Icon CJ3B – Click above for high-res image gallery

"We're not going to challenge the traditional big players with our volume," says Icon's owner and head designer Jonathan Ward as we're admiring one of his company's Toyota FJ recreations. "But we hope to challenge what they put into their products." Depending on how highly you value quality, Mr. Ward might have just made the understatement of the year. In part, Icon's mission is to "Revisit vehicles from our collective past in a modern context." But as we discovered, going along with old-meets-new is a firm, unwavering, near-perplexing and possibly suicidal refusal to compromise any aspect of their vehicles in any way.

Take Icon's latest model, the all new CJ3B. Based off the 1953 Willys CJ3B (Icon amazingly holds the rights to the name), Ward explains that the design ethos of the old Willys Jeeps was longevity, simplicity and utility. Not only does Ward appreciate these qualities, but he finds them "Sorely lacking from the current automotive industry." You'll get little argument here. However, doesn't a modern Jeep Wrangler embody those three priorities, as well as providing near-goofy levels of straight off the showroom floor off-roadability? Not only that, but a Wrangler costs $21,460 with the (much) more capable Rubicon edition raising the Wrangler's price to $29,565. Not cheap, but the Icon CJ3B will set you back a cool $79,000, prix fixe.

At this point we normally pose a question – something like, "Is the Icon CJ3B worth $50,000 more than a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon?" But here's the thing, after a few hours of exposure to the CJ3B, it's unquestionably worth the money. That's right, we're just going to start the review with the conclusion, then explain exactly why this little Icon is so darn special. And believe us, the CJ3B is exceptionally special.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Let's get the technical details and all that driving impression stuff out of the way up front. Like Icon's FJs, the CJ3B starts with a completely in-house-designed mandrel bent steel frame that shares no parts with any other vehicle. Not other Icons, not Willys CJs – it's unique, though intended to be used for future Icon CJ variants. The suspension consists of four two-inch Fox Racing struts with remote nitrogen reservoirs, similar to the shocks on the SVT Raptor. The rear end is a four-way multi-link while the front consists of a panhard-type linkage, with bushingless Johnny Joints holding the control arms in place. All of this adds up to an almost unbelievable 24.5-inches of suspension travel per wheel, front and back. For comparison's sake, the Raptor features 11.2 inches of travel in front and 12.1 inches of travel in the rear. The axles are straight off a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (Dana 44s), only they've been narrowed for the CJ3B's throwback size.

Powering the CJ3B is a General Motors EcoTec 2.4-liter straight-four that develops 210 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. Admittedly, it's not the most exciting engine (though much stouter than the 75 hp and 114 lb-ft of torque that the Go Devil F134 inline-four churned out in the original CJ3B), but it does meet the simplicity part of the design brief. Besides, the CJ3B only weighs 2,900 pounds, so the performance is surprisingly peppy, easily getting up to and maintaining freeway speeds. And as we'll talk about, the little four-banger is quite well suited to crawling along a trail at three miles per hour.

However, Icon and Ward have another reason: emissions. In Ward's mind, "People who spend the most time in wild places have the greatest interest in preserving them." The EcoTec motor emits less pollutants during a full day of driving than a 1953 Willys CJ3B does just sitting and venting gasoline fumes. As Ward explained, Icon is such a low volume producer that they're exempt from smog laws. They just happen to run O2 sensors and catalytic converters because they want to. Ward plans to eventually offer the CJ3B in not only a diesel version, but full electric as well.

How's it drive? On the highway, much better than we expected, especially considering the teeny-tiny, seven-foot wheelbase. That's not to say the CJ3B rides well compared to a traditional sedan – it doesn't – but when contrasted with an actual 1953 Willys CJ3B (that Icon just happened to have on hand to demo) it's miraculous. There aren't any doors and the top is basically a sunshade, so at 70 mph the "cabin" is a fairly rough place to be. You can mostly carry on a conversation, unless you happen to be in the back seat. Still, none of this should come as a surprise to either Jeep enthusiasts or potential Icon customers.

