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AEV Builds The Jeep That Jeep Should Have Built
The luxury adventure vehicle market is a buyer’s conundrum, populated with specialty vehicles that only enthusiasts understand, and applying wildly differing interpretations of luxury. If you are like us and consider luxury to be quality and performance, more than leather and wood, then you’ll probably want to keep reading.
Traveling to Utah with American Expedition Vehicles, we got a first-hand experience of a family of Jeep conversions that take the iconic off-roader to its logical next step. In short, if you have the cash, then AEV will build for you the Jeep that Jeep should have built.
Let’s face it: if you’re considering buying a Jeep Wrangler 4×4, it’s not for a comfortable plush interior, a high top speed, and it’s certainly not in the hopes of getting decent gas mileage.
You consider getting a Jeep because it’s a fun, rugged, extremely off-road capable vehicle that has a 70 year legacy and an enormous following with outdoor enthusiasts.
If you buy a Jeep Wrangler, then you own what is widely considered the best off-road vehicle you can buy.
But it’s not. It could be better…
And thanks to a quickly growing company called American Expedition Vehicles, now it can be. Jeep’s main focus is on profit and the ability to easily mass produce automobiles that satisfy a huge range of consumers. There is nothing wrong with that, but it goes against notions of passionate production and peak performance that enthusiasts are looking for.
Together with AEV’s founder we are in Utah at what is most certainly the epicenter of Jeep enthusiasts for a gathering called the Moab Easter Jeep Safari. Moab is home to some of the most striking landscapes in the country, with enormous stone arches, slickrock bowls, and Mars like topography.
This unique landscape has made Moab the proverbial mecca for countless off-road enthusiasts because of the seemingly endless supply of incredible rock-crawling trails.
We are driving along one of those trails, ominously dubbed “Poison Spider” trail, and on our way to “the Golden Crack.” The names sound formidable because… Well… The trails ARE very formidable.
The tires our my Jeep JK Wrangler have been deflated to 12psi, increasing traction by turning them into virtual rubber tank-tracks.
Ironically, one of us attempted this same trail some 13 years ago in a Toyota 4Runner, only to turn around with a tail tucked between their legs.
Today there is no escape…
We face a perilous drop-off to either side of AEV lovingly reconstructed Jeep, but that’s not what concerns us…
It’s the impossibly steep wall ahead, and visions of our vehicle flipping over and tumbling down the hill like a tin can, that make us wonder if the liability releases we signed were such a good idea.
“Slow and steady,” Dave said. “Just keep moving forward… We’ve built these Jeeps to handle this… Trust me.”
Why should anyone trust this scruffy sun burnt stranger who keeps encouraging us to do things with a Jeep that would make a mountain goat shudder?
Perhaps because he’s the founder of a company named American Expedition Vehicles (AEV). A company renowned for taking the already very capable Jeep Rubicon four-by-four and turning it into probably the most on and off-road capable vehicle commercially available today.
When you first meet Dave Harriton, he slips under your radar. The soft-spoken 39 year old has an easy-going, unassuming demeanor that you might not expect from the founder of a multi-million dollar company that has major production facilities in Detroit.
But there’s nothing “Detroit” about Harriton, especially when you’re riding with him in one of his Jeeps… A life-long off-roading enthusiast, Dave has been turning people’s heads with his modified Jeeps since he was a freshman in college. Over twenty years ago, he stretched a Jeep YJ by 22”, improving its handling and general off-roading capability.
It was a novel and clever idea, and one that won AEV numerous awards and developed a cult-like following for the new company. Even Jeep sat up and took notice, awarding Harriton and AEV the coveted Design Excellence award. But it took Jeep another 10 years to finally integrate the “stretched” concept into their own vehicles, first with the Unlimited LWB Wrangler, and later with the (now extremely popular) 4-door JK Wrangler.
16 years, four Design Excellence Awards, and several thousand Jeeps later, Harriton and AEV are doing a lot more than stretching Jeeps.
That’s the good thing about being a smaller company like AEV – they have the uncanny ability to move fast and produce cutting-edge products. Products that, frankly, Jeep should have built. Using some of the best suppliers in the United States, AEV is able to custom order parts to their specific specifications or build in-house. It is part of a new birth of American automakers, and it is exclusive, high-end, and in direct contrast to what most people think about the American car industry.
