By Mark Williams for PickupTrucks.com
You’ve seen and read about the JK-8 Independence project truck and its conversion kit Jeep recently unveiled as part of a coordinated herd of secret build projects being brought to the 2011 Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, but we wanted a closer look. Chrysler’s Mopar parts and accessories division has made big promises about turning a four-door Wrangler Unlimited into a pickup truck, so we jumped at the chance to get up close and personal with the vehicle.
To review, the kit will consist of 18 parts that include a short 50-inchbed floor, half a hardtop, a lower bulkhead, inner and outer rear body panels, several brackets and two bedrail extensions. As you might expect, a host of body, rollbar and floor modifications are also necessary, not to mention some serious welding if you want the looks of the JK-8. The kit will be available from Mopar by July 4; pricing will not be announced until right before it goes on sale.
The JK-8 Independence has somewhat awkward proportions. Its regular cab looks too fat, and the bed looks too small for the wheelbase. This particular specialty vehicle sports a 4.5-inch lift and 35-inch-tall tires. The regular cab configuration offers a small amount of storage room behind the seats and does allow for some seat travel for long-legged drivers. There are no changes to the Unlimited’s swing-out rear door (now a door gate) so this pickup would have to skip tailgate party duty.
The Independence also seems a little odd in that Jeep is inviting those interested in this kind of model to load the vehicle like a pickup, but it makes no accommodations for improving the payload capacity of the vehicle beyond the stock Unlimited.
To date, Mopar has no plans to offer a heavier or progressive rear coil spring or some stronger bump stops (maybe overload springs?) to help improve the rather meek SUV-like payload capacity. For reference, a fully clothed stock Wrangler Unlimited can weigh around 4,100 pounds with a maximum gross vehicle weight rating around 5,400 pounds. In the most optimistic scenario, the rear coils should be able to handle a little more than 1,000 pounds of payload without trouble. Of course, if you make too many modifications, install a few parts and leave your luggage in the passenger seat, you could cut that number in half.
As you might expect, from behind the wheel, there isn’t much difference between this and a standard Unlimited in drive feel or responsiveness. Our JK-8 Independence had a manual transmission and the 3.8-liter V-6, rated at 202 horsepower and 237 pounds-feet of torque — certainly not a monster, but adequate for a smaller vehicle like this, especially one that’s likely to be doing some rock crawling in low-range four-wheel drive.
We’d expect the Mopar package to make the rear section feel a bit lighter on a stock vehicle, possibly creating a stiffer, jumpier feel to the back end when on rougher roads. As it was, with the heavier wheels and tires on this special project vehicle, and a huge piece of General Grabber and steel wheel hanging off the back end of the Jeep, it was impossible to determine any lightness or imbalance in the chassis. Additionally, this vehicle had a stronger front Dana 44 axle and a set of burly front and rear Mopar JK (this particular Wrangler model designation) HD bumpers.
For our tastes, the wheelbase needs to be longer to give the bed more length, and something needs to be done about the meager payload capacities, even if this kit is just an appearance package. With that said, if this is going to be the placeholder for a couple of years for the coming Jeep pickup truck, with Mopar getting all the glory for offering a unique body package, we think we can live with that … for a couple of years.
As previously mentioned, pricing won’t be out for a while, but we’d guess it will be below AEV’s Brute pickup truck conversion kit. On the plus side, Jeep already has all the stamping paid for because it has an export-only military model, called the J8, that uses the same side and floor body panels.
One interesting note: Jeep had a huge display right in the middle of town at the Easter Jeep Safari, where it built an entire shop that put together a bolt-on version of one of these JK-8s in front of a large audience in about two hours. We’re guessing it might take us a little longer.