Engine5.7L Hemi V8
Power360 HP / 390 LB-FT
Cargo86.7 CU. FT.
It's no secret that when it comes to off-road capability, nothing quite tops the Jeep Wrangler. This grizzled mainstay continues to be the first choice for people wanting to get down and dirty with the great outdoors, and its success story is decades old. It's like the Porsche 911 of off-roaders.
Unlike the 911, however, Jeep has long foregone a higher-strength version of the Wrangler straight from the factory. Porsche, for instance, offers the base 911 Carrera alongside more than 20 other variants, all the way up to the hardcore GT2 RS. So where do Jeep enthusiasts go when it comes time to enhance the off-road experience of the Wrangler? The aftermarket. One such company, AEV, has a package that combines superb off-road prowess with all the creature comforts of an everyday driver.
Oh, yeah – and it has a Hemi V8.
We headed to AEV's workshop in Wixom, Michigan, where we were presented with a trio of Wranglers – two fitted with Chrysler's tried-and-true 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and one making do with Jeep's standard 3.8-liter V6. Here, we learned that shoehorning the big V8 under the Wrangler's hood isn't all that difficult – "it's pretty much plug-and-play," said one of the AEV product specialists. The same goes for the five-speed automatic transmission that replaces the four-speed in the V6 Wrangler. From what AEV tells us, it's easy-peasy.
That in mind, it comes as no great surprise to learn that AEV is already working on fitting Chrysler's new 6.4-liter V8 engine into the Wrangler. Based on our day of driving the 5.7-liter, we can only imagine the good things that will come with the 6.4.
We drove the three Wranglers from Wixom up to Harrison, Michigan – about 150 miles of nothing but highway. Our destination was Rocks and Valleys, an off-road park where we'd be putting the AEV Wrangler through its paces, climbing rocks, scaling steep grades and doing our best not to hack the side mirrors off on trees. Before that, though, the Wrangler needed to prove its everyday drivability on the road.
You can go ahead and clear your minds of any stereotypical scenarios starring Jeeps wearing mud tires, bouncing down the highway and struggling just to reach the speed limit. For the drive up, we hopped in the white Hemi Jeep, which had been outfitted with 35-inch BFGoodrich all-terrain tires fitted on 17-inch AEV-designed alloy wheels. While aggressive, these tires don't represent the end-all-be-all footwear for off-roading, but they aren't bad for mucking about. Better still, when it comes to on-road performance, we were shocked by just how smooth and comfortable the ride quality was.
AEV fits its JK Wranglers with a so-called high steer kit that optimizes steering and roll center geometry, allowing for better handling. This system also adds a larger steering damper to keep things steady and solid when turning. Of course, this all blends well with AEV's pièce de résistance, the 3.5-inch premium suspension lift kit. The company tells us this package was designed by former Jeep engineers. Special attention was paid to areas like overall suspension geometry and custom spring and shock tuning, to give the vehicle ride quality that's smooth on flat, paved roads, yet capable for off-road tasks. The whole setup includes – deep breath – frequency-tuned progressive rate springs, custom-tuned shocks, a geometry-corrected rear tower and trackbar, rear stabilizer end link, heavy-duty steering damper and front control arm drop brackets. They all work together to create an on-road driving experience that's unlike any other hardcore off-road vehicle. In our estimation, it's even better than the standard off-the-shelf Wrangler.
The real treat for our 150-mile highway drive, however, was the 5.7-liter V8 under the Wrangler's hood, offering a full 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque – increases of 158 hp and 153 lb-ft versus the 3.8-liter Wrangler. In other words, the Hemi is roughly equal in power to the Wrangler's V6 plus the 2.4-liter four-cylinder from the Jeep Compass. Now, don't assume this means the Wrangler is suddenly a speed demon – all of those aftermarket additions add weight, remember – but the extra grunt from the V8 provides more than adequate acceleration for on-ramps and highway passing, and at speed, there's simply much less effort and planning required for passing maneuvers. Our three-Jeep caravan frequently got separated when the red V6-equipped Wrangler simply couldn't keep up when it came time to pass a convoy of semi trucks.
When we arrived at Rocks and Valleys, we corralled in the open dirt parking lot until a little Jeep CJ-5 came barreling out of the forest, doors removed, mud everywhere (including the interior), driven by a small-framed man named 'Gar' who was smoking a cigarette. He was our guide for the adventure at Rocks and Valleys, and almost immediately, Gar skipped the introductions and started to fixate on all of the modifications fitted to the AEV Jeeps. If your mental image is still blurry, Gar and his CJ-5 can be glimpsed in the image below.
