If you want to build this:
2012 jeep wrangler apache
Where do you start?

Posted January 20th, 2016 by Mike Riley

The time has come for me to buy a new vehicle and I've decided it will be a Jeep, specifically a 2016 Wrangler Unlimited. The question is which model. The search to discover which Jeep is right for me has been an interesting journey so I thought I'd share my thought process behind my decision.

Here are my priorities;

  • It will be my daily driver so reliability and creature comforts are very important.
  • The Jeep will see occasional trail time but for the first 6 years or so I need to keep the sheet metal straight and shiny.
  • I have settled on 37" tires as the goal tire size. This is a compromises between the proportions of the Wrangler Unlimited and drivability & engine power.
  • I have long term plans for this Jeep, so I want to build something that will last.
  • I have a budget so I need to spend wisely on the initial build. I don't want to buy things twice.

Because of the tire size I have selected there are a lot of options for Wranglers that I can completely ignore. For instance I don't care which wheels I get since I'll have to buy aftermarket wheels anyways, the stock wheel are too narrow for 37" tires (I ran my 37x12.5R17 on the stock wheels but the contact pacth was never good. This was no suprise because the tire manufacturer suggested minimum wheel width is 8.5" and the stock wheels are less than that.) I also don't want to pay extra for factory gearing options because none of them are high enough for 37" tires. Eventually I'll replace the Jeep as my daily driver and keeping it for purely recreational purposes, after all my CJ7 won't last forever. Even if you are not interested in modifying your Jeep, this article still has a lot of info about the various Jeep Wrangler models you might find interesting. 

Here is the Wrangler model line-up for 2016.

2016 jeep sport 2016 jeep sahara 2016 jeep rubicon
Base MSRP $27,695 Base MSRP $33,695 Base MSRP $36,895
Sport S $30,895 75th Anniversary $38,375 Rubicon Hard Rock $41,695
Willys Wheeler $31,995 Backcountry $38,395    
Black Bear $32,395        
Freedom Edition $33,395        


If your familiar with how Jeep organizes Wrangler models on their website you can see my chart is organized differently from theirs. I have the models sorted by the base model with the optional trim packages listed below whereas Jeep sorts them by MSRP. I don't care for Jeep's method because it places the Backcountry between the Rubicon and Rubicon Hard Rock, yet the Backcountry doesn't have any of the features that make a Rubicon a Rubicon, like the Rock-Trac transfer case, the front Dana 44, or the lockers. They also have the odd Willys Wheeler W above the Sahara (in price) yet it is a Sport based package like the regular Willys Wheeler so you can only get options available to the Sport. Strangely absent from the "build and price" model selector (at the time of this writing) is the 75th Anniversary model, which is based off the Sahara.

Comparing all these models is a little crazy because determining their differences is difficult. The biggest differentiating factor from model to model is what options are available. For example the Sport and all the models based off of it, like the Willys Wheeler, the Willys Wheeler W, the Black Bear, and the Freedom Edition, you can not get remote start, a body-color hard top, or full leather seats (According to the 01/08/2016 issue of the Order Code Guide you can order the Sport S with the Mopar Premium Sound and Leather (AJC) package which has a note that reads "Katzkin Black Tuscany Leather Seats installed in place of Cloth Seats". This is a different seat than what you get with the Leather Trimmed Bucket Seats (ALX_) option available in other models. I don't know if Mopar Premium Sound and Leather always means Katzkin seats or if that is unique to the Sport S version. My guess is that the Mopar Premium Sound and Leather package always means Katzkin seats). There are also small differences that can't be undone with some models, like the "mid gloss granite crystal grille" that ships on all Freedom Edition models. There are some models that have special colors available that are unique to them like Sarge Green for the 75th Anniversary and Xtreme Purple Pearl for the Backcountry.


2016 Wrangler Unlimited Backcountry in Xtreme Purple Pearl


To simplify things lets start by ignoring all the options and focusing on the mechanical differences of the base models. All 2016 Wranglers have the same motor and transmissions, so that doesn't play into the decision. There are three differently named suspensions for the various models of Wrangler, the Sahara has the "heavy duty suspension w/gas shocks", the Rubicon and Willys have the "performance suspension", and the Sport settles with the "normal duty suspension". If your buying a lift kit that includes shocks you can disregard those differences (unless your going with a budget left that just uses spacers and/or reuses the stock shocks). The meaningful mechanical differences between the models are in the transfer case and the axles.

