.
I’ve been skiing on a Black Diamond slope (once, and I left with a severely sprained knee), but I’ve never been on a Black Diamond off-road trail. In total, the upgrades required for the lift cost about $1,500 (not a bad price for such a stout lift) and another $1,500 worth of add-ons just focusing on strengthening the frame and protecting vital underbody components (including the rock rails), but Kilroy had enough clearance that Hungry Valley couldn’t come close to taking a bite out of it.
The engine and transmission might be factory fresh, but little else was on the driveline. Rugged Ridge ditched the Rubicon’s factory 4.10 gears replacing them with lower 5.13 front and rear ring and pinion sets, which surely had a lot to do with the engine not feeling underpowered.
Regardless of what type of terrain I was in, the gearing on this setup was perfect allowing for excellent traction and acceleration.
And it still resulted in a manageable rpm while cruising on the highway. Being a Rubicon, Kilroy kept the electric stock lockers and electric sway bar disconnects.
The final piece of the non-aesthetic modifications made to Kilroy was the upgraded brakes with drilled and slotted rotors. At a cost of about $400 for the entire set, this upgrade proved to be worth every penny as the Jeep consistently stopped flawlessly even with water-soaked, mud-caked brakes.
Even the aesthetic mods were all done with the goal of improving off-road performance, although it sure doesn’t hurt that Kilroy looks mean, too. The aftermarket bumpers, for example, provided better approach and departure angles, and the shorty front bumper made it easy to get on rocks without having to worry about body damage.
The new fenders added an extra bit of clearance for the tires when the suspension was fully articulated, and the vented hood allowed for better cooling. When driving around at low speeds while off-roading, a lot of heat builds up in the engine compartment and I could see just how much heat was emanating from the functional vents.
With the bigger, heavier spare tire, Rugged Ridge installed its $482.99 spare tire mount. This mount was hinged along with the tailgate meaning you didn’t have a separate release to worry about when trying to get into the rear cargo area. To add to the usefulness (and the cool off-roading look), there is also a $94.99 mount to make room for a Hi-Lift jack and axe.
In total, Kilroy had about $3,700 in exterior parts not to mention the $1,800 in exterior lighting including the smoked LED taillights. Overall, Kilroy’s styling looked just as at home on the SEMA Show floor as it did out on the trail. The olive drab paint was used all over including the wheels, shocks and differential covers, while the “USMC” and Kilroy decals gave a little nod to Jeep’s military past.
Between its menacing size and show-car-quality design, Kilroy was getting looks everywhere I went… and not just the standard “Jeep wave” from Jeep owners either. Thanks to the $249.99 “Spartan” grille, people – understandably – kept saying this Jeep looked angry.
One thing I noticed about the exterior upgrades (like the snorkel and light bar mounted on the hood) was that the Wrangler’s already-tight forward visibility was reduced even further making it feel like I was driving a tank.
Inside, the Wrangler’s stock cabin was improved upon with a set of grab handles, neoprene seat covers, all-weather floor mats, an A-pillar switch pod and a dash-mounted smartphone holder. The latter came in very handy considering California’s cellphone laws and the fact that the Jeep didn’t have navigation.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to play around with the cool Exo-Top roof. This $1,299.99 accessory allows owners to continue enjoying the Wrangler’s soft top, while adding a rigid structure on top of it to carry gear such as kayaks.
There’s a sliding front portion that creates a sunroof-like opening for either the front occupants or both rows of seats, and for full top-down enjoyment, the entire cloth top can be fully removed leaving the rigid rack structure in place.
Also, and while I packed the necessary tools to remove the doors, I didn’t take into consideration the fact that I had nowhere to store them. That was probably a good thing, though, considering the amount of mud that was caked on the Jeep when I was done with it.
I made it my mission to get Kilroy as dirty as possible if for no other reason than to prove to nearby motorists that this Jeep was no mall crawler.
Through all the rugged, muddy terrain, my biggest disappointment was not getting to use the winch. I was hoping to come to the rescue of at least one stuck off-roader, but that wasn’t to be the case.
Whenever I’m driving a tuned vehicle such as this, I always try to think about which upgrades I would choose over others. My needs probably wouldn’t require items such as the snorkel, the high-dollar tires or the Exo-Top, but this Jeep was created to showcase Rugged Ridge’s products and that innovative top might be one of their best products.
In terms of my personal preference, the only parts of the Jeep I didn’t love were the stinger bumper (I just don’t like how it looks) and the plastic fenders. If I was going to replace the stock fenders, I’d go with more durable metal fenders. If customers can’t decide on specific components to choose, Rugged Ridge helps make the decision a little easier by offering convenient restyling packages that bundle popular equipment together.
As the sun was setting, my body wanted to get some rest, but Kilroy (and its trail-illuminating LEDs) was ready for more. I gave in and headed back to get an attempt at a good night’s sleep, but before I did, one of my new Jeep friends gave me a set of GPS coordinates to another trail head about an hour away to check out the following day that just so happened to be on my way to the hotel where I was “officially” starting my business trip to drive the new Miata. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better off-road experience from the people to the Jeep to the trails.
After a day and a half of off-roading and a night in a crappy (yet super cheap) room at a Motel 6 (it was just miles from the Hungry Valley entrance after all) I smelled horrible, every inch of my body ached and I was starving, but as I pulled up to the valet stand at the Four Seasons Westlake Village for the Mazda event, I felt like a rock star!
Surrounded by high-end luxury sedans and sports cars, Kilroy – caked in mud – had the valet attendants jockeying for position every time I needed to pick it up or drop it off.