Rubicon Express 3.5″ XJ Lift kit

Installation date: August 1997

Why Rubicon Express?

Well, after months of phone calls, emails, and looking through magazines and catalogs, I finally decided on RE’s Rockbound Cherokee lift kit after talking to the guys over at Rubicon Express. There were several things I was looking for in a lift kit — I wanted a kit that would give me around 3″ of lift (to get more body ground clearance and run some 31×10.5″ tires), good performance offroad, good street handling and ride, and I wanted a kit that would address some of the problems of lifting a Cherokee over 3″ (frame stress, brake lines, trackbar, ect). Rubicon Express’s Rockbound lift did all that. Two big selling points for me were RE’s SuperFlex control arms and their adjustable trackbar. Plus, at the time RE was the only company to offer an XJ kit with articulating control arms.

If you lift a Cherokee more than about 3″ you’ll probably need to adjust the trackbar to keep the axle centered under the Jeep. Rubicon offers a redesigned trackbar that eliminates the need to relocate the trackbar or use a drop-down bracket which can cause problems with the frame and bumpsteer. RE’s adjustable trackbar has either a heim joint or a rod end at the frame mount.

Here’s what my kit consisted of:

(2) 3.5″ progressive rate front coil springs
(2) 3″ lift, full-length rear add-a-leafs
(2) 1.5″ rear blocks and longer U-bolts
(1) extended rear brake line
(2) ChromeMoly “super flex” lower control arms
(1) adjustable Chrome-Moly trackbar
(4) Doetsch Tech 3000 shocks
(2) swaybar quick disconnects

Please keep in mind, I purchased and installed this kit back in August 1997, so the parts I got and the prices I paid won’t be the same as they are now.

Installation

After talking to a lot of Jeepers with lifted XJ’s, I decided that I would try and install the lift myself, with the help of my Uncle Lynn. Plus, after buying the lift and planning for over $400 in tires, my Jeep fund was running low. Installation took about 16 hours over the course of two days. We had air tools at our disposal, but didn’t really need them, though they would make the installation go faster (a lot of the time was just spent taking off bolts and putting them back on).

The rear:

The rear was relatively simple. My uncle and I had installed a set of BlackDiamond 2.5″ add-a-leafs on his ’96 XJ Sport about a week earlier, so we had some idea as to what to do already. Installing the add-a-leafs is pretty straight forward, just make sure to follow the directions and make sure you have the spring pack clamped when you take off the retainer clips.

You can install the add-a-leafs with the main leaf still attached to the Jeep, or you can remove the entire spring pack. I left the main leaf bolted up mostly because I would have had to remove my nerf bars to get the spring off, but as I’ve later learned, it’s much, much easier if you completely remove the leaf springs to install the aal. A couple of medium-sized C-clamps is all you need to recompress the leaf pack. It’s also helpful to have a long, slender rod of some sort to keep the leafs lined up while compressing the pack (we used an 6″ extension bar from my 1/4″ socket-wrench set, but a long screwdriver works great too).

Once you have the leaf pack compressed with the C-clamps, tighten down the center bolt and install the new retainer clips.

I went ahead and removed the rear swaybar to get a little more suspension flex in back — with the stiffer springs in back I can’t tell much difference, there’s more body roll during corning, but it’s not bad.

The first thing we learned installing the add-a-leafs on both Cherokees was that any lift 3″ or over really needs a brake line relocation bracket or longer rear brake lines to allow enough slack for axle articulation (without ripping out the rear brake lines). The BlackDiamond add-a-leafs had come with a relocation bracket while my kit had come with an extended brake line. Instead of having to bleed the brake lines on my Jeep, my uncle and I decided to fabricate a relocation bracket of our own (we modified a relocation bracket from the rear bumper of his wife’s YJ). These are pictures of the bracket both before and after installation (the installed picture is a bit fuzzy, sorry). A retainer clip holds the brake line in the bracket.

After getting everything all bolted back together in back, the Jeep sat a full 3″ higher than before (though this amount of lift from the aal wouldn’t last long). Once the front lift was installed I found that I didn’t have enough lift in back (got a full 4″ of lift in front and the Jeep sat nose high), so I went back and installed the 1.5″ blocks. This took about 20 minutes and brought me happily back to being tail high. When I first put the blocks in I noticed a bit of driveline vibration during acceleration and at higher rpm’s. The vibs have since disappeared and I’ve even installed a set of MJ shackles for some more rear lift and haven’t really noticed any vibs from the rear.

The front:

The front was considerably more involved than the rear. The first thing I did was to remove the front skid plate, and man did that free up a lot of working room!! (still have yet to put the skid plate back on) Also, renting or buying a set of spring compressors (you actually need what are called “strut” compressors, they fit on the outside of the coils) makes life a heck of a lot easier when you install the new, longer coil springs (the factory springs should drop right out if you lower the axle enough).

