If you've never been to Moab, Utah, it needs to be on your bucket list. And if you've never been there the week before or after Easter for the Red Rock 4Wheeler's Easter Jeep Safari (now in its 45th year), add that to the list as well. At that time, it is the center of the universe for those who love four-wheeling. The rounded red slickrock of Utah also happens to be some of the most beautiful backcountry in the world. Maybe that's why Jeep designers and engineers have been coming here for more than a decade to show off their concept vehicles and underground projects to the 4x4 faithful.
The event is called the Mopar Underground, and it's run by Mark Allen, head of design for Jeep. His crew of in-house pickup and SUV enthusiasts gets to dip into one of the biggest and coolest parts bins in the world and create just about anything their twisted imaginations can formulate. They even give attending media a chance to take the creations out for a spin. Each unique vehicle typically reflects some aspect of the Jeep or Ram Truck character. Some explore current trends in the off-road or racing industries, while others are more futuristic, and still others are just plain cool.
What follows are the vehicles we got a chance to see and drive outside Moab this year. Like most project vehicles, these were not perfect, but they show what is possible. And for that, we tip our hats to Jeep (and Ram Truck) for making the effort. It's fun to watch and see how these guys play, and it gives us a chance to see what's going on behind the marketing spin. Enjoy!
As an exercise in weight savings, Jeep took a new two-door Wrangler and pulled every possible ounce, or bit of "pork," out of the vehicle, including the doors, roof, bumpers, tailgate, brackets, and seats, and then engineers rebuilt what had to stay. The fuel tank was replaced with a smaller aluminum unit, the front and rear axles were modified for weight savings without sacrificing strength, and the interior was stripped of all non-essentials. Add to that a lightweight seat frame, modified fender flares, and a 2-inch "chop" to the front windshield, and the end result is a V-6-motivated vehicle that weighs almost 1000 pounds less. Of course with less weight, the engine feels a lot more powerful and does a much better job of turning the 35-inch Mickey Thompson Baja Claw tires on old-school E-T Vintage V wheels.
The vehicle does have a 2-inch suspension lift, Bilstein reservoir shocks, and 4.88:1 gears, and from what we experienced, this little crawler will climb nearly anything. Nimble doesn't begin to describe the wheel feel and control. Losing this much weight, especially if you have a small driver behind the wheel, gives the Wrangler jump and spring when shooting through the dunes that we've never felt from a Jeep. And the sound it makes -- thanks in large part to Banks custom headers -- was impressive as well. We hope some of these weight-saving tricks make their way into future vehicles, as fuel economy continues to be a sensitive issue.
For those who have been screaming for a Jeep pickup (and the numbers are growing), Jeep brought the JK-8 Independence concept. Built from a Wrangler Unlimited platform, the lifted and lightly modified vehicle is basically a mini pickup truck, meant to highlight an all-new Mopar conversion kit. The kit will transform the four-seat, four-door SUV into a two-door, shortbed pickup truck-type thing.
The JK-8 Independence has a 4.5-inch Mopar suspension, 37-inch BFG Mud-Terrains, and beefed-up front and rear Dana 44 axles with 4.88:1 gears. Pricing won't be announced until July 4. (Get it? Independence Day.) The kit includes about 18 parts and can be installed either with a welder or strong adhesive (we recommend welding) in about six to eight hours. The kit will include a fiberglass bulkhead and half-section rear rooftop, two side panels, a bed floor, and several smaller pieces. This kit is probably a placeholder for a real Jeep pickup truck, strongly rumored to be on the way (but likely, we're hearing, at least three years off). Still, for those who can't wait for the real thing, this could be an interesting and unique alternative. The kit includes no modifications to the suspension or spring rates, so expect the GVWR to remain the same. But, as you might expect, calculated payload will climb, because the weight of the rear doors, seats, and passengers are not a factor. In real terms, that means there should be a little over 1100 pounds of payload capability with the towing capacity of 3500 pounds unchanged. We like the idea and attempt, but it needs a bigger bed.