Here is the driveline run down.

ModelTransfer CaseFront AxleLocker
Rear AxleLocker Option
Sport Command-Trac Dana 30 n/a Dana 44 Limited Slip $395 Option
Sahara Command-Trac Dana 30 n/a Dana 44 Limited Slip $395 Option**
Locker $1,500 Option**
Rubicon Rock-Trac Dana 44 Included Dana 44 Included
**The base Sahara only shows a limited-slip differential available as an option for $395, but not a locker. However you can get a locker in a Sahara based package by ordering either The Backcountry or the 75th Anniversary Edition because both include the limited-slip rear differential as standard with the option to upgrade to a rear locker for $1,500.

Looking at that chart you can see that when it comes to the mechanical make-up, Wranglers fall into 2 categories; Rubicons or non-Rubicons. The Sport (and its derivatives) are not that different from the Sahara (and its derivatives) however the Rubicon ups the anti at every point.



2016 jeep rubicon

So my search began with the Rubicon. If I'm serious about off-roading and Jeeps, it's obvious I should get a Rubicon, right? It's got Dana 44 axles front and rear, it's got lockers front and rear, and it's got a Rock-Trac 4:1 low-range transfer case. This is a shopping list of upgrades that previous generations of Jeep owners had to go outside of Jeep to get. It's reasonable to expect that I could take a Rubicon out of the show room, throw on 33" tires (do I need flat fender to fit 33's?), and wheel to my hearts content without breaking a thing. Depending on driving style and usage I might have no trouble with 35's. Now 35's look nice but they are the maximum tire size where those Dana 44's can be considered "reliable" (meaning I'll know when I'm about to try something that might break them). The stock front axle, thou good, is not as good as it could be. The factory front Dana 44 has smaller diameter axles tubs and inexplicably thinner upper C casting than most aftermarket D44s and they have failed with the added weight and leverage that 35's bring to the party. Plus the 35's will push the limits of the stock U-joints in difficult situations.

If I want true off-road reliability I need to address those Dana 44's. The front Dana 44 can be made "strong enough" with a few improvements. I can truss the axles tube, re-enforce the upper C's, or I could just buy a beefier Dana 44 housing from Dynatrac or Teraflex and transplant the stock parts into it. Add some RCV axles shafts and I've probably taken the front axle to the point where it's more reliable than the back. I might as well get aftermarket shafts for the back to complete the package. Throw in some 4.56's gears and the axles are built to take 35's all day long.


Teraflex Tera44 HD replacement axle housing.


Did I mention I want 37's? Yeah, all this might not hold up to 37's, especially the front balljoints and the rear entirely. In addition to the stregth limits of the Dana 44s, the size and weight of 37's challenge them in other ways. The stock brakes should be upgraded to something like the big brake kit from Teraflex, which runs about $800. Plus, unless I do go with an aftermarket axle housing designed for a lift kit, the amount of lift required for 37's will raise concerns with caster and/or driveline angles with the stock axles. In my opinion there are just too many compromises and concerns with the stock Dana 44's if I want to run 37" tires, especially the front.

Well if I'm not satisfied with the Rubicon axles why buy them in the first place? This is where the decision of which model Jeep to buy gets tough. Let's say I don't buy a Rubicon, what am I giving up?

  • Dana 44 front axle
  • Lockers (at least the front for sure.)
  • 4:1 low range
  • Electronically disconnecting front sway-bar
  • Other niceties like the "Rubicon" embroidered seats and future resale value
  • Possibly some options depending what model I drop down to

If I buy a Sahara or Sport in stead of a Rubicon, what's the savings?

