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The Jeep® Thing - Mopar Jeep's of Moab

Posted in Project Vehicles on August 1, 2011
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Photographers: Jeep

It’s become a thing. To be specific: a Jeep thing. Not too many years ago, a few maverick employees at Jeep who called themselves the Mopar Underground started it. They built up some cool concept vehicles and loaded ’em on a single transport truck headed for the Moab Easter Jeep Safari, where they were unveiled to a small group of hand-selected media. These concepts were wild—to a degree. A Wrangler-based pickup, no-lift JK sporting 40-inch tires, stripped-down base Wrangler with all the Rubicon gizmos, a military-themed J8 nicknamed “Sarge,” and others whetted our appetites and gave hope that true off-road enthusiasts still rattled the halls of Jeep headquarters.

While in Moab the Underground guys wheeled the snot out of their creations. What a concept: actually wheeling a concept. The media embraced the vehicles, but also embraced the fact they were introduced to them not at an auto show surrounded by smoke and mirrors, but on the trail in off-road Mecca surrounded by fellow enthusiasts. Furthermore, we were told, “Here are the keys…see what you think of ’em.” Wild. Positive praise and accolades ensued.

And like anything that meets with success, the production has grown in scale and complexity. The Underground guys are now joined by the Mopar Performance team, who create their own vehicles using many products you can pick up at your local dealership. And where before only a handful of hardcore enthusiast Jeep employees were present, now high-level suits fly into town to offer presentations and congratulatory back-patting. Suits whose average day back in Michigan deals more with facts and figures than rocks and mud.

But here’s the thing: While the suits are there they’re going on trail rides, blasting dunes, climbing ledges, and catching big air; all with a huge ear-to-ear smile. In short, they’re learning about the Jeep thing. They’re catching the bug. They’re understanding why a Grand Cherokee needs to keep a real low range or why it’s a cool idea to make a Wrangler pickup. They’re getting it. And the future of the brand bodes well thanks in part to their exposure to our world. So our hats are off to the Underground crew, the Mopar gang, and the Jeep brand in general. Here’s to next year’s crop of concepts and brighter things on the horizon.

Pork Chop
In addition to his day job as Head of Ram and Jeep Design, Mark Allen leads the Mopar Underground. He’s the Captain Kirk to their Enterprise; the Milli to their Vanilli and the dude whose overall vision (along with the hard work of his Underground teammates) is responsible for the likes of the JT Heritage Wrangler pickup, Sarge J8, Lower Forty, and one of our favorites to date: Pork Chop. Allen is a real enthusiast with a wacky bent towards the obviously not obvious. We like to think he’d fit right in at Jp magazine—not that he’d take the pay cut. Perhaps it’s for that reason we usually get his vision so clearly. Such is the case with Pork Chop.

Consider a ’70s-era CJ-5 came with a 150hp/245lb-ft 304 V-8 and weighed roughly 2,780 lbs. Fast-forward several decades and much wussification of Jeep buyers and the new two-door JK comes with a 202hp and 237lb-ft 3.8L V-6 and piled-on safety and creature comforts to the tune of 3,780 lbs. That’s for the lightest soft-top version and is only about 50 lbs less than a ’60s Wagoneer. So time to trim down, cut the fat, chop the pork!

The Underground team started by ditching the top, doors, tailgate, bumpers, hood, factory roll cage, sway bars, front and rear crossmembers, forward underrun (anti-submarine) bar, fuel tank, and the entire exhaust system including the manifolds. See ya. Then the bodywork started. The windshield was chopped 2 inches for aesthetics, the door and tailgate openings shaved clean and reshaped, and the rear taillights were moved inboard 2 inches per side. Next, Hanson Offroad was tapped to build the lightweight aluminum front and rear bumpers that weigh a combined 5 pounds. The fender flares were intended to be aluminum pieces built by Hanson, but time constraints required the team to dive into the Mopar catalog for some ABS flares. Allen plans on having the aluminum flares on by the SEMA show later this year. To cover the Mopar Performance cold air intake, AEV tried its hand at stamping one of its Heat Reduction Hoods in aluminum. The aluminum stamping didn’t retain its shape too well around the hood ends, so for the sake of time Allen and his team cut out the middle of the aluminum hood and recessed it into a custom-built carbon fiber surround. The new aluminum/carbon fiber hood weighs 8 pounds and is held down with Drake latches.

The diet continued to the interior where the factory airbag-equipped seats were replaced with Sparcos at exactly half the weight. Aluminum seat track risers replace the heavier (and uglier) factory jobbies and even the side-view mirrors were replaced with convex parts-store mirrors stuck on the A/C vents at the corners of the dash. Brilliant hackery. A new rollcage without one single straight length of tube was rolled out of 2¼-inch DOM. Allen wanted to use thin-wall chromoly for a slight weight savings, but in the end the DOM was a wash with the factory cage weight-wise. However, there’s no arguing its more pleasing lines.

