Moab is a small town surrounded by stunning scenic views and dirt roads that trail off into the Utah badlands. Many of the trails lead to abandoned uranium mines, worked in the Cold War years as a strategic resource. These days, the trails around Moab are a national treasure of a different kind. These days, Moab is a Mecca for four-wheeling.

The week before Easter, off-road enthusiasts from all over the world fill the town's motels, restaurants, and car washes and keep the tire stores, auto parts shops, and four-wheel-drive shops open until midnight. There are roughly 30 different trails that are marked, rated, and maintained by the Red Rock Four Wheelers, who deserve credit for bringing business to the town of Moab and preserving the quality of the experience for all.

Over the years, manufacturers including Jeep, Hummer, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Land Rover have used Moab trails to prove and launch their new four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs. Perhaps most conspicuous among them is a group of Chrysler employees that calls itself the Mopar Underground.

This is a group of engineers and designers, headed by chief designer Mark Allen, that has been customizing production vehicles since 2002. Instead of using static auto shows to display their creations, the team brings the vehicles to Moab for the annual Easter Jeep Safari and takes to the trails, allowing enthusiasts to see, touch, and sometimes even drive their latest custom 4x4 concepts.

"Moab works as a proving ground to test Jeep vehicle concepts with Jeep enthusiasts," Allen says. "We use knowledge gained at this event to explore new directions and develop Mopar Performance parts to suit these vehicles."

This year, the Mopar Underground team brought a brace of previously unseen modified production vehicles. Officially, these are considered concept vehicles...but each working prototype explored an idea that may very well make its way to the marketplace in the next 12 months. Here are some of the highlights:


Lower Forty
Starting with a Wrangler platform, the Mopar Underground explored the idea of combining massive 40-inch tires with heavy axles, super-low gears, a 5.7-liter Hemi engine, and a manual six-speed transmission--with no lift whatsoever. The result is a stunning pit bull of a Jeep that screams power and performance in Red Eye No. 3 paint.

The tires are 40x13.50/R20LT Mickey Thompsons, mounted on 20-inch forged aluminum wheels. Stout Mopar axles--a Dana 44 in front and Dana 60 rear--were loaded with 5.38 gears and Dynatrac-prepared ARB air lockers to handle the rolling mass.

Power comes from a new 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, backed by a Getrag 238 six-speed manual transmission, both of which were installed at Burnsville Off-Road using an AEV kit.

Fitting the 40s required extensive bodywork, including trimming the rear quarter panels and adding fender flares that were one inch wider and four inches higher than stock. Since they were going to have to repaint anyway, they added a one-piece carbon-fiber hood and a chopped the top three inches, raking the windshield rearward another 10 degrees.

The interior is equally original. A rollcage was neatly integrated into the body tub and attached to the frame for safety. The center console and instrument panel were repainted to match the exterior, and the seats were recovered with two-tone Katzkin leather, front and rear. There is no carpet; the interior has been spray-lined with a bed-lining material, but Mopar floormats are used for mud control. The spare tire has been relocated to the cargo area, and a cargo basket installed.

The Lower Forty concept looks like a show vehicle, and it probably will end up on the auto-show circuit at some point. But it's a runner. During extensive thrashing on sand dunes in the Moab area, the Lower Forty concept willingly blasted up, down, and around every dune in the place. Eventually, the power-steering fluid began to overheat and a hose coupling gave way. It was fixed on site, and an hour later the Wrangler went back out for more.




SJ Mopar Madness
This immaculate machine is what happens when Jeep engineers get together to build whatever they can dream up. For starters, they transplanted a 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 into a clean 1978 Cherokee Chief body, along with a Mopar remanufactured 545 transmission. To that they added a Rock-Trac 4-to-1 transfer case from a Wrangler Rubicon. They also made use of the Rubicon's front and rear Dana 44 axles, plus they installed a 4.5-inch long-arm suspension kit. With the kit in place, 37-inch Goodyear MT/R tires can be used.

Body, bumpers, grille, and chrome trim pieces are conspicuously clean and perfect, looking just as they might have when the Chief came off the line in 1978. Inside, Mopar gauges have been added to update the control center, and custom leather seats provide the latest in seating style and comfort. To bring audio into the 21st century, a Mopar Kicker audio system has been installed.

