Even A Jeep Can Be Controlled!

COMPUSHIFT's AW4 Transmission Controller Can Even Tame the Transmission in Nino's Jeep XJ!

One of the best things about HGM COMPUSHIFT Transmission Controllers is the amazing and differing builds that it allows our customers to create. By now you will have glanced down at the brilliant photos below and seen the 1996 Jeep Cherokee (also known as the Jeep XJ) that Nino Vanich built. In this article Nino shares the backstory behind building this vehicle.....

Jeep XJ on Downhill

I’m Nino Vanich. I am originally from Thailand and grew up in the USA. I started my enthusiast career as a fan of VW/Audi vehicles. I’ve always enjoyed working on and modifying vehicles for speed, show, and practicality. I wanted to be different and have modifications that most people don’t or wouldn’t attempt. I’ve had multiple projects over the years; bagged K04 B6 VW Passat, lowered stage 2 B8 Audi A4, and currently a stage 2 B8.5 Audi S4 with a 10.6 second ¼ mile time.

In 2013, I wanted to start camping and having fun offroad. That journey began with a 1999 Mercedes ML320 with 31” tires. Shortly after some time with the ML320, I realized that I’ve reached its off roading limits. It was time for me to upgrade to something that was much more capable and had more potential. My father had a 1991 Jeep Cherokee in the 90's and I knew that this would be the platform for my next project. I searched and found a 1996 Jeep Cherokee(also known as a Jeep XJ). It was the last year of the old body style and a must have for me as it reminds me of good memories with my dad. Once acquired, I immediately upgraded the Jeep to a 5in long arm suspension, 33” tires, ford 8.8 rear end with a locker, and re-geared to 4.10 ratio.

Jeep XJ on Downhill

For 5 years this setup served me well. The Jeep had conquered trails such as "Fins n Things", "Top of the World", "Hells Revenge", "Poison Spider", "Kane Creek", and "Metal Masher". Though I’ve done a lot with the XJ, I was at the point where I wanted to attempt much harder trails like "Pritchett Canyon", "Rubicon", and "Fordyce". These trails require 35” or larger tires, and a front locker. Doing so will require me to re-gear yet again and add a front locker. I questioned the long term reliability of the stock Dana 30 front axle when running 35” tires and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on an axle that I was unsure of. That’s when the planning and rebuild began.

I decided to build the strongest axles possible that were readily available from junkyards. I found a set of Dana 60 and Sterling 10.5 axles from a Ford F250/F350. During the planning and parts collection stage, I contemplated the possibility of an engine upgrade one day. I assumed that an engine upgrade was at least 2 years down the road as I’d yet to find an engine that I really wanted. Naturally, I had this conversation with my VW/Audi friends and I had mentioned that I’ve seen a few put VW TDI’s (Turbo Diesel) into their rigs and I would be interested in the ALH generation of TDI engine out of a mk4 Jetta/Golf. I knew that they were powerful, reliable, and efficient. At that point, my friend asked why I wasn’t interested in the newer common rail TDI’s that were found in 2010+ Jetta/Golf/A3. I knew they could be just as reliable, make a lot more power, and could be just as efficient, but I also knew that they would be more expensive and harder to make the ECU comply with such a swap.

Jeep XJ Front End

As luck would have it, my friend told me of a complete 2012 Jetta that was for sale. A few days later, I was a proud owner of a 2012 Jetta TDI donor car. Fast forward to December 2019, the Jeep build had officially started. 

I spent countless hours cutting and learning how to weld on my new-to-me axles. Knowing that I had to build something that was roadworthy and safe, I had to make sure that everything was done properly. The good guys over at Artec Industries have a truss that goes over the front axle with all of the right brackets for the Dana 60. This took out a lot of the guesswork when building the front axle. 

After 3 months, the axles were done and under the Jeep with brand new control arms and the strongest joints made by Summit Machine. It spent the next week at the shop getting Yukon 4.88 gears with a front air locker and rear auto locker. Upon its return, we pulled the original 4.0 engine and installed beadlocks and 38” Milestar Patagonia tires. I was able to mate the new TDI engine, CJAA, to the original jeep transmission, the AW4. My goal was to make the Jeep function as if this engine came installed from the factory. The instrument cluster must work, the transfer case shifting should be unchanged, and most importantly the transmission must shift as if it was programmed to work with a diesel motor.

Jeep XJ with AW4 and COMPUSHIFT Transmission Controller

That's where the HGM COMPUSHIFT transmission controller came into play. Though the AW4 is very similar to the A340, it wasn’t a transmission that HGM had worked with a lot in the past. They were eager to start working with the Jeep community and the AW4. This process begins with deciphering the 1100 page VW wiring diagram to tie it into the jeep harness and the COMPUSHIFT harness. 

HGM was able to program the COMPUSHIFT to communicate with the VW CAN flawlessly. It is able to obtain real time throttle position, engine load, etc. After a larger turbo and some tuning, the engine now makes roughly 235hp and 435tq. The transmission is holding up great and the COMPUSHIFT is doing an amazing job. I’m even able to spin the 38” tires with ease while still having the low end torque to make use of the stickiness of these tires.

The Jeep is now running and certain aspects are still being refined. It's basically a completely new vehicle at this point so it was fitting to make a test run to Moab. It performed well and I’m excited to rerun all of the trails that I have conquered and to try new trails around the USA and hopefully the world.

At HGM we want to acknowledge Nino's outstanding project and his tenacity to take on projects that others might not attempt. This has provided him with not only a extremely capable vehicle but also the opportunity to get out and enjoy the outdoors with those who are most important to him.

Are you considering building an XJ Jeep or another vehicle needing an AW4 transmission controller? HGM has you covered! Just head over to our “configurator” page and we will ask you a few questions about your build. You’ll then see the exact components and pricing you need for your vehicle.

Go to the HGM Configurator for AW4 Transmission Controller pricing.

Many thanks to Nino and to those on the HGM team who worked together to add the AW4 to our growing stable of supported HGM transmissions.