What else comes as no surprise? The CJ3B's mountain goat impersonation that occurs the moment it leaves pavement. All that suspension travel combined with 33-inch tires, 4:10.1 axles, 2.72:1 low range gears and two locking differentials (you can lock just the rear or both with the flip of a switch) means the CJ3B can almost go anywhere. Did we mention the 45-degree approach and departure angles? Sadly, the pictures we got (while beautiful) don't show the severity of the cliff we drove up and back down. Please trust us that short of a Jeep Rubicon in four-low with both diffs locked and the front sway bar disconnected, few if any stock vehicles would have made it. Rocks, logs, ruts, juts, mud, sand... all posed no threat and barely slowed the CJ3B down.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, "So what?" The Icon CJ3B has a fancy suspension and a modern motor coupled to the classic proportions of a Willys. It had better be near-peerless when the tarmac ends. What's all the fuss about? Well, here's the first bit of fuss: there's no paint. Jonathan Ward, a self-described "powder coat junkie" opted to go with a "Teflon polyester hybrid super durable Cardinal powder coat." Why not paint? Paint wears out, while Icon's Cardinal coat blend was originally purposed for heavy duty agricultural applications and theoretically will never wear out. Also, all you ever need to do to clean the CJ3B's exterior is towel it with a 50/50 mix of Formula 409 and water. Both the underside and the interior are treated with a heat cured polyurea substance (the same stuff you'd line an oil pipeline with) that very well might outlast the owner, not to mention the vehicle. You can spray it out with a hose, or just leave it filthy. Dirt's not going to hurt.

While all of the above is technically impressive, it's not until you physically put your hands on the Icon that the vehicle and its high asking price make both empirical and emotional sense. For instance, grab a Jeep Wrangler's fenders and they're nothing but flimsy plastic that in no way satisfies the Willys longevity ethic. Grab the Icon CJ3B's fender, however, and the quality of the metal is startling. Short of an armored car, we've never felt automotive sheet metal this solid. If you were to hit the fender with a hammer, you'd be more concerned for the hammer.

Then you pop the hood and notice the wire tie-downs. Instead of the usual cheap, plastic, Made-in-China stuff we're all used to, these are sharp looking aluminum pieces repurposed from a local (Los Angeles-based) aircraft manufacturer. In fact, Ward tries to use as many aircraft components as possible because, "The distribution channels are just as good and the quality standards are way above and beyond what's considered acceptable by car makers." There's not a single light bulb anywhere on the CJ3B – even the headlights are LED, as they last longer and use less energy. The headlights were actually developed for Hummers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the CJ3B is their first civilian application.

Ward doesn't just look to other vehicles for design inspiration. The clasps that hold the windshield in place are from a refrigerator. "Sub-Zero perfected these one hundred years ago," Ward explains. "So we use them." The seats are stuffed with Tempur-Pedic foam because, "It's really comfortable." The chairs and the bikini top are made out of a Chilewich vinyl material Ward spotted in a suite at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas. At first Chilewich wasn't interested in supplying Icon, so Ward underhandedly got a hold of the material, built the seats and showed them to Chilewich. We sat on the results. Remember the Cardinal powder coating? Ward originally saw it while looking at the non-reflective exterior bits of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Sometimes good old fashioned craftsmanship is where Ward gets his inspiration. Take for instance the CJ3B's emblems. Most car emblems are plastic or cheap metal dipped in even cheaper chrome. The CJ3B emblems are built from pewter and then enameled by hand. They're built by a specialty jeweler in Pennsylvania as "an expression of old world craftsmanship." They also cost Icon $400 each. Or take the dash knobs. They're CNC'd from a chunk of stainless steel, then knurled on a 1940s lathe before being hand engraved and enameled. This old-school-meets-new-school approach is the essence of Icon – high tech when it serves a good purpose. Otherwise, look no further than the classics.

This near-obsessive attention to detail never stops. Take "The Dog" logo powder coated (not painted) onto the tailgate. Ward explained that it's based off the stencil font spray painted on the original Willys CJ3B. Having a tiny bit of a graphic design background, we asked him where he got the font. "I made it." That's right, he built his own font. And here's a final example of what the brand's all about: There are no air tools used in the finish/final assembly phase of any Icon products. Hand torquing every single nut and bolt guarantees the level of quality control Ward wants and the products demand. We could go on (and you can't even imagine what makes up the $135,000 Icon FJ), but we think you get the point.

Is there anything we don't like? Yes, the submersible foot-activated high beam switch is too close to the clutch pedal, so if you needed your high beams while on the trail they'd be blinking on and off. Also, the clutch is a little too on/off for our tastes. But really, we're being silly, as there's very little not to like about the Icon CJ3B. Actually, forget "like." Let's replace that verb with "blown away." As in we were blown away by Icon's CJ3B. Vehicles without a trace of compromise tend to have that effect. That being the case, one could make the argument that the Icon CJ3B is worth more than $79,000.

Photos by Drew Phillips / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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