Rubicon $36,895
Sahara $33,695
Rubicon $36,895
Sport $27,695

Dana 60's

All the challenges of 37'sNot all the challenges really, the stock steering will definitely need to be addressed eventually. can be solved in one shot with a set of Dana 60's. A set of Dana 60's custom made for the Wrangler can be had for $11,000. (See my article on aftermarket Dana 60's here.) A quality set of Dana 60's will hold up to 37" tires in all but the most extreme cases (and even then they usually survive). They are upgrades to the Rubicon Dana 44 in all areas, bigger axles shafts, bigger u-joints, bigger ball joints, bigger components inside and out. Even improved ground clearance with some designs. For that money I also get a new Ring and Pinion of my choice to get the engine back in it's power band. All this in a bolt-on package.


spicer ultimate 60 set Spicer Ultimate 60 / Mopar Dana 60 axle

Not only have I addressed reliability with larger tires, I also get larger brakes, bracketry that is designed for lifted vehicles which corrects steering linkage angles, and I get raised track bar connection points. Another feature of most aftermarket axles is that the pinion angle is designed for lifted Jeeps that allows me to maintain reasonable driveline angles without wreaking havoc on my caster angle. In addition to $11,000 for the axles I need about $1,200 for driveshafts. Good Dana 60's should have yokes for 1350 series U-joints, a meaningful improvement over the stock driveline. So the number to keep in mind for building with Dana 60's is $12,200.


Photo from fourwheeler.com


Aftermarket axles and lockers also solve a problem you might not even know you had - choosing when you can lock the axles. With the Rubicon the lockers can only be engaged when you're in 4 low range. Also, there is a speed limit that will disengage the lockers when it is exceeded. Now this is hackable to some degree with programmers and/or some clever wiring hacks but it's still less than perfect. I'll probably trigger error codes that may cause warranty issues and I'll get flashing locker indicators on the dash if I use a bypass switch. Flashing lights aren't terrible but it's less than ideal. If I don't get a Rubicon I'll have to put aftermarket lockers in which means I'll have to install my own switch. This allows me to lock them whenever I see fit. The only downfall that might exist with this setup is the Jeep's traction control might not like the wheels all rotating at the same rate regardless of the steering wheel position. The computer will be expecting the wheels to rotate at different rates when you turn. I don't know if the traction control will start fighting the lockers or what. See my hacks page for ways to deal with this and other problems.


2016 jeep sport

The Sport model of the Wrangler starts at $27,695 MSRP, $9,200 less than the Rubicon. This makes it an amazing starting point for the cash strapped. However, for my needs the Sport is missing too many creature comforts. I'd have to go without the body-color hard top, all-leather seats, automatic headlights, remote start, and more. In fact I need to bump up to the Willys just to get power windows and door locks, auto-dimming mirror, and remote keyless entry, none of these are options on the Sport. Bells and whistles aside, a built Sport will wheel just as good as any other JK. So for a total of $39,895 (at MSRP) your could have a JKU Sport with Dana 60's (excluding the cost of a 4"+ lift, wheels, and tires.)


2016 jeep sahara

So lets explore starting with a Sahara and building from there. The base Sahara is $3,200 cheaper than a Rubicon. That is $3,200 you can put toward the Dana 60's. With the Sahara I can order almost every option that a Rubicon can get. You can even get the same "power dome" hood and upgraded steel bumpers that come on the Rubicon Hard Rock Edition if you order the 75th Anniversary Edition, however the bumpers on the 75th Anniversary edition only come in bronze. [CORRECTION: I originally stated that you could not get the power dome hood and steel bumpers on a Sahara based build but I mistakenly overlooked the 75th Anniversary Edition.] Of course there is one thing the Rubicon has that none of the other Jeep models have...


