One turn at the Easter Jeep Safari was all this newbie needed to love wheeling. Crazy concept Jeeps certainly help.
– Moab, Utah
Jeep is right at home in the relatively unrestricted West. Over the course of three days spent with the company in Moab, Utah, I would fly on plane without a bag check or a body scan, ride on a jetboat at 48 kilometres per hour in three feet of water, and go wheeling across government land without so much as a permit or a park entrance fee.
When I drove into downtown Moab – my first visit to this kind of cowboyed-up resort town – it was obvious that the derestricted vibe extended to most of the local traffic. Jeeps are everywhere, mostly Wranglers, but you could offer a $100 bounty for each unmodified example seen, and still be able to pay the mortgage this month. Forty-inch knobby tires aren’t expectational equipment, neither are jacks as tall as a small man, mounted shovels, rails and racks of every description, or exterior lights so bountiful and bright that I expect a small aircraft to land on Main Street at any moment.
In this landscape, the yearly creations on the occasion of the Easter Jeep Safari don’t feel like outliers, so much as exceptional citizens of a loosely held republic of adventure. And the engineers and product planners who spend hours sweating over these concept vehicles back in Auburn Hills get a rich reward out here on the Utah rocks.
The Easter Jeep Safari is a nine-day off-roading event in and around the trails surrounding Moab, cumulating on Easter Sunday each year. Jeep, as a company, has been bringing its concepts here for years, and occasionally inviting greenhorns like me to come along and get a taste of the good life.
This year there were five concepts to sample; the venue was a place called Base Camp out in the hinterlands. It’s fair for me to point out, right at the top, that the loop we sampled everything on wasn’t particularly challenging. At least not by Jeep standards. Dirt roads, a mildly steep ascent up some slickrock to a startlingly lovely vista, and a few fun passes through deep sand comprised the 10-minute route. The Easter Jeep Safari planners assign numerical values on a 10-point scale to the trails in the area; our tiny loop wasn’t on the formal menu, but it probably would’ve merited a one score. (You can get a virtual tour of the loop in the video, below.)
But hell, no one else lets me drive their concept cars. At an auto show I feel lucky if one of the usual velvet-rope darlings even has a steering wheel, to say nothing about locking the diff, or dropping a gear to throw a rooster tail of sand.
The undisputed headliner of the event was the Quicksand concept, despite the fact that it was the most out of its element. The 392 Hemi V8-powered buggy was clearly designed to rip up Pismo or at Oceano Dunes (can I get some Silver Lake love for my dudes from the Mitten?), and not to creep over big boulders. Still, craftsmanship by the Jeep guys was at its most loving here. The chopped roof was actually open to the air, save for some aluminum crossmembers that, as far as I could tell, were specifically engineered to bang me on the back of the head as I was flooring it up the hill (one of the engineers responsible was about a head shorter than my six-feet, five-inches). Any pain was short-lived though, and well compensated for by the ear-crunching scream of the unmuffled exhaust (there’s a two-way bypass to stifle it around civilization), and the resulting swat-and-shoot response from the big V8. You could tell me this thing had 1,000 horsepower, and I’d nod my head and ask for the key again.
But Quicksand wasn’t my favourite from a driving perspective. That honour was shared by two of the vehicles that were on hand, but not debuts of this years Safari: The WWII Salute Wrangler, and the CJ-SixtySix.
The SixtySix was a TJ Wrangler-based badass, with enough of a 1970's vibe to make me want to dust off my Daisy Duke posters. The concept was shown at SEMA last year, but it never really resonated with me until I saw it out in the real world. The lift and tires are aggressive, but not so high that a tall guy like me couldn’t hop right in. Once settled into the secure racing buckets – I had to fiddle with the five-point harness, but that’s less of an issue once it’s fitted to your size – the package really came together. The 383-hp, 5.7-litre V8 is paired with a six-speed manual, and that combo, though lighter in output than Quicksand’s, made the stripped-out TJ feel hyper powerful.
The CJ’s ride was incredibly basic, just bouncing the hell out of me as I drove up, down, and over things, but it felt really right for the day and the vehicle. This is just the sort of thing that the real people who come out to run the Safari drive – and after just 20 minutes in the concept (I took two turns), I could see why. Someday I’ll point to a picture of this orange monster and tell my wife, “This is why we spent all that money on eBay!”
Compared to either of the honking-V8 monsters, the WWII Salute Wrangler was downright docile to drive. What looks like a command car from the African Theater is actually a modern Wrangler – build right on the line in Toledo, Ohio – that has been dressed up and cut down to be perfectly retro and winsome.
Narrow, seven-inch tires help to make the Salute both able in deep stuff, and really sell the concept as a classic Willys rendered in a slightly larger scale. And though its run-of-the mill, 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 is hardly overpowering, the long-throw, notchy stick shift makes it a blast to operate.
Other than the shorty seats, covered in fragrant green canvas, and the stripped out and painted up interior – the Salute is just plain old Wrangler with the top cut off. But I found a magic in the combination; I could use this thing as my fair-weather daily driver and not much miss sports cars, honestly.
The rest of the lot – and you can see all of them in our original post, and in the short video I shot in Utah (above) – were great fun as ways to while away hours out in the middle of nowhere. Flying into this corner of Utah might occasionally require a leap of faith on a prop-plane that looks too small for me to sit in, let alone die aboard, but I have a better sense of why so many people take the effort. Jeeps are fun.
I’ve got to raise a glass to the nuts inside the Jeep company that put this shindig, and these concepts, together every year. It’s not that often that you see projects – and expensive projects these are, don’t forget – done for such remarkably pure reasons. Does Jeep get nice media coverage from the Easter Safari fare? Absolutely. Does this kind of thing help sell Compasses and Cherokees? Probably, at least in the long run. But mostly the guys, from the executives to the PR staff to the engineers, just love putting these vehicles together. It’s an irrationally fun exercise, in an exceptionally wide open playground, to remind everyone how joyful an off-roading rig can really be.
Photos: FCA US