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In Moab, Jeep isn’t just having fun off-road; it’s planning its future

Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

Back in 1967, a group of city officials got together and organized the first Easter Jeep Safari, an annual pilgrimage to Moab, a small town in the Utah desert, for a diehard group of off-roading fanatics. Now fifty-three years running, what started as a humble one-day event organized by Moab Chamber of Commerce has expanded into a nine-day celebration of all things four-wheel drive that brings together thousands of like-minded enthusiasts from across the globe into one place. Think Monterey Car Week, but for 4x4s.

In recent years, Jeep has become a stronger presence at the annual event, choosing Moab as the venue to unveil its design team’s latest and maddest creations. In stark contrast to typical concept car introductions, where ostensibly gussied-up clay models are trotted out to auto shows for curated photo ops and kept at arm’s length from the critical eye of the automotive press, Jeep’s concepts are running and driving one-off machines. Digital Trends traveled to Moab not only to get a closer look at the 2019 crop of concepts, but to also get behind the wheel and see how these things fare out on some of the world’s most difficult trails. It’s a distinction that Scott Tallon, Jeep brand director for FCA North America, takes pride in.

“Well, if you’re going to go drive it, I’m going to put someone in it with you.”

“A lot of manufacturers build concepts and then put them behind velvet ropes under bright lights, and that’s pretty much it,” he explained while introducing this year’s roster. “That’s not what these are. They are as functional as they are fun to look at.”

Jeep brought six concepts to the 53rd annual Easter Jeep Safari, but two of them stuck out to us in particular.

The new, JL Wrangler-based Gladiator pickup is a strong theme for this year’s event, and the Wayout concept showcases the truck’s overlanding potential. Dressed in a new gator green paint hue that will be available on production Gladiator models, the truck features a lift kit, a winch, and an air intake snorkel from the Jeep Performance Parts catalog. Jeep added a custom roof rack to help users pack their gear up top, while the bed of the truck houses a drawer system that provides lockable dry storage on long treks. For those looking to get off the grid for a while, this truck is a purpose-built tool for the job.While the Wayout is a concept that’s focused on function and grounded in reality, with capability that’s largely enhanced by parts that are available to consumers (or will be), the star of the show is undoubtedly the resto-modded M-715 “Five-Quarter” pickup.

Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

Based on Jeep’s M-715 light-duty military truck from the 1960s, the Five-Quarter concept looks like it would be as comfortable on the set of the next Mad Max movie as it would in a fabrication master class. Outfitted with a full carbon fiber front end, a bobbed six-foot custom-made aluminum bed, and a 3.5-inch drop to its convertible soft-top, this Hellcat-powered beast is simply impossible to ignore. An array of custom touches – like the repurposed vintage 8-71 supercharger housing that encases the transmission and transfer case shifters – make the Five-Quarter look even cooler in person than in photos, and it highlights what a labor of love these concepts are for Jeep’s engineers and designers.

Concepts like the Wayout and Five-Quarter make it clear that Jeep officials understand what makes the brand cool. They also illustrate how the firm is actively focused on connecting with its enthusiast base to get feedback, and potentially apply the lessons learned to future products.

With that in mind, Digital Trends sat down with Mark Allen, the head of Jeep design for FCA North America, to get his take on how these custom machines play into Jeep’s overall strategy, and how emerging technologies could play an increasingly important role in concepts we’ll see down the road.

Digital Trends: Jeep has been bringing concepts to Easter Jeep Safari for a number of years now. What was the original catalyst for the idea, and what’s the overall intent?

Mark Allen: Back in the early 2000s, we were building vehicles to bring to SEMA. I was working in the Jeep studio at the time, and I built a vehicle that was fully emission-capable. It went to the SEMA show in 2003, where it was parked inside of a building. The following year we brought the vehicle with us to Easter Jeep Safari, where it was sitting in a parking lot instead of sitting in a building.

“So much of what went into the JL Wrangler came from what learned by making these concept vehicles.”