np241orThere is no easy way of getting around the transfer case issue, the NP241OR Rock-trac transfer case is the best rock-crawling transfer case currently offered by an OEM. Although the Command-Trac transfer case of the Sport and Sahara is of the same lineage as the Rock-Trac, and therefore similar strength, the Rock-Trac's high gear ratio of 4:1 compared to the Command-Trac's 2.72:1 provides a significant performance advantage. It is possible to swap a Rubicon transfer case into a Sahara fairly easily from what I'm told. I've heard that a low-milage used case is about $1,000. Another option to improve on the crawl ratio is to replace the stock transfercase with an Atlas transfer case for $2,500+. The Atlas is available in a range of gear ratios and is considered to be about as good as it gets in the Jeep transfer case market. One thing to keep in mind here is that if you are running an automatic transmission the Rubicon (2012 or newer) has a unique feature that might be lost when you swap transfer cases. When starting from a stop, the computer will start with the transmission in second gear automatically. This is because unless you are climbing something steep the motor will rev out almost immediately if it where in 1st gear. By starting in second it puts the Jeep in a more drivable gear. Now perhaps the computer of a Sport or Sahara can detect a Rock-Trac transfer case by way of the wiring harness or perhaps the setting can be turned on with a hack or a programmer. If something like this can be hacked, perhaps it could be made to work with an Atlas as well. If you have any first hand knowledge of how this transmission/transfer case business works This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Another nifty feature unique to the Rubicon is the Electronic Front Sway Bar Disconnect. Personally, I think this sounds like a great feature. However, you can disconnect the sway bar of any jeep, just not as conveniently as the Electronic Front Sway Bar Disconnect makes it. After you've manually dealt with the sway bar, there is no performance advantage to be had by the Rubicon over other models, only a convenience, and it's not a big enough convenience to make it a deal breaker to me.

And the last thing to consider is the resale value of the Rubicon axles. If I do buy a Rubicon and replace the axles with Dana 60's the stock axles have some meaningful resale value. I'd estimate I could get $3,500 for a complete set or new Rubicon Dana 44's. That is too much money to overlook.

Lets Do The Math

So lets put all this together and crunch the numbers. I'm leaving out any options I might order on my Jeep because all the options are the same price for the Rubicon and the Sahara. Things like A/C, heated seats, remote start, and the Alpine 9 speaker system, they are all the same price so I'm just sticking with the base model. I'm also leaving out the wheels and lift kit because that too is the same price for any model Wrangler. Perhaps there is a small difference for an 8 on 6.5" bolt pattern to mate up with some versions of the 60, but I'm ignoring that for this comparison. For the "Improve Stock 44's" I'm going with a Tera44 front housing ($2,316), RCV axle shafts ($1,285 front, $1,795 rear), and Mopar Big Brake kit ($800).

 Rubicon w/44sRubicon w/60sSahara w/60'sSahara w/60's & AtlasSport w/60's & Atlas
MSRP $36,895 $36,895 $33,695 $33,695 $27,695
Improve Stock 44's $6,196 n/a n/a n/a n/a
Dana 60's n/a $11,000 $11,000 $11,000 $11,000
Atlas n/a n/a n/a $2,500 $2,500
Drive Shafts n/a $1,200 $1,200 $1,200 $1,200
Sell Stock D44's n/a -$3,500 n/a n/a n/a
Totals $43,091 $45,595 $45,895 $48,395 $42,395


Well, what do you think of that? Biggest shocker for me is that a Rubicon with 60's is virtually the same cost to build as a Sahara with 60's once I've taken the resale value of the Rubicon 44's into account. Even if you only get $3,000 for the Dana 44's you'd still be on par with building a Sahara yet you'd get the Rock-Trac transfer case and the words "RUBICON" across the hood. Also amazing, you can build a Sport with an Atlas and Dana 60's cheaper than you can budget build a Rubicon!


As I mentioned earlier, there are factory options I want that a Sport doesn't offer so it looks like it will be a Rubicon for me.

Follow-up 10/2/2016

It's been about 10 months since I did the research for this article so I thought I'd post a follow-up. I did special order a Rubicon Unlimited with the options I wanted for a final sale price of $42,000. I also ordered the Mopar Dana 60's from Dynatrac for $10,900 and driveshafts from Adams Driveshaft for $1,186. I sold the stock Dana 44 axles on Craigslist for $3,400 to put me at $50,686 for my Dana 60 Rubicon Unlimited. This doesn't include the lift (which is required to run Dana 60's for clearance) and the 8 lugs wheels but you get the idea that this project can be done within the budget shown above plus the price of whatever options you order with you Jeep.

Make sure you buy a lift with adjustable control arms so you can dial in the location of the wheels in the wheel wells and center the axles left-to-right under the Jeep. I had to fiddle with my control arm lengths several times before I was happy with it but now it's great. The only thing that doesn't work is the parking brakes. There is no easy way to get the parking brake cables to work with the Dana 60 axles.

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