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Driving the 2018 Easter Jeep Safari concepts

Automobile logo Automobile 4/20/2018 Billy Rehbock
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MOAB, Utah — The annual announcement of Easter Jeep Safari concepts is generally welcomed with excitement across a spectrum enthusiast communities. Jeep dedicates these concepts to its hardcore fan base, who themselves are responsible for the builds that invade the tiny town of Moab during Easter week. FCA takes its owners' passion seriously too. "It's a family reunion for us to come back," Scott Tallon, director of the Jeep brand said. "It's a very special place for the Jeep brand."

Tallon sees the concepts as a way of showcasing the best and what is next for Jeep. "These are not trailer queens," he told our group of media deep in the high desert of Moab. "We're testing new parts. They're absolute performers."

To sample the capabilities of 2018's crop of East Jeep Safari concepts, we trekked out to a ranch house reachable only in a vehicle with off-road capabilities. We made the roughly 90-minute journey in a caravan of JL-generation Wrangler Rubicons and Cherokee Trailhawks. Jeep laid out a test loop on the property so we could sample the concepts in their element.

a truck driving down a dirt road© Billy Rehbock

First up was the Sandstorm, which quickly became a favorite among the group of press test drivers. For starters, it's hard to make a case against a 392 HEMI V-8 mated with a 6-speed manual transmission. When that configuration is in a JL Wrangler chopped down to be a four-door short-bed pickup truck, it only gets better.

Jeep wanted to focus on high-speed off-roading with this build, so they requisitioned Fox shocks with 14-inch of vertical travel in the front and 18-inch of the same in the back. The concept rides on 39-inch tire as well. Designer Chris Piscatelli said it's a "race truck you can put a license plate on," and there were less than subtle hints that we could see something in this vein come to production.

Driving the Sandstorm is an experience that delivers. The cabin's open in the back so the driven can take in the sound of the V-8 and the dirty pops and burbles on the overrun. The clutch engages early, perfect for maintaining control of speed on an incline or descent. The bright-orange rig takes off like a proper HEMI-powered vehicle under full-throttle too.

The sweetheart of the group, however, is the Wagoneer Roadtrip. No, it won't go to production, but it represents the best of what Jeep can do with a restomod project. It started life a 1965 Wagoneer the Jeep team purchased on Craigslist, so the build started as many of its kind do. For a diehard fan, the razor grille gives it away as being something different: Jeep pinched from a 1967 model-year variant.

Mark Allen, head of Jeep design, said of this truck that his team was going for a "born this way, not modded this way" approach." Their efforts show: it drives like an old car, but an exceptionally good one. Turning the giant steering wheel is like taking control of a time machine, and that's the whole point, Allen said. "The idea was 'let's go to Yellowstone in 1966.' We were just trying to make great memories come to light."

a truck driving down a dirt road© Billy Rehbock

Power from the Mopar-sourced 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 is more than ample in the Wagoneer Roadtrip. The engine is paired with a 4-speed automatic from a Durango, but the driver still selects gears with the column mounted stock. The throwback theme is complete with an onboard pup Allan said is named "Slackjaw," and period-correct postcards, maps, and buttons.

The rest of Jeep's concepts were future facing, with the Nacho Jeep taking the approach most buildable by consumers. Todd Beddick, Senior Manager of MOPAR Accessory & Perfomance Portfolio, said "about 95% of what you see today you can go to the store and turn your Wrangler into it."

Take the Nacho Jeep Concept, named for its stock (but rare) color. It was mostly built with parts from Mopar's collection of over 200 aftermarket parts. Beddick said his team spent $100,000 on this build alone, including Fox shocks tuned by Jeep's engineers, two-inch thick tube doors, and a lift kit that enables 37-inch tires. It had an assortment of concept parts as well, like a production-bound hood and a cold-air intake. The lights mounted to the Wrangler's front and A-pillar are also conceptual.

The Nacho was by far the most capable of the lot. It crawled through the course like a champ, to the point where it felt way overqualified for the intensity level of the route. The build was so buttoned down that it didn't even feel conceptual - a sign that Jeep's on the right path with its in-house aftermarket kit.

Jeep also resurrected one of its older nameplates, the Jeepster, for this year's concept drive. Modeled after a 1966 Jeepster Commando, this red and white two-tone Wrangler started as a Sport variant but was upgraded with Wrangler Rubicon add-ons.

a truck driving down a dirt road© Billy Rehbock

Beddick said his team chopped the roof by two inches, which gave the design a wider and squatter appearance. It uses a concept rock-step for easier ingress and egress as well. To fill out the space where the rear seats used to be, MOPAR fit a spare tire in the back. The rig's rear also features accessories familiar to Moab regulars, like water and fuel jugs.

On the trail, the Jeepster concept felt the most conceptual. Jeep really should build this thing because it has the same peak nostalgia factor that moves units like nothing else. The sporty two-door appearance would also fill some white space in the Wrangler lineup too, with middling level utility to make it a go-anywhere choice.

Then there's the Jeep J-Wagon Concept, which was built as bait for the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen. Beddick says this concept, which is based on a Wrangler Sahara and received no added lift, is meant to be the group's urban runabout,. However, bigger fenders were added to accommodate a 35-inch tire and to give the J-Wagon a more aggressive appearance.

The J-Wagon's leather-lined interior was the most upscale from this batch of concepts, furthering the more premium interior that serves as one of this generation of Wrangler's advances over the previous JK platform. The J-Wagon also previews an aftermarket snorkel intake, available for sale this May.

a car parked on a dirt road© Billy Rehbock

We didn't get the chance to wheel the lightweight 4Speed or Renegade Trailhawk-based B-Ute due to mechanical problems, but the concept lineup demonstrates that Jeep is looking to expand its reach in the SUV market. It continues to improve upon its origins of slow-going off-roading, but it's also making headway into developing offerings for consumers looking to bound over dunes at high speed or cruise around town in comfort and style.

Moab continues to be a test bed for Jeep's future parts and products, but it also serves as a reminder of the brand's roots. As Wranglers and Willy's Jeeps alike pour into town for the annual Easter Jeep Safari, Jeep has the chance to take some inspiration from those most passionate about the brand. Family reunion indeed.

Jeep© Billy Rehbock Jeep

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