Testing the 2018 Easter Jeep Safari custom off-roaders in Moab

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Testing the 2018 Easter Jeep Safari custom off-roaders in Moab

The Easter Jeep Safari began as a play for tourism: in 1967 the Moab Chamber of Commerce invited “the Jeeping community” to ride a single trail on the Saturday before Easter. The attendees were mostly members and friends of the Chamber of Commerce. Now, 52 years later, the nine-day Safari takes place on more than 40 trails and lures thousands of Jeepers, who put on one of the biggest and best modified Jeep shows in the world.

Cue the designers at Jeep and Mopar, who mastermind new ideas every year for what a modified Jeep could look like, with inspiration from the experiences they have and the mods they see at the Safari. We flew to Moab to drive the seven newest concepts, and start the recap with the disappointments: The B-Ute and the 4-Speed, but only because we couldn’t drive them. Before the day had properly begun, those two designer treats had tapped out.

The Renegade – internally codenamed B Utility, hence the “B-Ute” name – always feels like The Little Engine that Could when placed next to its halo Wrangler brother. In addition to the cosmetic changes, designers put the arcane caption “Lt. Jenkins” above “FWD1337” (explanations of those two memes here and here). The B-Ute would have been nice to drive if for no other reason than shouting “Leeeroy Jenkins” all around the course.

We rued missing out on the 4-Speed. The blue wonder is the third of a conceptual trio called “The Lightweights,” focused on nimble trail handling provided by weight savings. The first of the Lightweights, the 2011 Pork Chop concept, cut 900 pounds from a standard Wrangler Sport. The 2013 Stitch concept lopped 1,100 pounds. The 4 Speed omits 900 pounds. Jeep brought both earlier concepts, and they were revelations.

The Stitch was a throwback to stripped-out Dukes-of-Hazard-style Jeep romping. Round vents at the edges of the instrument panel act as side mirrors, Fiat Abarth seats grip occupants, the lemon-hued bikini top sewn from a transparent welding curtain bathes the cockpit in yellow light. Daisy Duke drove a 1980 CJ-7 that had 87 horsepower to move 2,700 pounds. The Stitch weighs about 3,200 pounds, but gets 290 hp. The Stitch skimmed over rocks and floated over sand, so light on its feet that Jeep lead designer Mark Allen told us the 35-inch Mickey Thompson MTZ tires were inflated to a mere 3 psi.

The 4-Speed concept’s pretty close to the Stitch weight thanks to carbon bits and lighter four-cylinder engine. Jeep could never make a business case for production, but the least the carmaker could do is post downloadable, step-by-step instructions on a DIY build.

If there remain any urbanite Wrangler owners who want to get dirty, the Sahara-based J-Wagon is Jeep’s version of the meme, “Get you a man who can do both.” The sleeper expedition truck plays up cosmopolitan detailing, warm gray exterior paint accented by deep orange highlights on badge edges and tow hooks, and wheels with a Brass Monkey finish. The rock rails, roof rack, and the plow-through stitching in the leather Katzkin seats feature the same geometric pattern.

Mopar will eventually offer the J-Wagon’s concept hood in three configurations: plain, as on the Jeepster concept; with an additional vent on the passenger’s side for a cold-air intake, as on the Nacho; and with the side vent, snorkel, and cold-air intake as on the J-Wagon. The snorkel should be available in May, and although not required, a Mopar rep recommended using the snorkel with the cold-air intake.

The only things the J-Wagon lacked were a smooth ride, and character. Engineers hadn’t finished tuning what was effectively a concept suspension, utilizing the 2.5-inch Fox shocks from Mopar’s two-inch lift kit inside the standard suspension springs and arms. The pallid driving experience couldn’t be helped; this is a world-class expedition vehicle on 35s traipsing through a course designed to reduce the odds of journos destroying things. We don’t blame the J-Wagon, but we could feel it yawning the entire time.

Even though the Jeepster concept wears a paintjob pulled straight from a 1960s Jeepster Commando brochure, the concept perfectly contradicts its 1966 inspiration. Jeep forerunner AMC designed the original Commando as a city car that could do a decent job off-road – but only decent. In a 1971 Motor Trend group test, the Chevrolet K5 Blazer and Ford Bronco both sent the Jeepster packing.

