After their rented 2007 Hummer H3 failed them during the brutal Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in Morocco, Amy Lerner and her sister Tricia Reina were on a quest to find the most capable production off-roader for their next competition - they chose a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Their next mission was to find a company with the competence to configure it to win. After poring over Internet forums and perusing countless magazines for an outfitter who could meet their demanding requirements, they sent their bright orange JK ("Crush" is the official color) to American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) for some modifications.

The Michigan-based team at AEV kept the Jeep's 3.6-liter V6 and automatic transmission stock, but replaced the hood with a tall AEV Heat Reduction Hood and added an AEV Snorkel Kit for water crossings (it serves double-duty as its raised height helps to keep the air intake out of the kicked-up dust on the trail). Front and rear off-road bumpers were bolted in place, and AEV skid plates were added to provide additional undercarriage protection. A pair of IPF-900 off-road lights improve visibility, while a 10.2-gallon AEV Fuel Caddy (located behind the exterior spare) added some range. The suspension was upgraded with a 3.5-inch lift kit with Bilstein remote reservoir shocks, and 35-inch Falken Wildpeak A/T tires (LT285/70R17) were mounted at all four corners on AEV's beadlock wheels.

Team Lerner Reina returned to Morocco to finish the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles last year. In September, they traveled to Western Australia's outback to race in the extreme Australasian Safari, where their AEV Wrangler was the only production-based vehicle to finish. They were the fastest female team, and the winner of Production Class A1.2. A win in the Dakar Challenge earned them a spot in the 2014 Dakar Rally.

We caught up with Amy Lerner in Southern California, days after the team's dirt-covered Jeep was uncrated after its journey back to the States. And rather than admire the truck stationary, we headed up to the Rowher Flats off-road area north of the LA Basin to play in the dirt.

Driving Notes

  • The team chose the four-door Unlimited model, instead of the shorter wheelbase (and more maneuverable) two-door, because they needed the additional interior space for hundreds of pounds of gear and spares, including a second backup wheel/tire combo. A mesh cage just aft of the front seats kept the team separate from loose items, and the beefy aftermarket roll bar may be unbolted and removed for civilian duty.
  • Safety took priority in the passenger cabin. As a result, both Amy and Tricia ride in Sparco bucket seats, mounted on sliders, with RPM five-point harnesses. Nearly all of the stock controls (and air conditioning) have been retained, but a few new switches have been installed for the auxiliary lighting. Terra Trip 303 GPS-based rally computers mounted on the passenger dash provided precise distance, speed and timing information.
  • The all-aluminum 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 was new for 2012, and it provided a nice boost in power over the old iron-block 3.8-liter, but the larger wheel/tire package and heavy modifications mean the modified JK doesn't feel light on its feet. Thankfully, most off-roading is done at lower speeds, where the Rubicon's low-range transfer case makes high-end power a moot point.
  • On the rutted and bumpy trails, which masked everything short of a wheel falling off, we really couldn't notice a big different in terms of vehicle driving dynamics between the stock Rubicon and the AEV race version. The most significant upgrade is with the suspension, which adds helpful ground clearance to clear obstacles and improves the vehicle's break-over height.
  • Most of our time was spent on wide dirt roads, hardly challenging. We could't find a drop of water or mud to play in, but we did point the AEV Jeep up a few steep grades and bound over ruts that would rip the undercarriage off lesser vehicles. With 4WD Low engaged, there was wheel spin on the dry surface, but it climbed like a goat.
  • One interesting modification is the heavy steel cable running from the left front corner of the hood to the top of the windshield pillar (it is visible in this image). Low branches will hit the wire and ride up and over the glass, preventing breakage. The plastic snorkel protects the glass on the passenger side.
  • Team Lerner Reina is still pushing its AEV modified Wrangler Rubicon. The sisters are looking at the Rally Diabolico in Mexico in April, and the Rallye du Maroc in Morocco in October, as this year's events. We'll update their progress.