Easter Jeep Safari: Testing a pair of prototype Jeeps

A world away from the bright lights and frantic rush of the current New York Auto Show, Jeep is using a very different venue to show off its latest concept vehicles. And it’s getting them dirty too.

Jeep used the recent Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, to unveil six new concepts to the public. The collection was made up of three lifted, painted and modified Wranglers, two new Cherokees looking to flex their off-road muscle, and a diesel Grand Cherokee.

The six prototypes had bolted to them a huge variety of custom parts that Jeep -- and its Mopar aftermarket group -- are considering for production. And these were no mere trailer queens either.

PHOTOS: Testing Jeep's prototypes

With thousands of Jeep owners flooding the small Utah town to drive the local trails as part of the 48th annual Safari, Jeep made sure each concept came ready to play in the dirt. So play we did.

Jeep Cherokee Dakar

Jeep is clearly eager to prove the off-road mettle of the all-new Cherokee crossover SUV. Introduced at the end of 2013, the crossover resurrected a name that Jeep hadn't used in the U.S. for years. But it's a name that was at the forefront of the original SUV craze in the 1980s and 1990s.

PHOTOS: Highlights from the Easter Jeep Safari

Those Cherokees -- in all their boxy, spartan glory -- held a certain amount of respect among off-roaders for being nearly indestructible. The new model doesn't have the rugged bones of its predecessor, since it's now built on a car platform shared with Dodge and Chrysler sedans, but that doesn't mean Jeep didn't build considerable off-road chops into it.

To drive home this point, Jeep offers a Trailhawk package on the new Cherokee, which we tested in February. The package includes a locking rear differential, skid plates, tow hooks, a one-inch lift, and unique front and rear bumpers to increase the Cherokee’s approach and departure angles.

The Dakar concept takes the Trailhawk’s ethos and goes bananas. But it does so in a practical way that Jeep could easily turn into a production package for the Cherokee.

Fox coilover shocks and a prototype Jeep lift kit replace the stock running gear, and unique alloy wheels wrapped in massive 33-inch BFGoodrich tires have been bolted on. The wheel openings on the stock Cherokee were too small, so engineers sawed away some of the wheel arches and then slapped on fender flares to give this Jeep burlier shoulders.

What’s interesting about the stock Cherokee’s eye-catching design is the more time it spends in the gym beefing up the better is looks. And this particular concept was a hoot to get dirty.

With around a seven-inch increase in clearance, and the Fox shocks and BFGoodrich tires keeping things plush yet grippy, the Dakar concept was impressive on Moab’s feisty Hell’s Revenge trail.

These add-ons worked seamlessly with the stock locking rear differential and four-wheel-drive system. You wouldn’t know this Cherokee shares roots with the Dodge Dart (that or the Dart is the world’s best off-road sedan and we just don’t know it).

It wasn’t the barcalounger on wheels that the Wrangler Max was, but it did the Cherokee name proud. More than a few fellow off-roaders were both happy and impressed to see the Dakar crest peak after peak without much fuss.

Jeep and Mopar say they’re always listening to customer feedback, so pay attention if you’ve recently parked a new Cherokee in your driveway or are thinking of doing so. If the Dakar package is something you’d pay money for (and it should be), let your Jeep dealer know.

Jeep Wrangler Maximum Performance

This is what happens when you let Jeep’s off-road nerds go bonkers on a Wrangler.

The rig started its life as an Unlimited (four-door) Rubicon model. Then Jeep’s new push-button Dana 60 electronic locking front and rear axles are swapped in (at a cool $11,000 total). The transfer case is new, as is the gearing.

The fenders, “Stinger” front bumper, winch, four-inch lift kit, LED light bar, beadlock wheels, ventilated hood, headlights and tire carrier in the rear are all Jeep prototype parts and all help this Moper Blue beast maintain its gruff look. The doors are aftermarket “half-doors,” and the tires are 37-inch BFGoodrich Mud Terrains.

Just over $20,000 later, you have a frighteningly capable Jeep that makes professional off-roaders of even the most inexperienced knucklehead.

To drive this around Moab’s trails was an experience in both plushness and giddy capability. It climbs and descends with a wonderful lack of drama. The axles locked and unlocked quickly and easily so you weren’t holding up the long line of fellow off-roaders.

It helps to have a stout foundation to build on. Though a stock Wrangler is a brick on wheels in freeway driving, it’s hard to find fault in what it can do once the pavement stops. More than once, we saw bone-stock Wranglers easily crawling up the gritty rock surfaces of Moab’s trails.

Once you start adding all the goodies that were on the Wrangler Max prototype, it’s the driver that’s going to fail long before the rig will. This is why the Wrangler has such a loyal following (a dearth of worthy competitors also helps). Last year, Jeep sold more than 155,000 Wranglers, an increase of nearly 10% over 2012. Sales through March 2014 are up another 9%.

Based on what the Wrangler Max can do, it’s easy to see what the appeal is. Jeep is handing customers a trail-ready SUV right out of the box, which doubles as a blank canvas. Paint it, lift it, bolt new bits to it, and then beat on it. It’s a simple recipe.


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