What if All Wranglers Came with 37s and V-8s?
Some vehicles just lend themselves to modification, and the Jeep Wrangler is somewhere at the top of that list. Although there’s an endless number of companies willing to sell you aftermarket parts for your Wrangler, very few will build you one from the ground up, and even fewer will do it to OEM quality. If you’ve got the dough, though, American Expedition Vehicles will build you a better Wrangler than Jeep.
AEV is most widely known for its Brute, a four-door Wrangler Unlimited stretched and fitted with a truck bed. The company got its start modifying standard TJ-series Wranglers back in 1996 and hit its stride with the new JK-series Wranglers in 2006. In celebration of its 20th anniversary and to send off the retiring JK series, AEV is building just 20 special editions of its flagship JK350 model.
Although much of its equipment can be had on any JK350, the 20th Anniversary Edition is no sticker and badge package, though it does get some of those. The primary differentiator is a 4.5-inch lift, compared to the standard 3.5-inch lift, complemented by 37-inch BFG Mud Terrain tires (in place of standard 35s). Anniversary Editions also feature exterior accessories in Satin Onyx (a flat, dark gray) rather than black as well as unique wheels, additional exterior trim, and matching trim on the custom seat covers, all in Satin Bronze. AEV also loads up the 20th Anniversary Edition with a number of optional extras, including a raised air intake (snorkel), rear corner guards, and a roof rack. And of course, 20th Anniversary Editions will be fitted with 6.4-liter Hemi V-8s (Hemi swaps being another AEV specialty).
It’s been several years since we’ve sampled an AEV product, so we jumped at the opportunity to sample the 20th Anniversary Edition JK350 at a local off-road park. Gorman, California, resides just shy of 4,200 feet above sea level and offers a number of natural trails and a playground full of man-made obstacles. Unfortunately, our test vehicle was also AEV’s show vehicle, and it had a show to attend. That meant serious paint-scraping, part-breaking off-roading was off the table. Still, we were able to get a feel for the rig’s capability on the steep, rutted hills and frame-twisting playground.
AEV doesn’t build rock bouncers, tube buggies, or other radical off-roaders. It specializes in expedition vehicles, rigs meant to take you a very long way off the beaten path and across the most rugged parts of the continents, not through the King of the Hammers course. They’re for the adventurers who want to camp where no one else has camped, to see parts of the wilderness that can’t be reached in a day trip. As such, they don’t feature giant lifts and super long-travel suspensions. Rather, they’re upfitted with enough capability to get you over or around most obstacles.
Any off-roader will tell you a 4.5-inch lift ain’t that much, and 37-inch tires are common fare (35s are so yesterday). Still, the Anniversary Edition made easy work of the steep, pockmarked hills with no more preparation than airing down the tires and hitting the factory lockers. In four-low, the big Hemi barely exerted itself climbing up the loose hills, and the gearing made descending them a nearly no-brake affair. Through the holes and the frame-twister, the rig showed impressive articulation while keeping the body remarkably flat. In fact, it looked far more impressive from the outside than it felt from the inside. If you didn’t know better, you’d think you were driving through a dirt lot. It just goes to show that you don’t need an extreme build to go a long way off-road.
AEV doesn’t just build trail trucks, either. All of their conversions are designed to be dual-purpose, as good to drive on the road as off. AEV prides itself on not only OEM-level build quality but also ride quality and handling. To illustrate this, the AEV people insisted we take it to the windiest road in the area. In the sharp corners, the meticulously engineered and tuned suspension handles as well as a stock Wrangler Rubicon despite the lift and balloon tires. In fact, thanks to those massive sidewalls, the AEV model rides better than a stock Wrangler Rubicon. AEV’s suspension engineer spent years at Jeep before changing jobs and has redesigned the entire suspension to accommodate the lift and tires rather than just putting longer springs and shocks on it. Because it mimics the stock suspension geometry, the stability control still works as it ought to and doesn’t have to be disabled.
The big Hemi is a joy both on-road and off. AEV gets them right from the factory (they’re not crate engines) and has developed a swap kit that’s as close to a factory install as they can possibly make it. For maximum reliability, there are no performance enhancers. It drives a factory five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, factory transfer case, and factory axles (though AEV recommends you start with a Wrangler Rubicon so you get lockers, too). Even with the altitude and massive tires, the Anniversary Edition was downright quick for a Wrangler Unlimited and easily passed vehicles on an uphill freeway grade. That’s what 475 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque will do for you.
Herein lies the appeal of an AEV rig: strip away the custom bumpers, hood, and fender flares, and the underlying vehicle feels as if it rolled off the Jeep assembly line. It looks, drives, and feels like a Wrangler trim level you could buy at any dealer. Fit the winch, auxiliary fuel canister, skidplates, bumpers, driving lights, leather seats, and more, and you’ve got a go-anywhere vehicle with a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty.
Of course, factory-level reliability and build quality don’t come cheap. AEV hasn’t finalized pricing for the few 20th Anniversary Editions it will build, but we can make an educated guess. The JK350 package runs about $16,000, and the Anniversary Edition adds several thousand dollars worth of extras. Then there’s that Hemi, which runs nearly $31,000 with the automatic and almost $37,000 with the manual. (It requires computer programming, as there is no factory 6.4-liter Hemi/manual transmission setup.) All of that, of course, is on top of the Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited it’s built on. Add it all together, and you can easily crest $100,000 with enough accessories. It’s an enormous amount of coin for an off-roader, no doubt, but it’s hardly unheard of in the world of extreme off-roading and serious expedition vehicles. Yes, you could build a more capable off-roader out of an old heap and a pile of mail-order parts for a lot less money, but you won’t likely achieve this level of build quality and vehicle integration. OEM quality at low volume is going to cost big money, but if you can afford it, AEV doesn’t disappoint.