Unveiled at the 2000 North American International Automobile Show in Detroit this January, the Jeep Varsity crossover concept competed for attention with the flashier Chrysler 300 Hemi C, Dodge MAXXcab, and Dodge Viper GTS/R concepts. Like the other three concepts, the Jeep Varsity offers a cutting-edge design and production-ready technology. One could not help but look over at the new Pontiac Aztek exhibit, seeing that the Jeep Varsity could serve as a direct competitor to the emerging hybrid utility class.
From the unmistakable seven-slotted grille, the trademark trapezoidal wheel openings, radical approach and departure angles, ample ground clearance, and four-wheel drive, it would seem that the Varsity has the prerequisite Jeep trademarks and styling cues, yet it is not a shrunken Grand Cherokee. But is it a real Jeep?
Traditional Jeep purists may dismiss the Varsity, as it is equipped with indep endent suspension, not the long-proven solid-axle configuration. But remember, the 1984 downsized, unibody Cherokee wasn't accepted as a true Jeep at first either. (It has been so successful that not only is it still built today, but Jeep just announced that production will be extended due to overwhelming demand.) Until the Varsity fails to prove its mettle on traditional Jeep off-road tests like the Rubicon, the trails outside of Moab, and the challenges of Ouray, we must trust that the current generation of Jeep designers and engineers kept the legendary Jeep performance in this new package.
With the premiere of the Jeep Varsity it would appear that the long-lived AMC-based in-line six is finally going to powerplant heaven as the future of Jeep engines is obviously going to lie with a new generation of modern, overhead cam designs. The upcoming 2001 KJ Cherokee will probably be the first Jeep recipient of a modern V-6 engine, although not the 3.5-liter/300-horsepower V-6 engine found under the hood of the Jeep Varsity. In this application, the potent six-cylinder is mated to a four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission and a shift-on-the-fly transfer case with full-time four-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive, and four-wheel-drive low-range modes. Beyond insider information, history suggests that KJ Cherokee is likely to receive a similar setup, just as the 1999 Grand Cherokee adopted the new SOHC 4.7-liter V-8 and many of the Quadra-Drive components first seen on the 1998 Jeepster concept.