Putting Steel Between The Rocks and Project XtremeJ

The Jeep Cherokee XJ, for some odd reason, has always played second fiddle to its brother, the Wrangler. Wranglers benefit from a massive automotive aftermarket support system –hundreds of bumper and body armor options and countless motor upgrades.

Sure, the Wrangler was the next step in the evolution from the long line of CJs but the Cherokee was built with forward thinking in a compact package. Rusty’s Off-Road Products is one of the champions of the Cherokee, constantly striving to supply owners with innovative products. In the case of Project XtremeJ, this is in the form of body armor and rock sliders.

Beefing Up An XJ

Rusty’s steel fender flares and rocker armor are a great way to help a Jeep Cherokee stay wrinkle free.

With the body-on-frame construction of the Wrangler, body accessories and armor offerings are in abundance. Hundreds of companies have bolt-on components for them. On the flipside, the inner fenders on the Cherokee are integral to the unibody (also referred to as a unit-body), making tire clearance an issue.

Builders previously had to choose from replacement fender flares on the stock fender or full replacement fiberglass fenders. Neither of these offers nearly as much clearance or trail protection as a steel flat-fender replacement, but that has all changed now. Rusty’s is now producing high-clearance steel fender flares (PN RA-MF500-XJ) for all 1984-2001 XJ Cherokees.

Rusty's steel flat fenders provide an additional 3.5 inches of tire clearance over the factory fender and flare combination. The parts are built in the USA at Rusty's Alabama facility using 1/8-inch and 3/16-inch steel. The steel is laser cut, CNC machined, and robotically welded.

“Rusty’s manufactures thousands of parts for all Jeep vehicles,” explained marketing manager Trent McGee. “But the company has always been a Cherokee specialist. We offer a wide array of parts and accessories for XJ Cherokees.”

Steel fender flares for a Cherokee is revolutionary. The sheet metal of the Jeep can now be opened up an additional 3.5 inches over the stock fender and flare, and is far stronger than stock. Built from 1/8-inch and 3/16-inch steel, Rusty’s notes the new flares can be used as Hi-Lift jack points if necessary.

McGee gave us some extra insight into Rusty’s Off-Road Products. “Rusty’s is owned and staffed by real off-road enthusiasts, and many of their most popular products have stemmed from identifying real-world needs out on the trail. Despite the tremendous growth over the years, Rusty’s is still very much a family-owned operation. Rusty and his wife Nina still run the business, but they are now joined by their two sons, Tony and Zac.”

The steel fender flares are first positioned and clamped to the body. Having the part clamped to the factory fender allows the installer to mark holes for drilling, as well as mark the sheet metal that will get trimmed away.

The steel is laser cut, CNC formed and then robotically welded for a perfect end product, and they are built in-house at their state-of-the-art Rainbow City, Alabama facility. The flares were specifically designed to be a bolt-on installation. Cutting is required, but there is no need to scrounge up a welder.

Additionally, Rusty’s wanted the parts to look good while being the strongest flare on the market for Cherokees; no welds are visible from the exterior of the vehicle and they are available powder coated black or raw so you can custom finish them.

Bolting On The Armor

We knew that the new flares were going to let our Toyo M/Ts have more freedom while on the trail. On top of that, there was no doubt the added strength would help keep the body wrinkle-free, should the fenders ever meet an obstacle.

The rocker armor mounts to the unibody of the Jeep in two places. The front mount attaches with four points, and the rear with five. The rocker armor also attaches to the pinch weld of the Jeep in five places to further secure the steel to the vehicle. This makes it one of the strongest rock sliders on the market for the Cherokee.

While upgrading Project XtremeJ’s body armor, we went another step forward and added a set of Rusty’s rocker armor (PN RA-RR2024-XJ). Recently, Rusty’s upgraded the rocker armor to be all round tube and much stronger. The 1.75-inch heavy wall DOM tubing covers the rocker area completely and is secured to the Jeep underbody at nine points and to the pinch seam at five points. The large number of attachment points ensures even distribution of impact load and helps to add strength to the unibody.

While mocking up the sliders, we ran into an issue with our Skyjacker lift kit. With many different styles of lift kits, issues like this may come up, but we found a way around it.

The rocker armor hugs tightly to the body of the Jeep to minimize ground clearance loss. What’s more, it has a kicker bar that juts out from the side. This aids in keeping the body away from side impacts. It can also be used as a step for entry and exit.

To solve our clearance issue, we fabricated a new mount for the front of each rock slider.

“Both products are the direct result of real-world experience and consumer demand,” said McGee. Before Rusty’s launches a product, they trail test it. With the products installed, the vehicles are run through their paces and pushed into situations that off-roaders would encounter while out on all sorts of different terrains. The products are then modified until they are the perfect balance between strength, durability, price, and ease of install.

On The Trail Performance

What a better way to test out a new product than heading to the trail? The install was complete, but we wanted to see how everything functioned in the real world. We headed to Big Bear, California to take on Gold Mountain, Horsethief Flats, and Gamblers Gulch.

“The fenders give the XJ an aggressive look that blends seamlessly into the body armor,” XtremeJ owner, Kevin McIntosh explained. “Functionally, they add rigidity to the stock sheet metal and have a much larger opening at the wheel well to fit larger tires and reduce rubbing.”

“On the trail, the fenders do a great job at keeping mud at bay and off your windshield,” McIntosh continued. “There’s also a handy support bar on the rear fenders that you can use to climb up on the top to the roof rack or attach a tube mount for an antenna or lights.”

Soon, we will look at strengthening Project XtremeJ’s drivetrain, adding a winch, and jumping to 35-inch tires. For more information on Rusty’s Off-Road and its products be sure to visit its website.

About the author

Jake Headlee

Jake's passion started at a young age wrenching on cars with his Dad. Obtaining that glorious driver's license sparked his obsession with grease and horsepower, and the rest is history. Soon, he was a general mechanic and suspension specialist, and currently designs and modifies products for the off-road industry. Jake enjoys rock crawling, desert racing and trail running, and writing in his spare time.
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