The 2018 Jeepster concept makes no off-road concessions. Built on a Wrangler Rubicon chassis, riding beadlock wheels and the second-largest tires in the group, the compact, fastback stance and Firecracker Red paint make it look like an advance scout for Jeep’s 2015 Red Rock Responder concept. Two inches cut out of the windshield bring the hardtop in tight, the view outside not far off a tank driver’s vision. That’s not an outrageous comparison, considering the Jeepster concept’s trail-smashing abilities. Ram and Mopar design head Joe Dehner said that if the fastback top proves popular with fans, adding it to the Mopar catalog with fitment for the standard roof wouldn’t be too difficult. You can order the Rotopax storage packs right now.

The Nacho Jeep represents a roughly $14,000 spending spree in the Jeep Performance Parts catalog. Ninety-five percent of the fitted components are already for sale or expected to hit the marketplace this year; the two-inch tube doors come in May. Both the Nacho and the Jeepster ride plush over rocky trails thanks to Mopar’s two-inch lift and 37-inch BFG KM2s. Mopar engineers tuned the 2.5-inch shock for Wrangler, the result a proprietary damper wearing both Fox and Jeep logos.

The Nacho’s prototype lighting kit drew us in like some helpless nocturnal insect, and it would be fairer to call Mopar’s work “The Lightning Kit.” Sourced from the Automotive Lighting division of Fiat-Chrysler subsidiary Magneti Marelli, external and internal LED units with silicone lenses and exceptional color throw a combined 40,000 lumens. The upper light bar mounts inside the cabin. The units on the winch come with angled lamps at the corners, and you can program them to come on when you turn the steering wheel. The rear high-mounted light under the CHMSL illuminates in a different color depending on how hard the driver brakes. An LED whip at the left rear makes the Nacho visible to other trail users at night. Mopar expects lighting kit availability late this year.

This year brought a photo finish for title of Coolest Concept, the Wagoneer Roadtrip taking second place. In 2015, Jeep brought the Wagoneer-inspired Chief concept to Moab, but the Chief was based on a four-door Wrangler. This year Jeep came with the genuine article after finding a 1965 Wagoneer on Craigslist in California. The designers wanted to make the Wagoneer Roadtrip look like it left the factory in Mintage Green headed for a Yellowstone vacation. Only the body and frame survived the restomod, yet even those received cosmetic surgery. After boxing the frame for added stiffness, Jeep stretched the wheelbase two inches ahead of the front doors and three inches behind the B-pillar, and opened the wheel wells. Otherwise the 33 BFG Mud-Terrain tires didn’t look the part and ate up too much door space. The 5.7-liter Hemi crate engine hooks up to a four-speed automatic (the Wagoneer was the first Jeep to come with a slushbox).

The modern suspension doesn’t kill the vintage vibe. At the same time as you sense the four-link coilovers processing rocky imperfections, the Wagoneer Roadtrip cabin rocks gently over trails. There’s just enough float to hint of that Mad Men era, yet not nearly enough to bruise the hypothetical martinis in the custom cooler.

Judged on cachet and finesse, the Sandstorm would give way to the Wagoneer Roadtrip. The Sandstorm’s 392 cubic-inch crate engine shifts through a notchy, heavy-action, six-speed manual yanked from a Dodge Dakota. Engine bay space constraints due to that V8 necessitated a steering box from the last-gen Wrangler; the hydraulic steering in the JK Wrangler takes up less room than the electrically-assisted steering in the new JL Wrangler. Consequently, the turning circle on the Sandstorm is noticeably larger than on the other Wrangler-based concepts.

Jeep sought outside help for this concept from Off Road Evolution, a Southern California shop that specializes in heavy artillery Baja-like builds. Jeep designers told ORE what they wanted, ORE specced the longarm suspension with custom King dampers and coilovers, and King bypass shocks.

The dreadnought Sandstorm and bantamweight Stitch take antithetical paths to the same end: dashing over landcapes. Whereas the Stitch’s buoyancy would overcome its abilities as speed climbs, though, the “loud ‘n’ rowdy” Sandstorm makes an excellent substitute for a race truck. The heavy-duty suspension cavorts over Jurassic terrain, that 392 crate motor sends 100-decibel messages in lusty V8 Morse Code as your foot works the throttle.

The Sandstorm gets the nod over the purely fanciful Wagoneer Roadtrip because there’s a chance of seeing a production Jeep heavily inspired by the Sandstorm one day, minus the V8. A Jeep exec who would know said the Sandstorm represents “somewhere we want to go” – that “somewhere” being “a high-speed desert-style truck.” You can view the Baja blaster as Jeep one day crossing paths with Ford: The Blue Oval’s coming Bronco targets the Wrangler, a potential production Sandstorm would aim its Trophy Truck stance at the Raptor. And with a Jeep pickup headed to dealers next year, who knows how soon “potential” might be.

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