Jerome, Michigan -- As we inched up a bumpy, rocky hill with loose dirt and gravel underfoot, there was an instant when it seemed that our Jeep Wrangler Rubicon wanted to give way to the forces of gravity and topple backward end-over-end. That spell of anxiety quickly passed when we hit the throttle, the Hemi engine came alive, the enormous BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires clawed the ground, and we arrived safely at the top.
And then our off-roading adventures continued as we . . . wait, did you say Hemi? That's right. Jeep doesn't make V-8 Wranglers, but we're driving one from American Expedition Vehicles -- the same company that helped create the Call of Duty special-edition Wrangler. AEV is the required outfit for this job. The Hemi Wrangler feels like a decked-out Jeep from the factory -- one that just happens to have a huge engine in it. Granted, our tester has 37-inch tires, an extra fuel caddy, a customized suspension, and a humongous roof rack, but it's put together well and works harmoniously. At $93,000 as tested, it is pricey, though. It's for the modern-day Teddy Roosevelt who can afford a Mercedes-Benz S-class but prefers to play in the dirt.
As much as we like all of the off-roading gear, the 6.4-liter Hemi is the coolest element of the AEV conversion. With 470 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque, it's the same engine that SRT uses in hot-rod versions of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Challenger, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. It's overkill in most off-road situations, but that doesn't stop us from loving the big beast. And, boy, is it a blast to open up on the highway.
Shed the tall tires and you could commute in this rig. No joke. We did it for several days with the tires. We also took the AEV Wrangler to an off-road course at a gravel pit in rural Michigan, where we conquered hills, mud, and narrow trails framed by trees. The Hemi Wrangler simply shrugged, but it's worth noting that the stock Wrangler with Chrysler's 285-hp Pentastar V-6 could easily perform the same chores. Like we said, overkill.
The AEV shined on the drive home from the pit. You're riding high with all eight cylinders snarling while you blast by slower highway traffic. When we put down the windows and cruised along US 12 at 70 mph, we heard nary a rattle or a squeak, which is a testament to quality.
So what we have here is a very well screwed together, very expensive, very capable, and very powerful Wrangler. But here's what it does best: dirt-track drag-racing.
At the gravel pit we came across a straightaway called the "sand drag." It was an open area of loose dirt with plenty of room to roam. We staged at one end, mashed the gas, and held on tightly as the tires bit into the dirt and the Jeep shot forward. We bounced over rough, washboardlike terrain with the heavy-duty suspension dampers stroking up and down in controlled, hydraulic action. Our sprint climaxed with a mighty splash into a huge mud puddle that completely drenched the AEV Wrangler before it smoothly came to a halt on the other side. It felt like an Olympian feat, but the Jeep wasn't remotely flustered.
Finally, the ideal task for this Wrangler became clear: sprinting through the Badlands. If only there had been a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor nearby.
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