Current Jeep engineers, and some retired ones as well, worked together to build a modernized classic 4x4 with power, gearing, and curb appeal that stops traffic on road and off.

Wrangler Overland
A light attack vehicle for the primitive camper, the Overland concept Wrangler is designed to get to places where others cannot go, and allow its occupants to make themselves comfortable in most any setting. It's a highly mobile, rolling campsite based on a 2009 four-door Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. To maximize utility, the rear seats have been replaced with a flat, rubberized floor and a cargo rack was added to the top. The rack carries an ARB/Simpson II rooftop-mounted tent and touring awning, which deploys into a two-person penthouse tent setup and shaded area in the shelter of the Wrangler.

Helping improve off-road capability is a Mopar 2.5-inch suspension lift, allowing the addition of aggressive 35-inch tires. In keeping with the idea of reliable self-sufficiency, it uses 17-inch Mopar winter/off-road wheels, and a Warn 9.5ti winch has been mounted in an American Expedition Vehicle (AEV) steel bumper. The full-size spare, already mounted and balanced on a spare wheel, has been relocated to a swing-away rear carrier. The rear bumper contains a molded compartment that can hold 10 gallons of fresh water, and a Class III hitch provides a ready towing or rescue attachment point. For night visibility, Mopar windshield-mounted off-road lights and Daystar bumper-mounted lights have been installed. A military-style AEV heat-reduction hood and snorkel kit enhances reliability in desert settings.

Inside, the Overland Wrangler is equipped with water-resistant Mopar front seat covers, slush mats, and an extra dash bin. Lighting and other gear are operated from a separate switch panel designed by Daystar.




2009 Grand Canyon II
Let's say you like your four-wheeling luxury-style, but you don't want to pull any punches. What you have here is a brand-new, fully optioned Grand Cherokee, set up for serious off-road use. It's lifted four inches, so it can travel rougher roads at higher speeds, and it has 285/70R18 tires to add ground clearance. As a result, angles of approach and departure are substantially improved. The wheels are from a Wrangler Rubicon.

Hardening the exterior is a high-clearance ARB front bumper and Mopar heavy-duty rock rails. The doorsill plates have been replaced with stainless-steel plates; slush mats have been added and a cargo liner installed to control dirt. Based on these mods, this Grand Cherokee will tolerate rough use far better than a stock unit, but retains a largely stock appearance and driving manner.

Big Red Ram 1500
This 2009 Ram Quad Cab was customized using all Mopar parts, suggesting one-stop shopping for a new-truck buyer looking to finance a turnkey custom. It's a great-looking, street-legal custom Ram that could easily be duplicated by a Dodge, Jeep, or Chrysler dealer willing to install Mopar Performance parts for a customer. Since the gear is all from Mopar, meaning that it passes OEM durability testing, service and warranty issues would be minimized.

Central to the design is a new four-inch lift kit that permits use of 37-inch tires, with just a little fender trimming. Mopar is expanding its line of off-road performance parts to include lift kits that will come with a limited lifetime warranty, meaning that broken parts will be replaced as long as the original buyer has the truck. In this case, the lift uses brackets to lower the original factory control arms, then adds longer springs and high-pressure, Bilstein gas shocks. The four-link rear suspension is retained, but with longer springs; spacers are not used. We had a chance to drive this Ram ourselves, and the suspension setup struck us as one that retains a surprising amount of factory steering precision, while adding more damping control for the 37-inch rubber.

Under hood resides a factory 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, but with a cold-air intake and a cat-back exhaust to enhance breathing, chances are it makes a little more than the stock 390 horsepower. This truck responded well to the throttle with 3.55 gears in stock axles, but the Ram can be ordered with 3.909 gears from the factory. Other Dodge accessories on this truck include a tonneau cover, front hood with dual scoops, a set of front tow hooks, and a transfer-case skidplate.




XJ Stroker
This looks like a plain-Jane Cherokee, but of all of the Mopar Underground creations, it might be the one you'd most want to take home. Under the hood is a prototype 4.7-liter version of the 4.0-liter straight-six, the engine that most aficionados consider the best engine ever to power a Jeep. By putting a long-stroke, torquer 4.7 into an XJ, Mopar signals its intention to make available a bolt-in motor like the powerplant that won the 4x4 SUV category at the 2008 Baja 1000 in the ATK Jeepspeed racer. Considering that there are now some 2.8 million Cherokees on the road today, plus another million Wranglers, the 4.7-liter six could become a volume item for Mopar.