WRANGLER BLUE CRUSH
One of the wildest vehicles Jeep brought to Moab this year was Blue Crush, a hybrid between a high horsepower desert racer and extreme-travel rockcrawler. It's based off a stretched and heavy-duty-ized Wrangler Unlimited, with unique HD axles pushed to the ends of the frame and out to each corner. The 39-inch BFG on 18-inch rims gives Blue Crush all the grip it needs to conquer obstacles. Of course, its all-aluminum 426 Hemi, which produces more than 540 horsepower, certainly helps. The suspension is so crazy, we don't have enough room to explain it all. Don't expect to see anything like this from Jeep in the near or distant future, but it's encouraging that Jeep's mad scientists (i.e. engineers) were allowed to create this kind of Frankenstein.
We'd seen and heard about Ram's answer to the Ford Raptor, but this was the first time we had the chance to really flog the thing. Our initial impression is that this hits the real and imagined desert racer square between the eyes. The completed package allows you to throw the truck at nasty terrain and violent obstacles far beyond what your instincts likely will allow. That means you can haul butt through any dry wash or over any desert course you want at speeds at least as fast, if not faster, than a Raptor. But the fully outfitted Ram Runner falls just short of its main competition in the not-full-throttle usage zone. You can drive the Raptor around town, but the Ram Runner has more single-purpose duty in mind. Still, for about $19,000 for the full kit (a completely high-tech suspension setup, front and rear replacement fiberglass fenders, a new front bumper, and rear tire carrier), you can set up a relatively inexpensive regular cab Ram 1500 4x4 for about $10,000 less than a Raptor (assuming you can do all the install work yourself).
Of course, you'll still need to buy new wheels and tires to get the full potential out of the desert racer. Look for a new Ram Runner to be the official vehicle of the TORC series, pacing each and every dirt-track racecourse. Can't wait for the Raptor versus 'Runner faceoff.
It's been more than 30 years since a V-8 was offered in a small Jeep, but the JK Wrangler Renegade is a strong argument that that should change. Harkening back to those glory days, this new Renegade was built with a 6.4-liter Hemi, rated to make 476 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque, backed up with a six-speed manual from a Ram HD. Jeep tells us the engine swap was relatively easy, with cooling the most important and challenging issue. To that end, Mopar provided a heat-dissipating hood, and also donated several accent accessories and a bikini top. Along with the stronger motor came stronger DynaTrac Dana 44 front and Dana 60 rear axles, a set of ARB locking diffs, and 4.10:1 gearing. This Renegade also fits 35-inch Mickey Thompson Baja Claw tires under the fenders, made possible by an AEV 4-inch suspension lift. Other improvements include a Warn 9.5 CTi winch, a Mopar-sourced interior upgrade kit, and a retro-inspired black and gold paint job. The strength of this vehicle clearly comes from the motor, which gives this little 4x4 an amazing power-to-weight ratio. And the noise it makes when flogged over sand dunes is one you can feel.
LIBERTY OUTLAND ZEBRA
As much as this export-only Liberty (called Cherokee outside the U.S.) wants to blend into the African plains, this one will stand out wherever it goes. Meant to be more of an adventurer's platform, the Outland uses the VM Motori Italian-sourced 2.8-liter I-4 and sports all sorts of ARB accessories, including roof rack, rear air locker, air compressor, awning, rock rails, refrigerator, and an Old Man Emu 3-inch suspension lift. This last modification allowed the Cherokee to fit larger Mickey Thompson MTZ tires. Mopar fit the vehicle with extra skidplating, front and rear tow hooks, a rear cargo liner, and a sports pedal dress-up kit. The turbodiesel is pretty old, and even though it sells quite well overseas, it's likely to benefit from a complete overhaul soon, given that Fiat has strong turbodiesel roots and big plans for future Jeeps. While driving this little beauty, we were reminded what great low-rpm grunt the little diesel offers, especially when pulling a vehicle up and over steep rocks. Regardless of fuel prices, we'd still love to see something like this for sale here. From what we're hearing, the Liberty is not likely to survive the next go-round of lineup changes; it's more likely to be completely replaced by a new, more modern model. Let's hope it has a turbodiesel option.