Underneath, the heavy factory exhaust was replaced with custom long-tube headers and twin Banks mufflers. Exhaling through this system, the 3.8L is loud and obnoxious. Out back is a standard GenRight JK aluminum fuel tank, but instead of the usual 3⁄16-inch-thick steel skidplate it wears an aluminum piece. As for the suspension, the upper control arms are factory, but Full-Traction built some solid aluminum lowers. In reality there’s probably not much weight savings compared with the stock steel control arms, but it’s something else to polish. As the Underground team shed weight, the Jeep kept getting taller, so no lift springs or spacers are used to make room for the 35s. However, the team did swap some springs from a military J8 and rear springs from a four-door JK to level things out. Bilstein 5160 shocks damp at each corner and some TeraFlex Speed Bumps make big-air landings nice and cushy.

The star of the undercarriage is undoubtedly the highly lightened Dynatrac Pro Rock Dana 44 front and Dana 44 rear. The housings feature fluted tubes, drilled knuckle Cs, and even hole-sawed suspension brackets. Dynatrac’s ProSteer ball joints and some big 1350 axleshaft U-joints keep breakage at bay. Dynatrac sent the Underground team a pair of its cast steel diff covers, which were recreated in aluminum. The axles house 4.88 gears and ARB Air Lockers. The whole dealio is turned via a stock 3.8L V-6, six-speed manual, and the JK Sport’s factory 2.72:1 T-case.

Moving to the overall view, the whole thing was slathered in silver paint with a red cowl stripe. Tasteful. The interior with matching-color dash is a flash of things to come from the factory. The spare tire is bolted to the rear tub floor and a cool flip-up race fuel filler hides the factory gas cap. Finally, one of our favorite aspects of this build is the wheels Allen chose to wrap the 315/70R17 Mickey Thompson Baja Claws around. Not only are the 17x8 E-T Wheels lighter than the factory wheels, their heritage associated with the altered dragsters of the ’60s and their raw cast aluminum is so in touch with the raw, primitive pulse of this vehicle. Naysayers be damned.

The end result of all these efforts was an 850-pound weight savings. It may not seem like much, but we’re here to tell you it really translates when you’re behind the wheel. You feel like you wear the Pork Chop as a backpack, floating over terrain like a butterfly—not like you’re riding on the back of an elephant walking and bobbing across ice flows. Furthermore, the 3.8L actually feels snappy with the lighter weight and 4.88 gears. We’ll even go so far as to call it a bit more than adequate. That’s high praise from snobs like us. And at the end of the day, after driving all the high-horsepower and unique stuff offered us, we’d put this in our garage over all the others if given the choice.

Wrangler Renegade
Back in the ’70s the Renegade package stood for power, capability, and style. Flash-forward to the JK version created by the Mopar Underground and the first thing on the list is definitely there. For starters, the new 6.4L Hemi from the SRT8 Challenger was slammed home between the framerails by AEV. Allen gave AEV some headaches by insisting a Getrag 238 manual six-speed transmission from a 4.7L Dakota find its way behind the 470hp V-8, but AEV delivered. Backing the Getrag stick tranny is an NV241OR T-case out of a Rubicon. Dynatrac prepped a ProRock Dana 44 front axle and a Dana 60 rear axle with 4.10 gears and ARB Air Lockers. Then the Jeep was drug through the AEV garden. It now wears AEV’s front and rear bumpers, Heat Reduction hood, suspension, and wheels. The wheels sport a hint of Renegade-esque gold tint. For the luxury aspect, the guys broke out the Mopar Performance catalog for some Katzkin leather seatcovers, half doors, and a Sun Bonnet safari top. Warn’s brand-new 9.5 cti winch resides in the front bumper and some 35-inch 315/70R17 Mickey Thompson Baja Claws go up in smoke whenever the loud pedal is mashed.

You’d think after driving the Pork Chop with its insignificant 202hp V-6 we’d be all champagne bubbles inside with an underrated 470hp on tap, but that really wasn’t the case. The Renegade felt heavy and wallowy. It wasn’t as fun or flickable. You didn’t dance atop the dunes like you did with the Pork Chop; you rode it into battle. Sure, there’s power aplenty when you stomp your foot, and there’s no denying the joy of a manual gearbox with what in reality is a 500hp engine. But words like “bulbous” and “ungainly” kept coming to mind as we piloted it around the dunes. It’s not that it’s a bad vehicle, but it honestly feel like the suspension has a lot on its plate trying to deal with the weight shifting above it. That said, if we were looking for an off-road rig that still retained a pulse on the street and looked good enough to pull up in front of a fancy restaurant downtown, the Renegade is it.