We talked to engineer P.T. Muldoon, who told us the engine is still in reliability testing but looks good. "We ran the heck out of it all week at Moab. I brought it home and we're running the heck out of it right now," he said. The engine will have to survive the same powertrain test schedule as other Mopar remanufactured engines before it can be offered in September 2009. The prototype stroker engine in the XJ makes about 260 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm, with 260 pound-feet available at 2000 rpm. "We put the torque in the right place, in my opinion," Muldoon said. The final production output specs will be determined by dyno testing prior to release.

The engine was developed using roller rockers to actuate upsized valves housed in new heads. Hypereutectic pistons, which contain a percentage of silicon to harden the aluminum and prevent scuffing, are supplied by Sealed Power. The new cylinder dimensions are 3.875 by 3.906 inches, because "4.7 is about the limit," Muldoon told us. "Beyond that, you're pushing it." The engine also contains a heavy-duty timing chain and a high-volume oil pump. Also featured on the XJ Stroker test mule are a 2.5-inch suspension lift and 31-inch tires.

SOURCES

American Expedition Vehicles
www.aev-conversions.com248/926-0256

Mopar Performance
www.mopar.com

J8 MILSPEC To Become Available in USA
By John Stewart

In Egypt, there's an assembly plant that builds military Jeeps for foreign governments. The plant can assemble about 5000 units a year, using stampings shipped from the USA, for military-specification Jeep vehicles, which are known as the J8.

The J8 resembles a pared-down, strictly business version of the CJ-8, otherwise known as the Scrambler. Like the Scrambler, the J8 is a big Jeep. It has a long wheelbase at 116 inches and a turning circle of about 40 feet. However, it's more rugged than the Scrambler ever was, with heavy-duty Dana 44 front and Dana 60 rear axles equipped with Dodge Ram brakes. The frame has been heavily reinforced and fitted with leaf springs to enable a 2550-pound payload capacity and a 3500-pound tow rating. Military-specific equipment includes tow loops rated for helicopter transport, remote-mounted batteries, and an air filter capable of dealing with a five-hour, zero-visibility dust storm.

Hardcore enthusiasts have always appreciated military vehicles because of their rugged capability and purposeful design. However, because of domestic emissions regulations, the J8 can only be sold overseas. That is, until now. Approximately 150 J8s will be made available as kit cars by a company called American Expedition Vehicles as the AEV J8 MILSPEC.

The AEV J8 will be sold as a component rolling chassis for off-road use only, without an engine or transmission. It will be up to the customer to obtain an appropriate powertrain; the chassis can be ordered with complete wiring harness and mounting setup for either a 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi or a 2.8-liter VM Motori turbodiesel, similar to the one that appeared in the Jeep Liberty, backed by either a Chrysler 5-45 automatic transmission or a six-speed manual. The transfer case will be a Jeep Command-Trac with 2.72 low range.

Electrical systems can be either straight 12-volt, or a 12/24-volt switchable system with the VM Motori diesel. The complete rolling chassis will be delivered painted in either Desert Sand or Military Green, with a choice of two- or four-door body styles. The rolling chassis includes all the military qualities of the actual J8, plus upholstery, full instrumentation, heavy-duty suspension and axles, exhaust system, wheels and tires, plus ABS and air-conditioning. AEV does not supply the powertrain, but AEV CEO Dave Harriton advises that there are a number of AEV dealers who can supply and install the engine. "The engine installation is not all that difficult," he says, because the chassis comes completely prewired. "We've got our installation times down to about eight hours for the 5.7-liter Hemi."

Harriton indicates that the AEV rolling chassis will cost about $42,000 depending on options and that buyers should expect to pay another $8000 for the powertrain installation, to make a complete running vehicle. It will be up to the owner to register the vehicle on his own. In some states, such as California, an emissions exemption would have to be purchased. In other states, the process could be much simpler, particularly in the case of the Hemi, which is a modern engine that meets emissions requirements in 50 states.

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