First Drive

2015 Easter Jeep Safari Concepts First Drive

We Drive Jeep's One-Off Off-Roaders At Their Second Home In Moab

Imagine if once a year your grandmother made a chocolate cake. Not a chocolate cake, that chocolate cake. Blow-your-mind chocolate cake. But she won't ever let you have any – you can only have the spatula and whatever's left over in the mixing bowl. And you don't care. You look forward to that spatula and bowl every year because – "Gadzooks!" – that is some stupendous cake.

For us, that cake is the Easter Jeep Safari. An annual pilgrimage to Moab, Utah for a taste of what Fiat-Chrysler's off-road brand has cooked up in its Design Dome. "No, you can't have any," the company tells us, "but you can taste it here, then dream about it until next Easter."

In Detroit, Jeep gave us a close look at the seven concepts it built for this year's 49th annual event. Then it went a step further and took those show cars to Mill Canyon, UT, to crawl the red rocks in Jeep's natural habitat. After all, the company calls Moab, "Our home away from home."

And it's not true that we never get more than a taste of Jeep's conceptual goodness – 2011's JK8 pickup conversion kit is a slice of Safari creation we can now take home, for instance, as are the hood decals that adorned two of the concepts we drove this year. Pietro Gorlier, President and CEO of Mopar, told us that the evolution of Jeep Performance Parts came from listening to journalists and customers in his first year on the job in 2010.

So there's that. But still, we want more cake. Like a full-on production Wrangler Africa.

These being one-of-a-kind prototypes traipsing through a canyon of nearly immovable objects, we didn't go fast, we didn't go far, we didn't push hard. But we did drive all the Easter Jeeps, and even just this small taste was outstanding.

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Jeep Chief

While we listened attentively to the detailed spiels on all this conceptual candy, one question ran through our minds: "How am I going to get in the Chief before everyone else?" And we could see the same thought every colleague's face, those scheming bastards.

And why not? The Ocean Blue tribute to the venerable Cherokee of old grabbed everyone's attention since the first teaser images weeks before the event, in part because the vintage truck is up there with mermaids for rarity and lustworthiness. Anything that goes this far in obeisance to that classic Jeep is always going to score huge marks.

The Chief is a four-door Wrangler underneath, but in many ways it feels nothing like a Wrangler. There are no handles for the rear doors on the outside, for instance – you have to reach in to open them. The cabin ambiance is like a Mini Moke or beach buggy on stilts. You step up to a floor elevated by 35-inch tires and a two-inch lift kit, but with a chopped roofline. Even though you're up high, the two-inch haircut brings the rosewood slats under that French Bread roof down to just over the brow. Tiki Bob the Shift Knob is a little funky in the hands, but the long throw shifter is like stepping back into a warm '70s groove. The slotted chrome rims are inspired by old Camaros – the kind you saw in high school if you are of a certain age. And it's all surfing Hawaii inside with the hula girl on the dash, the hibiscus patterned seats, and classic board stickers everywhere. And the Magnum P.I. Detroit Tigers hat? Nice touch.

The 3.6-liter V6 Pentastar under the hood is unchanged, so it drives like you'd expect of a lifted Wrangler on 35s. Behind the wheel, this one topped the charts for cool factor. And in case you do your surfing in Sri Lanka or the south island of New Zealand, with its six-speed manual transmission and 5:38 gearing, we had access to a 96:1 crawl ratio. Rocks? What rocks?

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Jeep Wrangler Africa

With yen for overlanding ever since attending the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles, and the Wrangler Africa concept had this author ready to pack for a three-month safari. We weren't alone. When we suggested to the woman monitoring the event for the Bureau of Land Management that Jeep was going to build the Africa, she got so pumped that we felt bad telling her it was a joke. She turned to the Jeep PR guy between us and immediately ran through a list of changes they should make, like putting the forthcoming 3.0-liter diesel motor in and getting rid of the automatic side steps. He had to interrupt her twice to say, "It's not true, we're not building it." The rueful glare she subsequently shot our way was, we admit, wholly deserved.

The rear quarters of the Africa concept extend 12 inches; its backside ends on the same plane as the rear-mounted spare of a stock Wrangler. So, even though the Africa looks larger, the overall length is unchanged. A high-top roof raises the ceiling by four inches, making the cabin and cargo areas awesomely spacious while a two-inch lift adds height under the floor. A universal carrier mount on the inside of the rear door is good for hanging pre-packaged Jeep kits with items like tools and First Aid, or you can strap any of your gear to it.

The 2.8-liter diesel V6 – the diesel used in Euro-market Wranglers – comes with 197 horsepower and 302 pound-feet of torque, which is gobs of grunt. As soon as we started up, crossed the first rock ledge and crawled down to a large rock pan, the Africa sloshing mildly on its aired-down 35-inch tires and Dana 44 axles. We felt like we truly were in Africa. Or Jurassic Park.

While the Chief is an out-and-out concept, with the Africa, Jeep told us, "We are asking questions with this car." Well, our answer is, "Heck yeah!" This is the one we want. With a manual transmission. Or we'll take an automatic. Just build it, please.

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Jeep Grand Cherokee Overlander

We'd have an easier time getting the Overlander in our garage than the tall Africa; the only big custom piece is the front fascia with its built-in winch, tow hooks, and extra-large front fog lights. Those yellow lenses on the headlights and fogs? Put there "just because we thought it looked cool." The same goes for all of the brightwork that was removed – only dark finishes were applied to this puppy, outside the Sage Green paint.