In addition to the underbody suspension goodies, interior upgrades, furious V8 and big tires, AEV offers a host of functional exterior upgrades – everything from lights and skid plates to snorkels, hoods, splash guards and winches. All of these fittings can be had as à la carte options, but AEV does offer full upgrade packages for the Wrangler. One AEV representative recommended buying the whole kit, mainly because the company has found that the majority of its customers keep coming back over and over again, and it's far easier and less expensive to have all of the aftermarket bits installed in one fell swoop. AEV will even work with a local Jeep dealer to source vehicles for folks who don't yet own a Wrangler. You can order the whole setup through AEV, they'll pick up the Wrangler, outfit it with your goodies and deliver you the finished product.
So, we hit the trails – Gar and the CJ-5 leading the way, two of the Wranglers following. We opted to leave the white Wrangler with all-terrain tires behind in favor of the Sahara Tan Hemi-powered Jeep fitted with the same suspension kit, but fitted with 35-inch BFGoodrich mud tires. These would be better suited for the full slate of off-road duties, and besides, we liked the idea of seeing the iconic tan Wrangler getting caked in mud.
Here, we were reminded why the Wrangler is always a top choice for off-road enthusiasts. Its mechanicals work perfectly in these situations – moments where you need to shift into low gear and lock the differentials for steep grades, or times when you have to manage your way around a tight curve while the Jeep's left tires are stuck in ruts that are one foot deeper than your right tires' paths. The Wrangler is a total champ in these situations, and the extra AEV modifications only make it more capable.
The combination of V8 power and proven off-road suspension geometry meant our Wrangler was nearly unstoppable. In one instance, we found ourselves having to make a quick left-hand turn at the base of a steep hill in the middle of a two-track wooded trail. Northern Michigan had just been hit with a nasty series of rainstorms, and thus, the ground was heavily saturated, and thus, more malleable under the heavy tires of our Wrangler. As Gar in the CJ-5 spun his wheel to the left and attempted to scale the hill, the ground underneath his rear, passenger-side tire gave way, and the little CJ's nose went up into the air, its front left tire spinning. After a few back-and-forth rocking maneuvers, Gar's CJ bounded up the base of the hill, leaving the big, four-door Hemi JK to negotiate the newly dug path.
Our right tires slid into the mud, the left tires still propped up on the drier land – the AEV's full range of suspension travel being used on either end. We kept the wheels straight and lightly pumped the throttle, sending small bursts of power to all four wheels in an attempt to push us through the muck without sending us off the path. Just as our front, right tire started to inch out of the soft dirt and mud, we turned the wheels toward the hill, went hard into the throttle and felt the full grunt of the Hemi's power tug us out of the rough stuff and back on to the solid path. "That was easy," our AEV co-driver stated, matter-of-factly.
Not surprisingly, the Hemi Wrangler had no issues handling the rest of the courses at Rocks and Valleys. All of the AEV add-ons continued to enhance the Wrangler's already considerable off-road prowess, and little things like the upright greenhouse with excellent visibility and flat body panels made it easy to maneuver through the tight, tree-lined trails. "People keep trying to bring that Ford Raptor through here," Gar said as we exited one particularly tough woodsy trail, appropriately named 'The Reaper,' "but it's way too big. The Jeeps are perfect for this stuff."
Of course, this go-anywhere, do-anything experience comes at considerable cost. Start with a 2011 Jeep Wrangler 4x4 Rubicon ($36,177 in the case of our white tester), add the full engine, suspension, appearance and exterior accessory packages ($38,038), and what you end up with is a $74,215 Wrangler. But before your jaw hits the floor, consider that for this level of build quality, you'll be hard pressed to find a similar conversion for less. AEV is to Jeeps what Roush is to the Ford Mustang, and on the drive home, one AEV rep explained it to us in simple terms: People who come to AEV, whether they want one or two individual options or a full package, are looking for the best modifications possible. "We work with the automaker, we work with the tier-one suppliers, and the customers know they're getting the premium treatment."
That, right there, is the point of AEV's creations – premium treatment for off-road enthusiasts. Serious performance car enthusiasts are happy with the base 911, but if they can, they'd gladly shell out an additional $20K or $30K for a Carrera GTS or Turbo for the most hardcore experience.The AEV Hemi Wrangler builds on Jeep's legacy of off-road prowess, enhancing the off-road experience, while keeping things cool and comfortable for the drive back home. Think of it as the 911 Turbo of Wranglers. The GT2 RS? We'll save that title for AEV's 6.4-liter creation.