By Mark Williams
Whether you're mountain biking, hiking a trail, soft-roading or doing extreme four-wheeling, much of the most beautiful country in the U.S. is away, often far away, from a paved road. That's why we love Moab, Utah, and that's why we've always said if you love the backcountry, you have to get there and explore it at least once in your lifetime. As luck would have it, the founders of American Expedition Vehicles invited us to drive their latest creation, the AEV Brute Double Cab four-door Jeep 4x4 pickup truck.
You may have seen this four-wheeler in our past Specialty Equipment Marketing Association coverage or on adventure TV shows. When we were offered the chance to get behind the wheel of AEV's latest creation on some of the most treacherous trails in Utah's four-wheeling heaven, we had to say yes.
We should start by noting that AEV is not just another Jeep parts maker looking to help Jeep nuts do crazy things. The company is more than 15 years old and has survived by creating well-engineered products to improve the strength, durability and capability of Jeep Wranglers.
What put AEV on the map was the TJ Brute conversion kits that transformed the previous-generation Wrangler into a highly capable Jeep pickup for about $9,000. Unfortunately, the TJ Brute kit could only be used for two-door models, and it limited interior storage space. All that has changed with the introduction of AEV's four-door Brute Double Cab model. It adds 23 inches to the wheelbase of a Wrangler Unlimited platform and another 16 inches to the rear of the frame rails to create a decently sized short pickup bed.
Hitting the Trails
We met the AEV folks at 5:30 a.m. outside Moab along with about 15 other hard-core Jeep fans and AEV customers. Each of them had a story about their modified Jeeps. We were there to try out the three Brute DCs on the trails. One of the three was a fully outfitted Pearl White Brute DC with a 6.4-liter V-8 Hemi, 35-inch BFG Mud-Terrains and just about every heavy-duty option that AEV offers. The other two Brute DCs (one red, one green) were more realistically modified with engine and simple, light suspension upgrades.
We started on Poison Spider Mesa Trail, which gave us a spectacular view of Moab once we climbed to the valley's edge, a trip of about three miles of hard-core four-wheeling. Before day's end we also ran a section of the famous Golden Spike Trail and the tail end of the Gemini Bridges Trail.
Most of our time was spent behind the wheel of AEV's loaded white Brute DC which, believe it or not, drives like a stock Wrangler Unlimited behind the wheel. In fact, a good part of AEV's mission is to keep the ride and feel of every vehicle it builds as close to the stock drive settings and geometry as possible. This particular characteristic seems important to Dave Harriton, president and founder of AEV.
"I want our company to be as close to an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] as possible - all our products are the best we can make, specifically made to work together with our other parts," Harriton said. As a result, AEV doesn't have a bunch of suspension kits to mix and match with other parts, so its parts list is relatively small.
AEV tests and engineers its suspension lift with its wheels to match its steering kit; the same is true with its performance pieces. The result is a balanced and impressively neutral ride and handling experience, very much like a stock Wrangler Unlimited. However, the white Brute DC was anything but stock.
It runs on 35-inch BFG Mud-Terrains with 17-inch alloy AEV rims. The 6-inch lift gives the big wheel and tire combination a chance to flex quite a bit inside the fender wells. When building Brutes, AEV starts with a Rubicon Wrangler Unlimited option package because it can get the 4:1 low-range ratio in the transfer case as well as front and rear sway bar disconnects. We're told that many hours of road and simulator testing allowed AEV to get ride and handling characteristics on pavement "as close to a factory steering feel as you'll ever see in a Jeep around Moab," Harriton said.
Extreme Off-Road Testing
We wanted to see how the Brute DC did on difficult trails; after all, this is what this Jeep pickup was made for. We were told ascending the rocky cliffs just yards off the trailhead of Poison Spider Mesa would show us what all the extra ground clearance was for. To start, we aired down each tire to between 12 and 15 pounds per square inch to give them more "grabbing" surface area. It didn't take long to be thankful that AEV created huge approach and departure angles in this vehicle, especially when crawling over and around the boulders and rock shelves. Once up the shelves and cliffs we found ourselves navigating trails over large rock faces that looked more like darkened staircases than a trail we should be driving up.
Our DC had plenty of rumbling torque when in 1st gear, mostly because the 6.4-liter V-8 Hemi was under the hood. On the more extreme climbs, dropping the transfer case into the 4:1 low range had us clawing and elevating up and over rock walls. We're guessing the extra weight of the engine up front didn't hurt, as it seemed to give the front tires a touch more grip when scaling the indigenous slick rock.
This particular Double Cab had two beefed-up axles from master axle builders Dynatrac (with its ProRock Series) that had 4.10:1 gears inside. The combination of the engine working with the tires and axles with the impressive crawling gear was like sitting in an orchestra pit surrounded by musicians making amazing classical music. In fact, everything seemed to conspire to make this extreme trail seem like a rather boring experience.
We hopped up on rocks and idled our way over nasty shelves and steep hill climbs; all the while we were impressed with how much grip the BFG Mud-Terrains had through the loose shale, but especially with their performance on the sandpaper-like rock faces. Certain portions of the Golden Spike Trail run up and down giant rock surfaces that don't look navigable even on foot, but our Brutes crawled up and down the walls without so much as a slipped tire.
Our guides told us that punishing temperatures and heavy rains have made the trail surfaces in the Moab area more like 50-grit sandpaper than worn-down rock. As a consequence, the combination of amazing low-end torque and malleable rubber (not to mention plenty of skid plating) made for an almost unstoppable Jeep. Additionally, the angles we put our vehicles in were unnerving much of the time.
There's Always a Price
Our white Brute Double Cab had several pricey "factory" (from AEV) options of note:
- The 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 motor from AEV runs about $25,000.
- The heavy-duty, specially designed Dynatrac ProRock axles (your choice of 60 or 44) are another $20,000.
- A vented hood, snorkel, front and rear bumpers, tire carrier and roof rack take the total package somewhere north of $100,000.
No doubt the arguments about whether this truck is worth that kind of money will rage for quite a while, but you don't have to add all the options. That's the beauty of the AEV approach; you can buy exactly what you want (or need) and feel confident that each part you've ordered has been matched and engineered to work as closely to factory specs as possible. We think there's value in that, and from the results of our trail ride, we're guessing the costs (for some enthusiasts) would be completely justifiable.
Certainly this pricing makes AEV more of a boutique builder rather than a mass producer. We like that Jeep still has plenty of room to make a lower-cost, midsized four-wheeling pickup, possibly also based off the same Wrangler Unlimited platform that AEV selected. The trick will be making it capable, reasonably priced and functionally practical for mainstream Jeep buyers.
We hope Jeep doesn't wait too much longer before it decides to make the jump. But until then, we've got AEV.
And if you want to see more photos of the AEV on the trails we ran and a photo gallery of all the cool trucks we saw while in Moab, just go to our PUTC Facebook page for all the images.