They humbly refer to themselves as dumpster-divers, the lunatic fringe within Jeep that develops concept vehicles, often made out of what's tossed into corporate trash bins. That these employees also are enthusiasts and owners is a big contributor to Jeep's success. If Chrysler ever decides to make this fringe group's work a part of an official division of Jeep, these guys have already come up with an unofficial name: Off-Road Technology.
Every year, Jeeps and assorted 4WDs of all flavors and hues descend on Moab for the Easter Jeep Safari. The trail rides create a rainbow of color and plumes of dust that can be seen from commercial aircraft five miles above. With that many enthusiasts in one location, it's a favorite place for Jeep engineers to work--trail-riding is R&D--and is also a great venue for marketers to see what flies and what doesn't. And they bring cool stuff, too. When was the last time you saw a fire-engine-red Forward Control 170 off-road?
Grand Cherokee CRD
The limo in this group was a Grand Cherokee diesel concept called Blaque--perhaps something got lost in translation as the Grand Cherokee's signal repeaters and kilometer-biased speedometer betrayed this Jeep's European heritage.
Yet it really wasn't a concept. This CRD was stock except for a Superlift system, stout 33-inch (LT285/75R17D) BFG Mud-Terrains, AEV rock rails, and a custom front skidplate; the suspension was noted as a four-inch lift, although it looked more like 2.5 to three inches in front and four in back.
With the factory drive system, Blaque made it through all of Lockhart Basin without scratching paint or peeling any plastic other than a front fender liner that came loose. Getting through was more work than in a Wrangler because of visibility issues, requiring more patience at approach and departure, and a sensitive electronic throttle that didn't like being depressed simultaneously with the brake pedal (to keep from falling backward against the loose converter).
On the faster sections it was the place to be, as the combination of lightest wheel/tire package plus plenty of wheelbase proved softest. It was also the quickest since the turbocharged diesel didn't care if we were a mile above sea level, and it had more than sufficient torque to scoot around buggies plodding along at 40 mph. And you couldn't even hear the diesel engine.
Once clear of the obstacles, we spent seat time in a stock production CRD (approximately $2000 over the price of a 5.7-liter). Since the gauge barely moves off F for the first 100 miles, finding fuel shouldn't be an issue. Noise or cold-start waits aren't a problem, either; in 49-degree weather we had no start wait, and hot air came from the vents in three minutes. For the undulating twisting highways around lower Utah and Colorado, this is the engine of choice. It has enough torque that it won't downshift until you mash the pedal, seamless gear changes, and no hint inside other than the 4500-rpm redline. We posted 20 mpg doing that first 100 miles in about 82 minutes at constantly varying speeds; on trail rides we'd anticipate using no more than a half gallon an hour. Like other Grand Cherokees, the CRD is Trail Rated.
Wrangler Rubicon King
This Wrangler, the only six-speed manual here, made its debut at last year's SEMA show in Kubota orange paint. The shortened exhaust sounds like a Kubota tractor at low revs and an outboard motor when it's wound up. You need the revs to overcome the 37-inch T/A Krawlers and Mopar/Hutchinson beadlock-style wheels.
Both of those issues will go away when it returns to the ORT shop, where a 392 Hemi crate engine is waiting for installation; the gearbox is yet to be determined as a Viper six-speed is geared too tall and the standard 'box will soon succumb to the pressure.
The Wrangler Rubicon King uses an American Expedition Vehicles hood, which has vents on the sides and across the fan ahead of a power dome; don't park this outside if there's a chance of snow or rain. If it freezes, it'll blow the belts off when you start it. Other cosmetic changes include more CJ-like rollbar curves, a spare instead of a back seat, rear corner plates, trimmed front fender and grille, and headlamps that incorporate turn signals since the stock bits were cut off.
Underneath, the King is all Rubicon, except for a Superlift four-inch system and the oversize tires. It runs a Warn 9.0RC rockcrawling winch, mil-spec tow shackles, and our favorite, a radio delete panel. With lots of travel in suspension and sidewall, no roof, and a manual gearbox, this was the softest slow-ride trail buggy here and generally worked feet free.