During our short stay in Moab, we were surprised to see how many Jeep owners had swapped the (yawn) hood of their stock Jeep with the sculpted, vented custom hoods from AEV. But it’s not just hoods and aesthetics that set AEV apart.
Over the years, AEV has expanded into building fully modified Jeeps, with purpose-built suspensions, swapped motors, custom front and rear bumpers, snorkels, and a host of other modifications that take the already very capable vehicles to a whole new level.
For those who have always dreamed of owning a Jeep, but also want the utility of a pickup truck, (something Chrysler doesn’t produce), AEV has the answer. They build a vehicle called the “BRUTE,” who, much like a centaur, has the front half of a Jeep Rubicon, and the rear half of a purpose-built pickup truck bed and rear-end.
We had the opportunity to test out AEV’s modified Jeep Rubicons and the BRUTE during our adventure in Moab, and were thoroughly impressed with the vehicles.
A snorkel provides the same functionality for your Jeep that it does for a tourist swimming in the ocean: air is brought into the engine from up high, keeping it free from water and also bringing less dust into the airbox of the vehicle.
The front and rear bumpers have been redesigned by AEV to provide improved protection, a winch for recovery, and increase the approach and departure angles of the vehicle. This allows you to ascend and descend much steeper obstacles without slamming the vehicle into the rocks or getting stuck.
The redesigned AEV rear bumper also has injection-molded water storage tanks built into it… whether for use in a radiator, or as extra water for a survival situation, no space is left to waste.
And while the bumpers provide serious off-road features, they still retain the factory air-bag deployment capability of the stock vehicle.
Another great example of AEV ingenuity is the rear tire carrier, which is designed like a swiss-army knife. Without taking up much more space than the spare tire itself, this brilliant accessory allows you to carry 10 gallons of fuel, a shovel and high-lift jack*, as well as an aimable utility light all in roughly the same space as a regular spare-tire.
(A high-lift jack is like a much larger version of a regular car jack, and is used to lift the vehicle up in off-road conditions, either to change a tire, to dig out of an obstacle with your shovel, to place a piece of material under the tire for traction, or many other applications. It is considered necessary “recovery gear” for hard-core off-road enthusiasts.)
But all of the upgrades aren’t purely utilitarian. AEV also offers their vehicles with customized interiors, including F-1 Leather seats and an AEV branded dash that reminded us of the design aesthetic of a rugged yet refined watch, like the SISU watch one of us wore on the trip.
To lift the trucks AEV include a high-lift jack, that is like a much larger version of a regular car jack. And is used to lift the vehicle up in off-road conditions, either to change a tire, to dig out of an obstacle with your shovel, to place a piece of material under the tire for traction, or many other applications. It is considered necessary “recovery gear” for hard-core off-road enthusiasts.
Perhaps most impressive of all, AEV offers the option of upgrading the Jeep’s already substantial engine with powerful Hemi V8 motors. While the cost of the 5.7 and 6.4 liter VVT HEMI engines is not cheap (the 6.4 costs as much as a new Jeep Wrangler), the additional 180 horsepower is substantial.
But as Dave will be the first to say, off-road ability isn’t what makes AEV’s Jeeps special… Harriton explains that any decent off-road shop can build a vehicle that will climb rock walls and boulders like this. The trick is developing a vehicle that can also be used as a comfortable daily driver.
Off-road vehicles are usually built upon a series of modifications and compromises that make them uncomfortable and unstable on city streets and highways. Much of this has to do with the kind of suspension required for off-roading.
And it is AEV’s completely redeveloped suspension that Harriton is most proud. The suspension keeps the vehicle stable and smooth on the highway and city streets, while allowing full articulation and solid handling in the most extreme off-road environments you can imagine.
AEV redesigned the Jeep’s suspension from the ground-up, with the help of former Jeep engineers that Harriton has ushered into his fold. Their goal was to develop a vehicle that could be driven in serious off-road conditions, as well as on the freeway, without feeling that it was compromised in either element.
In this regard, I would say the American Expedition Vehicles has succeeded. The vehicle was able to tackle seemingly insurmountable obstacles off-road, and seamlessly transition to smooth, quiet, and stable freeway driving.
We didn’t roll down the hill that day, as perhaps we had feared. We followed Dave’s instructions and gassed the powerful Jeep up and over a 60 foot sandstone wall, and later drove it back to the hotel in complete comfort, and style… With the bravado that perhaps only an $85,000 American Expedition Vehicles Jeep could provide.