Even the air suspension is stock, albeit altered to give the Overlander's an inch more standard ride height than the retail Grand Cherokee. That gives the 18-inch wheels on oversized All-Terrain tires plenty of room under larger fender flares. All told there's an extra 1.6 inches of ground clearance for obstacles if needed. The roof-mounted tent is excellent, and a coat of bed-liner applied to the roof protects the precious sheetmetal.

Inside, it's a Grand Cherokee, save for the Warn winch remote mounted next to the steering wheel. As with the Wrangler Africa, this one also had us hooked – we'd welcome the ability to go intercontinental distances in Grand Cherokee luxury. And the two-person roof tent is like getting the top bunk of the bunk bed, only you can park it in the Atacama Desert.

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Jeep JK2A Staff Car

During our initial briefing in Moab we were told, "There was no good reason to do this," which is an absurd statement because look at it. Designers wanted to see how close they could get to a World War II military-spec Jeep with a standard Rubicon donor car. What more reason would anyone need? Fitting for the time of year, the Staff Car is covered in Easter eggs. As we said when we saw it in Detroit, company designers took their time with this one.

After removing the doors, shifting the B-pillar back and raising the sills, Jeep's team removed anything that looked modern. There's a painted steel floor, and the transmission tunnel has no plastic cover. You can see the wires and cables running to the four-wheel-drive lever, and a ditty bag hangs from one of those cables. The shift knob is a hand grenade; the four-wheel-drive lever is a shell casing. Jeep got a period-correct, 20-foot antenna from Ohio Brass. The bumpers and heli-hooks came from the Jeep J8 Egyptian military vehicle. That color? It's called "Sandstorm," but it was matched to a cardboard box, and even the underside of the vehicle is painted. There are wood bumpers on the hood to protect the fold-down windshield, and blackout lamps with guards to protect occupants from the enemy. Even the front driveshaft is accented with a picture of two Jeeps. And that matching helmet got a lot of use during our drive day. The designer told us, "We wanted it to look military but not violent." The bottle opener mounted on the side of the instrument panel – for "Official Use Only" – drives this point home.

Getting under the "hungry horse" canvas roof is like stepping into an episode of M.A.S.H. The 6.5-inch-wide wheels on aired up 35-inch Firestone NDTs gave the Staff Car the firmest ride of the Wrangler bunch, which was fine with us, and the manual transmission was doubly fine. This concept can go off-road with ease, but it's so easy, open, and fun that we'd love to make it a daily driver. Right after we mount a .50-cal in the back, next to the 85-can beer cooler.

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Jeep Red Rock Responder

This one could have been called "Big Red Awesome," because why would we not want an extra-large version of a Jeep pickup? The nickname is obvious based on stance alone, but this concept isn't just about sitting pretty. The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 inhales through a cold-air intake and exhales through an axle-back exhaust, so there's a deep, rumbling bark worthy of the Responder's rescuing bite.

The Red Rock comes with an intense combination of production and concept parts, along with enough tools to send the Snap-On guy into a jealous rage. The high-top fenders, once a concept piece but now going into production, allow for two-inch-larger wheels without adding a lift. The designers could have fit the 37-inch tires seen here with a two-inch lift, but they went for the four-inch lift instead and installed a high-lift steering modification with a raised Pitman arm. You can buy the LED headlights, custom hood, and bumper, but not the rock rails – those are prototypes. Jeep doesn't offer the eight-lug beadlock wheels – we were told the business case isn't there, but if enough people demanded it, well, it's happened before. And Jeep is said to be working with the maker of the cargo bed drawer on something that we might see in the future.

The Red Rock Responder has size, girth, tools, and a four-inch lift. It growls and goes anywhere. Driving it ignites every neural connection that has anything to do with testosterone. You want to throw three other dudes in it and chant, "Men! Men! Men! Men!" while you follow the setting sun to a blank spot on the map that's marked with a skull and crossbones because someone needs to be winched out of quicksand. That's on fire. Protected by dragons. That are ridden by Amazons. So, yes to the Red Rock Responder.

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Jeep Cherokee Canyon Trail

This one was an even better looking version of the Cherokee Trailhawk, but it's more tame than the rest of the concepts. The purpose here is to protect you from any threat coming from underneath the truck, built with production rock rails, skid plates covering every important underside component, and oversized tires that added another half-inch to its ground clearance.

A Jeep Cargo Management System organizes the load area, and the Moab bag inside gives you a place to put your riding gear for those custom painted Canyon Trail bikes. So if your commute includes Hell's Revenge, lava fields, or occasional trips to Venus, this is the one for you.

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Jeep Renegade Desert Hawk

As the newest member of the family, Jeeps wants to show off the Renegade as a canvas for customization. This Trailhawk-based concept gets changes like the hood decal, Mopar trailer hitch and roof rack, and rock rails, with front and rear skid plates as the main prototype modifications. Larger 29-inch, 235/65R17 tires added an extra inch to the stock Renegade Trailhawk's 8.7-inch ground clearance.

This is perhaps the one vehicle in the crowd that could have the Jeep faithful asking, "Why is that here?" Superficially the Renegade might be too cute for Jeep-brand patriots – probably because they haven't driven it – but it's far more capable than most owners will ever need. As we found out driving along Dome Point trail the next day, the Desert Hawk is not a pretender to the family crown. We'll tell that story soon, while we prepare for the long wait until year's Safari concepts make us droll all over again.

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