The Limit for Unlimited
Also unveiled at SEMA was this Rubicon Unlimited, shown with a 3.0-liter V-6 turbodiesel, next to a sign that said it had a 4.2-liter V-6 diesel. In Moab, it had neither of the above, instead running the stock powertrain. However, the 3.0 will go back under the hood; perhaps a Cummins 4.2-liter V-6 will find its way in when Jeep has a gearbox capable of handling it.
Affectionately called 50K in reference to a pricing exercise to see how expensive they could make a Jeep (Grand Cherokees reach about $47,000), this Unlimited is finished in monochrome Rolex silver, including the removable panel roof, and has projector headlamps. It runs stock Rubicon axles, a small lift to accommodate 35-inch Mud-Terrains on custom 18-inch Taneisya aluminum wheels, a Warn 9.5ti winch, AEV front bumper, spare-carrying Mopar rear bumper, Katzkin leather seats, and GPS/satellite radio. ORT made a minor mod with big implications: It wired the locker switches independently, allowing a locked rear in 2WD or 4-Hi.
The Unlimited had no trouble keeping up, aided in many places by having the longest wheelbase in the group. It didn't attract as much attention as some of the others, but keeping a low profile isn't such a bad thing.
Jeep Truck Returns
Jeep's main street display had the previously shown Gladiator concept in it, where it remained roped off. But the J-T (Jeep Truck) concept was a genuine driver, went everywhere, and got as many thumbs-up as the others combined.
Sporting classic Jeep pickup lines and ultra-low-impact style, the J-T is one of those concepts that begs comments like "ya gotta build this" and "it's a no-brainer." Hearing-aid beige (why couldn't this be the color's official name?) covers almost all of it including the solid steel wheels, and it even has a rendition of the round "4-Wheel Drive" badge painted on the tailgate.
The J-T is built on a Wrangler Unlimited chassis using existing side bodywork from military applications; you could do the same with a four-door by welding the back doors shut but you wouldn't have the flat-floor five-foot bed of the J-T. The removable top is fiberglass and leaves plenty of space for tall occupants in the standard Wrangler seating positions. As testament to the dumpster-diving involved with these projects, the J-T uses right-hand-drive-market H4 headlights.
Bolt-on parts include a three-inch Superlift kit, 35-inch mud tires, Mopar rear bumper and rock rails, and Ramsey 9500 UT winch. The simplicity stood out, even when parked next to a J20 or Commando.
While the J-T hadn't even been seen by most Jeep executives, V.P. of Jeep/truck design Ralph Gilles did visit Moab with it. Production queries elicited the standard "no comment," but Gilles did allow that the J-T was getting "lots of love" as it cruised the trails around Moab. If you weren't in Moab and want to share the love, go to www.jeep.com and tell them what "no-brainer" means. If you can make the business case for them, they'll build it.
Somewhat out of place in a rockcrawling mecca, the Compass Rallye package garnered more attention than we thought it might. Primarily an exterior appearance package, it adds deeper front and rear fascias, rear spoiler, sill panels, foglights in the bumper and driving lights on top of it, chrome exhaust tip, and five choices of monochrome paint. Black painted 18x7.0-inch wheels with polished rims and chrome center caps shod with 215/55R18 Firehawks should help handling as much as the look. There are no changes to the interior or running gear, and the package runs about $1800.
Two hours after they did it New York and the wind almost did it for them in Moab, Jeep pulled the wrapper off the 2008 Liberty. Resembling the result of a head-on collision between a Commander and the old Liberty, the new visuals include a seven-slot grille, squared lamp housings, front fenders, more upright, less roly-poly bodywork, and an available SkyRoof that opens most of the roof and slides both rearward and back to front.
The Liberty is two inches longer overall than its stablemate Dodge Nitro, and its wheelbase is shorter by almost three inches. However, the Jeep isn't appreciably smaller than the Nitro inside, and it's much more comfortable than the old Liberty, especially in the rear seat. It has the Nitro's reversible load floor system and optional MyGig as well.
The Liberty shares the Nitro's mechanicals with a few obvious changes. Only the 3.7-liter V-6 will be offered, with a six-speed manual or four-speed auto; no 4.0-liter/five-speed automatic and the diesel is now export only. Four-wheel-drive models get a proper low range with either a part- or full-time system, and the Liberty's wheel/tire packages are more suited to general and trail use--18s will be the biggest offered.