Jeep debuts seven new Moab rock stars

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills – Behold the first Jeep of spring. Make that seven Jeeps.

Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep and Mopar brands will celebrate the annual Easter Jeep Safari with seven, state-of-the-art mules like the Nacho Jeep Concept.

Thousands of off-road enthusiasts emerge from winter hibernation later this month to celebrate the annual Easter Jeep Safari on the epic landscape of Moab, Utah. For a week leading up to Easter Sunday, they will saddle up their street-legal, four-wheeldrive steeds to scale challenging trails with names like Hell’s Revenge and the Golden Spike.

Fiat Chrysler’s Jeep and Mopar brands will celebrate the occasion with seven state-of-the-art mules like the high-speed Jeep Sandstorm, Jeep 4SPEED and luxurious Jeep Wagoneer Roadtrip.

“I love this event,” said Jeep boss Mike Manley. “We spend a week (in Moab) with our customers who get to experience these vehicles in their natural habitat.”

The vehicles aren’t show concepts, but hardcore off-roaders that will be put to the test while in Moab.

“They are fully functional, and that’s the key,” Jeep design chief Mark Allen said in an interview. “All the hardware is real. We will fully drive and test them off-road. They are highly capable.”

Allen says the experience — Jeep has been making Moab concepts since 2003 — gives Jeep designers and engineers valuable insight into what customers want. Many of concept innovations wind up on production vehicles or in Mopar parts catalogs.

“For example, on the 2018 Wrangler the high fender-flares are a product of the concepts,” says Allen. “Also, the metal bumpers, because people were damaging the plastic ones. And we made the top a lot easier to take off — that was direct feedback we were getting from (Moab) enthusiasts.”

All but two of Jeep’s seven concept rock stars are based on the Wrangler.

One of the exceptions is the Wagoneer Roadtrip, a 1965 nostalgia piece that will whet Jeep nation’s appetite for the opulent Wagoner and Grand Wagoneer promised for 2020. The Ram truck-based Wagoneers will be land yachts aimed at the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator.

The other exception is the B-Ute, a concept based on the Renegade.

The Wagoneer Roadtrip shows off interior luxuries like a custom cooler and toolbox. The Jeep team found it on Craigslist (“It was rust-free,” said Allen), then took it apart and reassembled it with upgrades like disc brakes and a 4.7-liter Hemi V-8. Then they painted it “mintage” green. Stretched five inches from the ’65 original, it comes with a wider track, custom fender-flares and Bottle Green glass. Its off-road capability will be reinforced by monster Dana front and rear axles with lockers, coil-over springs and big 33-inch BF Goodrich mudballs.

Wranglers crawl over Moab like insects and the 52nd Safari will no doubt welcome many, brand-new Wranglers which went on sale early this year.

The Jeep Sandstorm concept is a Wrangler on steroids for sustained, high-speed off-roading in places like Mexico’s Baja desert — which is a long way from Utah. Nevertheless, the long-wheelbase, stripped down Sandstorm (no tailgate, chopped doors, carbon-fiber hood) will get a racer’s cage and beefed-up suspension with up to 18 inches of wheel travel on cartoonish 39.5-inch tires.

Drivers will be strapped in to bucket seats in a stripped-down cockpit. A beefy, 485-horsepower, 6.4-liter V-8 engine provides power.

“I know nothing about high-speed off-roading,” said designer Allen. “This is a great opener, and I’ll learn a lot more in Moab. We can’t wait to throw it around on the rocks.”

With rock-crawling in mind, the Jeep 4SPEED concept goes on a 950-pound diet. Following on the 2011 “Pork Chop” and 2013 “Stitch” concepts, 4SPEED’s bod is shortened 22 inches for better approach and departure angles while maintaining the Wrangler’s stock wheelbase. Also stock will be the 2.0-liter turbo-4 found in the new-gen Jeep. Not stock are massive, 35-inch tires and raised ride-height. The rear seats have also been removed.

Rounding out the Jeep Safari concepts are:

■The Nacho Jeep is so-named for a Nacho yellow paint job that would fit right in at Taco Bell. Nacho gets a see-through “tube door,” cold-air intake for the turbo-4 engine and a winch kit. Bright LED windshield and A-pillar-mounted lights aid nighttime visibility. In the back, a four-color antennae-like LED communicates to followers the trail conditions ahead: stop (red); 1-3 mph (amber); 3-25 mph (green); and a floodlight (white).

■The Renegade-based Jeep B-Ute is armed with a Tigershark 4-banger and bristles with performance parts. Features include unique front and rear fascias, 11/2-inch lift kit, roof rack and Mopar all-weather floor mats. Allen calls the Renegade the “gateway drug to Wrangler.”

■The Jeep Jeepster reaches back to the ’66 Jeepster for its inspiration. The original’s classic, two-tone graphic theme is recreated with a Firecracker Red body and white, chopped hardtop. Rubicon fenders get fog lights that announce huge 37-inch tires. More Firecracker Red trim highlights the interior which also houses the spare tire. The tire-less swing-gate is reserved for storage packs for transporting gear, food and tools. In case you’re in Moab for a while.

■The premium J-Wagon concept is dressed to be at home in rural or urban environs. Starting as a Wrangler Sahara, the J-Wagon is painted gray with tinted glass and features body color-matching bezel trim and upscale Brass Monkey wheels. Posh appointments continue inside with camel-color leather seats and Brass Monkey trim on HVAC vents, door handles and steering wheel.

The concepts’ unique looks are all drawn from Mopar’s parts bin.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-1 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.