American Expedition Vehicles opens new Wixom plant

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

‘People who don’t want to be told they can’t do something, that’s who our customers are,” says Kyle Leeds, head of international sales for American Expedition Vehicles, which modifies Jeep Wranglers and Ram pickups to improve their off-road abilities.

The company’s new 140,000-square-foot assembly plant in Wixom hosted a customer day in August showing its JK350 Wrangler and new Recruit version of the Ram 1500 pickup. The assembly facility, which began production there in June, has 22 vehicle bays, a paint booth and a secret room for developing future models for AEV as well as Jeep and Ram.

At first glance the modified four-wheel-drive AEV JK350 and Recruit look tall and ungainly, with bulky bumpers and enormous wheels and tires, but a drive on the highway belies this single-purpose look. Both the JK350 and Recruit are comfy at highway speeds, with the main difference being mostly a muted hum from the 35-inch-tall BF Goodrich All-Terrain tires. The JK350 adds about $25,000 to the price of the Wrangler, while the new Recruit adds about $15,000 to the price of a Ram 1500.

“We want a vehicle to drive down the highway for eight hours and then go off road and still be able to come back on the highway,” explains Leeds, who has worked with AEV for eight years. “A lot of our buyers don’t beat the crap out of their vehicles off road, but they do go off road occasionally. What we found with the Ram 1500 pickup is most customers hunt, fish, take a trail on the beach, and don’t want to worry about getting stuck.”

The main reasons for the Ram-based Recruit’s highway ability are a new suspension that raises the body of the truck four inches, and a new mounting design for the front differential that keeps the steering geometry more precise. The suspension modifications were designed with the help of former Chrysler engineer Jim Frens, now a principal at Terrestrial Optimized Vehicles in Reno, Nevada. Bumpers and skid plates that create more ground clearance are made by Quality Metalcraft of Livonia.

“We make most of the products you’ll see on this vehicle, everything but the wheels, including the assembly and painting,” says Leeds.

It works similar to Livonia’s Roush Performance high-horsepower Mustangs and Ford F-150 pickups in that customers order the vehicles from a dealer, which are then sent to another dealer near the assembly facility. “We go pick the vehicles up, and we tear them down and then assemble them, plus we road-test them to make sure all works well.” Some models already come with components from the factory, adds Leeds, such as the heat-reducing hood.

AEV was started by adventure travel addict Dave Harriton in 1997 in Montana, and set up shop in Michigan in 2007, after working closely with Chrysler division Jeep. Leeds says more than 75 Jeep dealers now sell turn-key AEV vehicles, and there are more that carry parts for Jeep and Ram owners.

AEV also sells Hemi V-8 engine conversions for Wranglers. “We work with Roush [Performance], they make the exhaust for our Hemi conversions,” adds Leeds. AEV is similar to the Roush business of modifying new cars before they are delivered to customers, and like modified Roush vehicles, AEV’s warranty for its vehicles “parallels” the Jeep and Ram factory’s.

Last year Leeds estimates that AEV sold 300 modified Prospector versions of heavy-duty Ram pickups and expects a similar volume for the new Recruit.