Jeep is a company that makes icons rather than cars or trucks. In fact, if you tell most Jeep owners they have a nice truck, they'll politely point out that they drive a Jeep, not a truck. The loyalty and devotion that Jeep owners feel toward their 4x4s is due much in part to the commitment of the Jeep team to keep Jeeps what they are - Jeeps. Unlike other manufacturers, they don't subscribe to the philosophy that no one actually takes their 4x4s off the pavement. In fact, Jeep encourages drivers to take the road less traveled and enjoy the outdoors. To ensure that this is possible, they have tested new Jeeps on the Rubicon trail for several years. If a 4x4 can't do the Rubicon in stock trim, it isn't a Jeep. With this tradition, they set out to test and validate the new KJ (it's still un-named) on the Rubicon to see if it was worthy of the Jeep name.
Several months ago, Jeep made an unprecedented move and invited several of the journalists in the 4x4 community to drive the new Jeep KJ on the Rubicon. This was so unique, since the KJ wasn't out on the market yet. We were some of the lucky few who were able to test the newest of the Jeep family on one of the best-known trails in the country. If you don't know about the Rubicon, then you have to be new to this sport. This is the toughest trail anyone would want to drive in a stock 4x4.
Our trip began in the fun town of South Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada side. When we arrived, we were taken to a back lot and watched while the covers were taken off of the new KJs. These Jeeps were dressed up in what the engineers called Camo-Light. Camouflaging new vehicles is an industry tradition. It seems we are always trying to get the scoop by shooting spy photos during the early durability testing phase when the Jeep makers are driving on the roads. To keep us in check, they put camouflage on the vehicles to fool the camera and the eye. The Camo-light was a lighter treatment, but until the Detroit Auto show, no one is likely to see a naked KJ.
The first thing we noticed with the KJ was that it was taller than the old traditional Cherokee. It was also apparent that the new KJ has less front and rear overhang. This meant that it would have potentially better approach and departure angles. Of course, we crawled under the Jeep and took a look at the independent front suspension. We figured that this was something that might be a problem on the trail, but figured we would reserve judgement until after the first day on the trail. Under the hood, we found a SOHC 3.7L V-6, a derivative of the 4.7L V-8 rather than the tried-and-true pushrod 4.0L I-6, but the rest of the Jeep was comfortably familiar in styling and hardware.
After walking around the new KJs, we piled into them along with a few TJs, Cherokees, and even a Grand Cherokee, and drove over Highway 50 to Ice House Road and then to Loon Lake. On the highway, the new KJ was comfortable and quiet. The new V-6 was reasonably powerful, and the handling was great. It was hard to evaluate these prototypes on the highway, since they had more than a few rough miles on them. We kept playing with the different knobs and switches like kids with a new toy. Soon, we were at the Loon Lake staging area. From here, we enjoyed two days of driving around, into, and over granite boulders.
The trip was a lot of fun and very educational. We found the KJ to be a capable off-road machine, worthy of the Jeep name. Sure, it's not a TJ Wrangler, but neither is the XJ Cherokee. In our opinion, the KJ is almost as good on the trail as the XJ. In truth, the KJ is better in some ways, but you have to drive it different because of the independent front suspension. The improved approach and departure angles are really nice on the trail, but the undersized tires hampered our evaluation. With 29-inch tires or bigger, the KJ would do even better than it did for us on our trip.
One thing is sure in our minds, while the new KJ might not be our first choice for hard trails, it is certainly a Jeep. Driving them on the Rubicon proved that. Our trip proved to be enjoyable because of the Jeepness of the KJ. In a lesser non-Jeep vehicle, the results would surely have been different. On or off the pavement, the KJ is sure to be a vehicle that Jeep owners can be proud of. Look for more information and photos in an upcoming issue. We know you will like what you see.