If you don't know about Moab, Utah, and what it becomes around Easter every year, you're missing out. Simply put, it becomes the center of the universe for anyone interested in good, clean, wholesome, serious four-wheeling. The beauty of the surrounding mountains and desertscapes is only surpassed by the spectacular challenges on the hundreds of trails that snake through ravines, rocks, and hills. Most of the attendees are private owners in organized clubs, but lately, the serious original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have begun to get involved. As you might expect, Jeep has been coming out unofficially for several years-one trip through town and you'll understand why. This is Jeep country, but more specifically, this is hard-core 4x4 country.
For the engineering types who make the trek from their Michigan cubicles, the area serves as a big research facility where they can study how their most passionate buyers (the elite hard-core four-wheelers) modify and use their vehicles. In fact, the Jeep guys have learned to keep their attendance low-key. As you might imagine, there are a lot of diehard attendees that view them as rock stars. The mood is intimate on a grand scale, and to their credit, many of the OE folks know they've got to keep it that way. The Jeep engineers especially know the second they allow any kind of "salesy" sterile, corporate flavor into the event, they'll be roasted alive. And these aren't the guys you want to leave a bad impression with, mostly because each person attending Easter Jeep Safari could probably influence a dozen, two dozen, or 100 different car guys.
The beauty of this four-wheeling event is that it's put on by a local club for those who love to four-wheel, and for that reason it'll always survive. Any time passionate people are running the show, good things are bound to come out of it. Jeep guys have figured this out, and now other manufacturers are getting into the Moab game. On any given morning during the event, you'll see hundreds of custom modified four-wheelers lining up at different locations around town to stage for a trail ride. The first organized runs take off around eight o'clock but other waves leave at nine as well. This year, Jeep, Hummer, and Mopar had their crews out, some of whom had to take a few vacation days, to christen their newest creations.
Hummer had three factory H3s, an H3T, and two H3 engineering vehicles as play toys. Neither engineering vehicle was hugely modified, but they had been changed enough to make them special. You could tell the engineers were protective of these vehicles, assigning wheel time to specific drivers. One of the custom H3s had a 6.2-liter V-8 under the hood (complete with a stealthy 5.3-liter engine cover), and the other engineering H3 had a four-inch lift (thanks to a custom rear spring-over-axle conversion and standard front), bigger tires, and Hutchison beadlocks. As custom as these were, we talked our way into the driver's seat and gave them some feedback.
We can report they got most of the details right. Both were exceptionally trail capable. Softer suspensions, beadlocks, and other goodies made the playtoys more like factory vehicles than custom garage buildups. These mods were likely the result of several weeks of late-night garage work, as was the case with the other Moab attendees who got their own rigs ready for the big show. (See how the H3T did on the trail and pavement in our full story elsewhere in the magazine.)
To its credit, Jeep has participated in this Utah event for a few years. It brought 11 new playtoys this year, some of which were remodified versions from the six they brought last year. These vehicles were true garage builds, usually the brainchild of one guy who was given the mandate to build something (within reason) that he thought was cool. The assumption was that if Jeep's engineers thought it was cool, other hard-core guys probably would, too. That's the benefit of having real enthusiasts at the center of an R&D facility-something Jeep's had for years. And we reap the benefits when it brings its toys to Moab and lets us take them through dunes, up steep slickrock hillclimbs, and down stairstep waterfall trails. Some of the standout participants included the J8 Sarge (Olive Drab two-door Wrangler Unlimited with a 2.8-liter I-4 VM Motori turbodiesel), Ram HD Power Wagon (2500 with a Cummins 6.7-liter I-6 and 40-inch tires), and Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 50K (uses an M-B 3.0-liter V-6 CRD with almost 400 pound-feet of torque, 35-inch BFGs, and a pair of Tru-Lok-equipped Dana 44 axles) as well as the Jeep JT pickup, the Liberty Liberator, and a lifted diesel Grand Cherokee. Spectacular stuff, all on a shoestring budget. The group behind these vehicles calls itself the Mopar Underground team for obvious reasons, not the least of which is that its members don't really want their bosses to know, and it's probably better that way. If this process or event ever went corporate, it would lose much, if not all, of its credibility. We wonder what will happen next year.
This part of the world is the playground where real 4WDs, typically the biggest toys in a man's toybox, are made and tested on the most extreme trails this country has to offer. If your rig has a weak link in the driveline or powertrain (or the weak link is your trail spotter), it'll show itself at exactly the wrong moment, usually when your buddies are all watching. We've seen it. It never ends well. We rode with Hummer on one day and the Jeep the next, each with a lineup of toys-some of which, they tell us, are coming to market in one way or another.
In addition, Mopar had a chance to show off quite a few of its new parts and packages now available for Jeep and Dodge-everything from lift kits to transfer cases to complete front- or rear-axle assemblies. However, the biggest news was the newly offered VM Motori turbodiesel crate-engine swap kit made to drop into any new Wrangler. If there's one thing Jeep guys understand, it's torque, and the little Italian motor will offer close to 300 pound-feet of pulling power.