Lower Control Arms:

The lower control arms switched out pretty easy, except that the bolt at the frame mount goes through a plate that captures it in the bracket, which meant that the bolt had to be threaded all the through the bracket both ways (incidentally, this plate is what is used to adjust the caster on your Jeep). The instructions say to torque the control arm bolts to 133ft/lbs, but the factory bolts were only put on with about 90ft/lbs, so that’s what I torqued them back to; later I managed to torque them to a bit over 100ft/lbs. I called RE about this and they said that 90ft/lbs would be fine, but you really need to torque them down as much as you can to eliminate any potential for movement.

Front brake lines:

Due to the increased axle articulation, the instructions recommended relocating the front brake lines. This was easily accomplished as the mounting screws are self-tapping. I simply drilled a new hole on each side of the frame and threaded the screw in (the screw isn’t all that self-tapping, so I had to use a cordless drill to get it in). Here are some before and after shots of the front brake line. I’ve seen someone with a lifted XJ who got a set of YJ front brake lines, which are 3″ longer, to use up front to get more slack. Or, RE and other places sell extended stainless steel brake lines.


before

after

Trackbar:

By far the hardest part of the installation was the trackbar, and man was that a PITA. The factory trackbar was very persistent about staying right were it was. You’ll need a “ball-joint separator” (I think some people call it a “pickle fork”) to get the trackbar off its mounting bracket — it looks like a giant tuning fork and you can rent one from most automotive parts stores like AutoZone. The easiest way (trust me on this one, it may save you a trip to the ER and 3 stitches) to get the trackbar off the bracket is to simply remove the bracket from the frame (4 bolts), place the trackbar on a wooden block, and beat the dang thing off with the “tuning fork” and a hammer. If this seems confusing now, don’t worry, you’ll understand what to do when the time comes.

Once the old trackbar was off the new one went in just fine. Recentering the axle under the Jeep took a bit of muscle and two people (or a well placed come-along). If you’re planning on lifting your Jeep more than 3″, you’ll need to modify the trackbar somehow, whether it’s relocating it or replacing it with and adjustable one.

As for setting the trackbar, you have to use a little thing I like to call “trial and error” to get the crazy thing adjusted right, basically you just have to eyeball it. If you have the factory front skidplate it makes things easier, you can see how far off of center you are by turning the steering wheel from full lock to full lock and checking to see how close the tires come to the skid plate. What I did to finally get it centered was to measure the distance from the bumpstop tower to the edge of the tire tread (on both sides) and figure out how much I needed to adjust the trackbar. Sometimes all it takes though is bouncing the front end up and down a couple of times and it will self-center over the axle. You have to be on perfectly level ground for this to work though.

Impressions & Long Term Updates:

Well, so far I’ve been very pleased with the lift. Installation has a little harder and took a little longer than I expected, but nothing too terrible. The steering wheel was way out of alignment (turned over 90* to the right) when we got finished with installation, but I soon fixed it once I knew how to. All you do to adjust the steering wheel alignment is loosen the two bolts on the adjustment collar (located on the draglink just below the pitman arm), and turn it until you get the steering wheel lined up straight, then just tighten the bolts back and you’re ready to go (it will take a couple of tries before you get the wheel perfectly straight).

The ride is stiffer (not by a whole lot, and it’s not as stiff as a Wrangler), but it still rides nicely. In November ’97 I took a 6 hr trip up to St. Louis to see U2 in conert (which by the way was an incredible show) and the Jeep rode and handled nicely cruising at 70-75mph.

The increased ground clearance is great: no more scraping skid plates, mufflers, and trailer hitches on rocks, and it’s nice to be higher than (or atleast as high as) most other mid-size SUV’s. I have gotten the front end re-aligned and the toe reset, something you will need to have this done if you lift 3″ or higher. And, I’ve got my 31×10.5 tires on now. But, the rear tires do rub a little on the inside of the fender flares in the rear when the axle gets really flexed, and the front tires rub a little on the inside of the flares and on a metal bracket behind the bumper when the wheels are turned and the axle flex is maxed out, but it’s nothing I’m going to worry about, and it doesn’t make any noise.

For a while the trackbar made some noise, but it seems to have quited down on its own. I talked to RE about this and they said that they’d had that problem with some other trackbars, and that tightening all the bolts with an impact wrench should take care of the noise.

After about 6 months with the lift, it’s settled in a little, it’s now closer to 3.5″ of lift all around. The rear has sagged some, but not bad, and I really hadn’t noticed it until I took some measurements. My stock springs had sagged out pretty bad when I installed the lift, and the Custom 4×4 rear bumper, tire carrier and full-size spare add quite a bit of weight to the rear, so it’s not surpising that the rear has sagged down a bit. The Jeep’s still riding level though.

For more information, contact:

Rubicon Express
3315 Monier Circle
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
fax: 916-858-1963
phone: 916-858-8575
http://www.rubiconexpress.com

Last updated: 9/13/99

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