I was frustrated with that because I’d put so much effort into the project, so I just decided I was going to go drive it – not beat it up, but just use it. Scott Brown, who runs west coast communications, said, ‘Well, if you’re going to go drive it, I’m going to put someone in it with you.’ And at that point, we basically invented the idea of the drivable concept car.

Over the years we’ve been using the vehicles to try out ideas in terms of color, trims, etc. So much of what went into the JL Wrangler came from what we learned by making these concept vehicles – everything from the bumpers and fender flares to the axle design. And much of what’s now baked into the JL comes from us seeing what customers are doing to their vehicles and how they respond to concepts like these. That is hugely valuable to us.

In contrast to most concepts, which are ostensibly rolling show pieces, trucks like the M-715 Five-Quarter feature a considerable amount of custom fabrication to make them functional vehicles. Can you tell us a bit about what goes into an engineering project like that?

The Five-Quarter is a particularly special case because that’s a situation where we’re taking an old platform and putting modern suspension, powertrain, and other contemporary hardware in it. We work with a small group of highly talented fabricators that understand the requirements we have for these machines. We may do a couple of napkin sketches, but it often comes down to, ‘I want to put able to put the bike in here on the rack, slide it back and forth, and paint it black,’ and those folks take it from there. And with mechanical elements like the suspension, we have another small group of engineers out in California that we have used for almost all of our builds. We basically call them up and tell them what we’re doing, and they work in collaboration with our in-house fabricators to put something together based on those requirements.

Are there instances where you’ve had a part custom fabricated for a project like these that inspired a production version of that part later on?

Features like the tubular doors and rack system that you see on concepts like the Gladiator Gravity sometimes inspire production versions of those parts that become available through the performance parts catalog. Those types of projects typically start in-house so that we can design around the various requirements involved in a production-spec part. And if we don’t pick up a particular project, there have also been situations where my phone rings and we agree to let somebody study those parts for outside development.

Bradley Iger/Digital Trends

Looking further down the road, how do you think emerging technologies will play into concepts Jeep will build in the future? For instance, do you think we’ll see alternative fuel vehicles that fit into this context?

Absolutely. I definitely think we could do a credible, all-electric off-road Jeep. It really doesn’t matter where the power comes from, it just needs to go to all four wheels. And if we did a fully electric off-road vehicle, there are things you can do that aren’t really possible with solid axles. If we’ve got a motor in each wheel, instead of going just forward and backward all in tandem, that vehicle can control each wheel’s motion independently, so you can do things like have the wheels on the left side go backwards while the right side go forwards, almost like tank treads. And it also presents interesting solutions in terms of intelligently delivering power to each wheel to maximize traction. I think there are a lot of things that can be done with that technology, and we’re not hanging our hat on fossil fuel motors. It’s the fundamentals of the four-wheel drive system that define these vehicles.

“I definitely think we could do a credible, all-electric off-road Jeep. It really doesn’t matter where the power comes from.”

Are there new challenges in terms of durability, heat management, and so on that automakers face with electric powertrains used in off-road applications?

I think you can overcome that stuff. Really, the only thing that’s stopping anyone from going electric right now is the cost to develop those vehicles. The range is getting there – I think I’m comfortable with a 300-mile range vehicle, and that most other people would be too, especially when you consider that the fueling station is in your garage. And, in this kind of application, range really isn’t that big of a deal – on most trails, you’re really not going very far. Hells Revenge is a trail out here that takes around five hours to do, and it’s a total of about [6.5] miles.

There are those who feel like the sounds, smells, and sensations of traditional internal combustion engines are part and parcel with the overall performance experience. Do you think that mentality applies to Jeep enthusiasts, or are these folks more receptive to new ways of doing things?

They’re about capability more than anything else. I’ve never had an electric Jeep for anyone to drive and experience, but I think that given what that technology can do, there’s a lot of room for the kind of innovation that folks will respond to.

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