One of the discussions in four-wheel drive forums that can quickly escalate to a very heated debate is the big question: is it better to build your off-road rig to your specs after purchasing a [relatively] base model, or is it better to buy it off the lot with most of the modifications already installed? There are decals supporting both sides of the argument: “Built Not Bought,” and “Bought Not Built.” I feel at least somewhat qualified to give an opinion on this subject since our family has one of each Jeep – mine has been built while my husband opted to buy his already modded. What follows are my observations about some pros and cons of each choice based on our experiences with both built and bought Jeeps.
Pick your [quality] parts! Depending on your budget, trail needs, and lifestyle you can choose quality (albeit more expensive) modifications for your rig if you buy a stock model and upgrade it yourself. I chose AEV for many of my mods because the quality of their products is generally top-notch, and they’re a USA-made company. Plus, modifying after purchase allows you to add, or not add, certain features. Like the stock bumper but want a lift and bigger tires? Done! Don’t want to upgrade your fender flares just yet? Leave ‘em. The point with BUILDING your Jeep is just that – design the vehicle you want and need, and leave off the fluff.
Watch your rig grow up! Just like watching your kid grow (hmmm…sort of…), it’s very cool to see a stock vehicle become a bigger, meaner beast! Here are a few photos of my 2012 Jeep to illustrate.
Modify your mods! A Jeep can become a money pit if you never stop modifying it. However, building a modded rig yourself allows you to change up what’s not working, or gradually go for better parts over time. (You can sell old parts to recoup a portion of the cost). The Dana 44 not working well enough for you? Sell it and upgrade to a Dana 60! The point here is that because you chose the parts and you know what’s been added / changed on your rig, you (or the shop who does your work) can easily modify what’s already been modified to make it even better. Is there any limit to the number of mods on a rig? Heck no! It’s a lifetime effort! Although I’m done modifying mine. (*wink, wink*)
Technical skills required! If modifying a vehicle after purchase you need the right skills to do so, or you need to know someone who's handy, or you’ll need to pay a shop to do the work. If you’ve got the technical know-how to modify your rig yourself – kudos to you! But many people opt to have a qualified shop do the work so it’s done right and safely. On my Jeep, I picked the parts and had various shops (mainly Northridge 4x4) do the work. The quality of their workmanship is second to none and I’ve had almost no performance issues with my mods because the shop has the skills necessary to do the job right.
Expect a few issues. Any time you modify a factory vehicle there’s a level of awareness required. This takes a little more time/effort, but in my opinion is well worth it! For example, I turned off my tire pressure indicator (because I run my larger trail tires at a lower-than-factory-standard pressure) so I now have to remember to check my tire air every so often (instead of relying on an automatic alarm). And, after every trail run, and every so often in between trails, I crawl under my Jeep and check all the bolts on the modifications that were added to ensure they’re tight - these can loosen over time. Point is, if you modify your stock vehicle you then have to maintain those mods or they can fail. This is just something to keep in mind.
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Warranty, baby! Buying an already-modded Jeep from a dealership allows you to ensure all mods are included in the warranty – which means if you have any issues with said mods it won’t cost you an arm, leg, and spleen to get it fixed. This is a big selling point for some people and it’s why many have chosen to buy a Jeep that's been modded up front.
Consumer satisfaction. Right or not, the American consumer has been shaped by society to "gotta have it now" with the all-consuming need of instant gratification. Buying a modded Jeep allows you to have your wheels and drive it too – all over those big boulders! There’s no waiting to get a lift and bigger tires before you tackle that tough trail. Drive your beast off the lot and into High Country the same day! This instant gratification is a large selling point and I think it’s a big reason our local Jeep dealership now offers more modded Jeeps where stock was the norm in the past.
Quantity overbears quality. The above-mentioned consumer is oft-satisfied with shiny bells and whistles. Wowie! -- light bar, cool looking fender flares, shiny winch – all of these items dazzle when checking out rigs on the sales lot. But, because a modded Jeep has involved more middlemen and the dealer still needs to make a buck, I guarantee that a modded Jeep bought off the lot will not contain the highest quality mod parts. They don’t use poorest quality either, but top quality parts and install is not the priority. And the mods themselves are more about looks (sales!) than performance – for example, solid tube fender flares look nice and are often less expensive but have a greater chance of damaging your vehicle on trail if hit, rather than flares that will bend on impact (but that may cost a little more).
Squeaks, rattles, and shakes – oh my! The aforementioned lack of quality may show in a brand-new modded Jeep, evidenced by a plethora of squeaks and rattles that several trips back to the mod shop have been unable to fix. (I know mods don’t have to squeak or rattle – I’ve got five times the amount of mods on my rig that my hub has on his, and mine’s a much quieter ride!). Consider this carefully when choosing whether to build your Jeep after purchase (and choose the shop who does the work) or whether to buy a modded rig up front: quality is imperative in a big machine you drive every day. Be confident that the mods were done by highly skilled techs and that those mods will perform as expected (as in, keeping you and your family safe - on and off the road).
Cost. Ok, forking over the money is always a con – riiiight?! However, in our experience, my husband and I have about the same amount of dough into each of our rigs. I have five times the mods, but he has comfort stuff like power windows and locks. My mods are top quality, perform great, and were installed by a top quality shop. His mods look very cool but the jury is still out on performance. However, he does get free repairs if they break…
At the end of the day, though, what really matters? Built or bought, how are you using your rig? There are bought Jeeps on the trail and built Jeeps who don’t off-road at all. My personal opinion is that if you’re not using your Jeep off-road, it’s an expensive ride around town. Use your Jeep like it was meant to be used! Climb those mountains, rock those boulders, get it filthy-muddy and go where [almost] no one can go for views that are out of this world! Use your Jeep, bought or built, to get your kids into nature, camp in remote spots, and teach them about survival in the High Country while being responsible along the way. Jeeps are FUN and what unites all Jeep owners, built or bought, is the ability to get out and enjoy all that nature has to offer – topless! That's what really matters.
Thanks for reading today, and Happy Trails in your [built or bought] rig!
Update, August 2017: for the past year we've fought with our bought rig like a partner in a dysfunctional relationship. Read more in Part 2, Part 3, and the final conclusion with evidence to prove that buying a dealer-modified Jeep with warranty is actually way costlier than buying a stock vehicle and building it yourself – plus you run a big safety risk by driving cheap dealer mods.