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Allen and his team seemed very proud of the fact that they were able to get their Compass over Moab’s Hell’s Revenge trail. To a hardcore off-roader that’s kinda like being proud of your 12-year-old for wiping his own bum, but when you consider what they started with, it is an admirable feat. For starters, the Dual VVT 2.4L engine and CVT transmission sadly remain. There’s just no side-stepping the issue. Let’s move on. Where this vehicle does differ from the Patriot we had such a miserable experience with last year is the addition of the Freedom Drive II Off Road system with low range. And while it doesn’t turn the vehicle into an instant off-road warrior, unlike previous models it does allow it to actually go off-road. When a tire is lifted the brakes are applied to the wheel in the air so power is transmitted to the tire with traction. And the low range actually helps the CVT transmission move the vehicle forward instead of just letting the engine make a pathetic “nnn, nnn, nnn” sound. It works okay.

The Underground team pulled the custom undercarriage skidplating and rocker protection it built for last year’s Patriot project before it was sent to the crusher. It all bolted up to the Compass. Then, a Rocky Road 2-inch spacer lift with new upper rear control arms was installed to clear the way for the larger 30-ish-inch 225/75R16 Mickey Thompson Baja ATZ tires mounted on Liberty wheels. The team found by removing the sway bars “it really woke up the off-road prowess.” Mmmmkay. The vehicle’s Achilles’ heel is its very low ground clearance, but its computer-assisted gizmos and lack of power make you really want to flog it. To quote Allen, “It induces a teenage driving style.” Indeed, in the dunes it was a hoot to bash it through the sand like a hated rental car. Sadly, we have to admit that thrashing the Compass was some of the best guilty fun we had all week. We just wouldn’t treat a vehicle we actually owned like that.

Grand Cherokee
Hey, it’s grey! You either love it or hate it—we were a bit split on the issue. But color aside, this Grand Cherokee is one of those harbingers we alluded to of brighter things on Jeep’s horizon. There are thoughts within Jeep of doing a Rubicon-equivalent package for vehicle platforms other than the Wrangler, so look closely folks. A 2-inch spacer lift clears room for some 33-inch 305/65R17 BFG Mud Terrains mounted on JK Rubicon wheels.

That’s right; this is a coil-sprung Jeep Laredo, not the more common air-suspension Limited. The factory 5.7L Hemi tickles a two-speed T-case, so low range is still an option. The rocker guards are straight out of the Mopar Performance catalog, but otherwise the Grand keeps things simple with a bold paint treatment and some mild modifications to help improve its off-road capability.

Okay, here in the States it’s a Liberty. However, when Allen was looking for vehicles to requisition for this project he stumbled across an export-model Cherokee with the J8-spec 2.8L VM diesel. That actually makes this a cool Liberty. But we’ll continue calling it a Cherokee so we don’t gag. Aside from the factory ragtop roof, the vehicle took a tumble through the ARB catalog to better fit the overland theme of the build. The rear Chrysler 8.25 axle got an ARB Air Locker. The gear ratio is stock – whatever that is in these things. It’s probably 3.73, but if you’re reading Jp magazine you’re not buying one anyway, so let’s move on. ARB’s roof rack and awning sit up top and its rocker guards down low. An ARB Fridge/Freezer sits in the cargo area for those long expeditions into the bush.

We always appreciate Allen’s use of plain steel wheels and the 16x8 Stocktons wrapped with 245/75R16 Mickey Thompson Baja ATZ tires are no exception. The Marlin Perkins-inspired Zebra paintjob should appeal to everyone from older Mutual of Omaha viewers to younger Ted Nugent fans. Wango, tango.

JK8 Independence
Just so you never forget what it is you’re looking at, the Mopar Performance guys are always nice enough to emblazon a name in bold letters across their creations. Hurrah. Although a Jeep Wrangler pickup is believed to be coming in the not-too-distant future, in case you can’t wait the JK8 Independence highlights Mopar’s do-it-yourself pickup kit designed to convert your four-door JK into a two-door pickup.

The 50-inch-long bed is created with new body panels that cover the rear door openings and fill in the depression where the rear seats and footwell area were for a flat bed floor. Additionally, an enclosed bulkhead and rear roof section work in conjunction with the existing Freedom Top targa section over the driver to still allow open-air service. The rear bulkhead allows enough space up front to recline the front seats slightly and store a decent amount of gear.

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