Quite possibly the subtlest vehicle brought to Moab by Jeep, this Grand Cherokee is simply called the Off Road. Using regular steel springs, the vehicle has a 2-inch lift, leaving just enough room to squeeze a set of 33-inch BFG Mud-Terrains at each corner. The Off Road does have the optional 5.7-liter Hemi under the hood, but no modifications have been made. Our favorite aspect of the vehicle? That's easy -- the paint. Jeep designers had been looking at naval boat colors for a while, and thought this low-gloss, heavy-duty ship paint would look outstanding when accented against some black and red highlights. And they were right. If this doesn't get into some Jeep or Mopar ordering guide, it'll be a crime. Our only change would be to offer some kind of Mopar rooftop tent package if you're going to offer an Overland Edition.
Mark Allen was almost apologetic about this one when it was introduced. "We've never had one of these out here before...and mostly I just wanted to prove to myself that it could play." As you might expect, you can't really do all that much to a Compass (even though it now sports the slightly more capable Patriot underpinnings). The Canyon does have a 2-inch suspension lift, plenty of skidplating, and both the front and rear anti-roll bars were removed. That, along with bigger, more aggressive tires and a Mopar cold-air induction system, helped the little crossover quite a bit on the Fins and Things trail just outside of Moab, but there was only so much that could be done. Trying to make a CVT-equipped crossover (which mean no low range) into a trail climber might have been too much to ask of this chassis and powertrain. The four-cylinder engine just doesn't have the low-end muscle to climb the steeper hills. The Compass looks cool, though.
70th Anniversary Jeeps
2011 marks the 70th anniversary of Jeep. (Note to self: watch out for a huge Jeep celebration in five years.) And to celebrate the occasion, Jeep is offering a special Anniversary package across the lineup with a new, special Bronze Star exterior color, unique interior and exterior badging, special leather inserts, floor mats, premium wheel and tire combinations, and a 70th logo on the information screen. For the Compass 70th Edition (based on the Limited option package) pricing starts at $24,970; the Grand Cherokee (based on the Laredo X) at $36,550; the Liberty (based on the Sport or Limited) at $25,515; the Patriot (based on the Latitude X) at $22,870; the two-door Wrangler at $29,320; and Wrangler Unlimited (both based off the Sahara models) at $32,120. Look for more unique and brand building option packages coming from Jeep as it tries to enter more global markets.
Ram Truck in Moab
Not willing to let Jeep have all the fun in Moab during the 45th Easter Jeep Safari, Ram Truck brought along several Power Wagons to do a little trail climbing. The four made short work of the toughest sections of Poison Spider trail with their swaybar disconnects, front and rear locking differentials (which we only needed four times), front and rear live axles, and 32-inch BFG All-Terrain tires. Even in the world of Jeeps, this could be the strongest and most capable 4x4 on the mountain. Pricing for these crew cab models starts at $45,000.
Jeep Wrangler Mojave
The new Wrangler four-door Mojave is a new option package for Jeep, joining the Islander, Mountain, and Call of Duty models released in the last few years. Like Ram Truck with its unique option packages (Long Horn, Adventurer, Outdoorsman, and others), Jeep is hoping the Mojave will be another successful specialty run. With a price tag starting at $30,000 and based off the Unlimited Sport model, the setup offers a unique color scheme, several lizard graphics, 17-inch wheels, 32-inch tires, dark saddle interior leather, driftwood inserts, and overhead grab handles. The package is on sale now but will only be offered on a limited production basis in Sahara Tan, Bright White, or Black.
Jeep SRT8 Select-Terrain
Jeep decided to show the attendees at Moab this year (which typically falls on the same dates as the New York Auto Show) the 2012 SRT8 Grand Cherokee. Loaded with the 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 rated at 465 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque, the new Jeep rocketship is reported to do 0-60 mph in 4.8 seconds (that's coming up fast, Porsche Cayenne), with a quarter-mile time of 13.6 seconds. The Pirelli P-Zero 295/45R20 tires and bigger brakes are reported to stop the muscle truck from 60 mph in less than 115 feet.
The vehicle will only be offered in all-wheel drive and will utilize Jeep's Select-Terrain feature with a few small modifications. Selectable detents include "Auto" for basic driving; "Sport" for enthusiastic, around-town fun; "Tow" to help reduce pitch, roll, and leveling; "Track" for the ultimate quick-response shifting, steering, and suspension; and "Snow," which will be quite accommodating for bad-weather, low-traction situations. As is appropriate for a vehicle of this ilk, no low-range will be offered and if you have to ask how much they cost, you probably wouldn't understand. Our guess is pricing is likely to start around $45,000.