Walking the halls of the annual SEMA show in Las Vegas in 2016, there was no denying that the JK Jeep Wrangler is still the top choice for off-road vehicle customisers. That’s pretty amazing when you consider that the JK is now more than 10 years old and is due to be superseded in 2017.
The Wrangler is basically a Meccano set for adults, which makes it easy to transform. Everything unbolts which makes it child’s play to modify the 4x4 to suit your individual requirements. At SEMA 2016, modded Jeeps were to be found everywhere, displaying all manner of mods – some functional, some purely for show, while others left you scratching your head and wondering what on earth they were thinking.
One exhibitor booth stood out in particular, as the complete vehicle package improves the base Jeep in every way. This was the 20th Anniversary JK350 from American Expedition Vehicles (AEV), which we had the pleasure of driving out into the Nevada desert following the show.
The Anniversary models mark AEV’s 20 years in business, and just 20 of the JK350 and RAM Prospector XL models will be built, sure to be snapped up by collectors. There’s no doubt that they’ve had the whole AEV catalogue thrown at them with a 6.4-litre Hemi V8 conversion, 4.5-inch suspension kit, 37-inch BF Goodrich tyres, all the interior and exterior body add-ons, and bespoke 20th Anniversary extras – it’s enough to triple the purchase price of your Wrangler.
This certainly isn’t just another modified Jeep, an AEV Jeep is more like a factory-made special. Years of producing show vehicles and special parts for the Jeep has given AEV a true feel for OE manufacturing, and all of its parts and conversions are either built to factory standard or exceed it.
Take the Hemi V8 engine conversion for example. The conversion is done using as many factory components as possible, including the engine and transmission control units. This means they can be serviced and maintained at any Jeep dealer. Any special parts needed are made in bulk by AEV in order to ensure there are plenty of spares available. In addition, all AEV parts have a factory look and finish. Only the wiring harness is modified, as AEV adapts the Wrangler wiring to the Chrysler V8 and transmission wiring, which in essence makes it a plug-and-play conversion.
Being an American company, AEV engine conversions are made for left-hand drive Jeeps, but the Australian distributors have adapted them for a few right-hand drive Jeeps that we know of. If this is something that interests you, it’s well worth investing the time and money if you really want that V8 roar and performance.
Many Jeep owners will tell you about the death wobbles they get from driving on oversize tyres and raised suspension. Not an AEV owner. This is because AEV’s suspension packages are researched, carefully matched and exhaustively tested to ensure optimum performance and reliability, both on- and off-road. The anniversary-edition JK350 sits on the 4.5-inch Dual-Sport suspension and 37-inch tyres, and drives better than a new unmodified Jeep.
There’s not even a hint of wheel wobble or shimmy, just the hum of those big muddies on the pavement. The only thing the AEV needs to change is to fit a bigger speedometer – when cruising at 90mph, you’re hardly on the gas and the dial is almost off the clock!
Off-road is where the AEV mods really shine. The 37s easily crawl up rock steps and float over the soft sand. The Dual-Sport suspension with its specially tuned Bilstein 5100 series shocks and optimised-geometry is stable, controlled and never unsettled, even when kicking soft sand up for the cameras. It works equally well on the rocks at low speeds, keeping the tyres on the deck and driving forward.
Not that the 6.4-litre Hemi V8 needs help moving this Jeep. It turns the Wrangler into a beast, which is only tamed by its suspension. The V8 bellows out through its AEV exhaust system. It’s mild enough when cruising at part throttle, but mash the pedal and the beast effortlessly leaps forward with a roar. The abundance of bottom-end grunt and low gearing makes crawling over rocks and up steep climbs a breeze. It rivals the most capable 4x4s you’d find stock in a showroom and doesn’t have any of the rattles, bumps and clinks you find in many modified and converted 4x4s.
External AEV parts include the heat-reduction bonnet and AEV front and rear bars. The front bar mounts a Warn Zeon with IPF LED lights, while the rear contains a water tank and AEV fuel caddy. There’s also an AEV roof rack, rear corner guards and side protection rails, which are a new product for AEV Jeeps. Also new are the Borah alloy wheels that were painted a custom bronze colour for this special-edition model.
The goodies extend inside with AEV gauges and premium leather-trimmed seats featuring bespoke 20th Anniversary stitching. The AEV ProCal allows the speedometer to be calibrated to suit the bigger tyres and any changes in gearing, as well as customising a host of other body controls and functions to the owner’s individual requirements.
Of course, nothing this good comes cheap. The AEV JK350 conversion starts at around US$16,000 on top of the price of your new Wrangler. By the time you add in the V8 conversion and all the extras that make this Anniversary edition so special, you’ll be adding more than US$70K to the cost.
However, for the money you’re getting a complete vehicle with quality fit and finish and performance that will exceed anything the factory builds. More importantly, you’ll be getting something unique and very special – shame they’re not building any RHD models.
AEV Prospector XL
For 20 years AEV has always been a Jeep company, but the Detroit firm has expanded to RAM vehicles. Its first vehicle is the AEV RAM Prospector XL, which is based on the 2500 heavy duty pick-ups. AEV is now looking at the IFS RAM 1500 RAM with its first vehicle on show at SEMA.
With a vehicle the size of a RAM, you could be excused for thinking that XL denotes Extra Large, however here it stands for the Roman numeral 40, which relates to the Prospector’s tyre size.
The massive 40-inch Toyo Open Country M/T tyres are tucked under the guards with just a 75mm suspension lift thanks to the clever design and clearancing of the wheel arches. The wheel arches are then finished in High Mark flares.
Other features on this 20th Anniversary Prospector include the AEV Heat Reduction Hood, a Raised Air Intake, 17x10 Katla alloys, AEV premium front bar, Vision X LED Light Bar, and a Bed Rack.
Like the Jeep, the Prospector still drives like a standard vehicle on the highway, except in keeping with the RAM theme it towers over almost everything. In the desert it was able to go almost everywhere the JK did, even if it took a few more lock-to-lock turns to get it through the tight stuff. The big Cummins diesel engine and 40-inch tyres made light work of the sand.
The RAM would be an incredible long-haul tourer with the ability to hold its own off road.
With RAM trucks becoming more common in Australia we can imagine the Prospector XL
kit will be popular with owners here.