America? Hell, yes! The AEV Brute is a bit stupid … and absolutely stupendous. When the zombie army invades, this is the getaway rig to beat them all.
For: A ton of heritage, super off-road, absolutely the real deal.
Against: Thirst, lack of finesse, light load limit, no side steps.
THE reason for the cloyingly musty odour that enforced driving with the windows down whenever possible became apparent when the kick mats were lifted out.
These and the carpet below were soaking wet. Incredible how stinky man-made nylon fibres can get. Logically, there could only be a couple of explanations. Either the vehicle had been treated to an over-zealous pre-delivery valet or, having been left in the rain, had been a victim of either poor sealing or being caught with the roof panels off and side windows down.
I suspect those were not the reasons why the floor was damp enough to work as a mushroom-growing bed. Checking the underside, and noting a couple of small scrape marks and some mud lodged into the chassis, I’m tending to think someone, at some time prior to our run, had put this rig to a real test involving deep water.
All I can say is that it wasn’t me. As the video accompanying today’s road test shows, Jeep’s instruction to undertake only light-duty off-roading activity was respected.
Still, from looking at the Brute – yes, that’s it’s proper name, hence the capital ‘B’ – you can understand why it would so tempting to use it to tackle terrain that might defeat most off-roaders on sale here. Nothing else on the NZ showroom floor is as brawny as this vehicle.
The Brute’s here to blaze a trail in another sense, too. It also takes Jeep into territory that the factory has yet to take on. Jeep hasn't built a utility in decades, and though it seems likely to with the next generation of Wrangler coming out in a couple of years, for now the only model that fulfills traydeck function is the Brute.
Even though it is being sold by Jeep distributor Fiat Chrysler New Zealand, this is a Jeep that isn’t wholly a Jeep, being a factory-sanctioned aftermarket conversion by American Expedition Vehicles. They’ve been toughening up Jeeps, especially Wranglers, for yonks. AEV’s involvement conforms neatly to the Jeep persona in that, while their factory is in Detroit, the company is headquartered in Montana, heartland cowboy country.
FCNZ has done a deal for AEV to rebuild NZ-market specification, factory fresh Wrangler Unlimiteds into what you see here.
The Wrangler Brute Ute Sports is a stretched, elevated and toughened Franken-version of the five-door wagon that, in turn, is the most direct descendant of the original World War II battlewagon that established this brand.
FCNZ reckons the Brute has potential to position as a next-step up alternate to the ‘regular’-sized one-tonne utilities, whose increasing popularity with New Zealand drivers resulted in the Ford Ranger achieving a type first for this market in becoming the country’s top-selling new vehicle in 2015.
However, the level of penetration they achieve is potentially set to be tempered by certain factors.
Such as? This’ll take a while. There’s the cost – the entry Sport here is a $114,900 proposition, with the alternate Rubicon adding another $10k – that is elevates the model to at least $35k above anything in the one-tonne sector (and is subject to currency fluctuation), the provision in petrol Pentastar V6 format only and the cited towing and payload abilities that, despite the vehicle’s substance, are – at 1588kg and 450kg respectively – no better than half that offered by the leading one-tonne utilities.
So it’s about as bonkers as George Patton was reputed to be. Yet that’s also the appeal. So it’s what’s it like?
Need to be told that the Wrangler, which some aficionados consider the only true Jeep, has an ancestry dating back 70 years? Didn’t think so.
The Wrangler is an American icon that, while it doesn’t entirely turn its back on modern thinking (it has airbags, air con and ABS, for instance), it’s also big on ‘traditional’ and ‘tough’.
Though this verges on the sappy - imprinting ‘Jeep since 1941’ on the handrail ahead of the front-seat passenger is chintzy and also a bit misleading, since strictly-speaking the civvie editions didn’t emerge until 1945 – but there’s no doubt that this rig is is no softy.
If you’re looking for comfort, advante garde, quality trim and the latest in infotainment, then buy a Grand Cherokee (actually, for the same money that Jeep asks for the AEV Sport, you could purchase the super-brawny SRT8).
Anyway, the point is that Wrangler is not even blue collar. It doesn’t even wear a shirt often. Look at it, and you can imagine yourself climbing sandhills, traversing beaches or cresting mountains, but in being designed foremost to be thrown down slippery forest tracks and through raging mountain streams, by necessity it’s had to be kept quite basic.
Also, it’s not an especially ergonomic design. The visibility-limiting letterbox-slot windows, the lack a natural rest spot for your left foot, poor storage options, strangely located switchgear and the need the key to unlock the exposed fuel cap are a Jeep thing.
Yes, it has electric windows and air conditioning, plus cruise control and that phone/audio Bluetooth-streaming facility, courtesy of the Uconnect (it’s an American thing) infotainment system, but is the only Jeep without sat nav and there’s just the one USB port.
The trim is designed to be knock- and dirt resistant, if not wholly water-proof, and everything – the doors and roof sections above the front chairs – are designed to be removed and left in the garage.
Wrangler’s general shape seems much the same as that seen on the Normandy beach-head, but it’s not. The five-door shape delivered a huge improvement in interior space and none of this is sacrificed by the AEV rework. Basically, everything forward of the back seats is still as Jeep designed it and everything heading south is down to AEV.
That Wranglers are still formed in classic two-box style, by designers with only rulers and set-squares to help them, and maintain separate ladder frames, obviously helped with the conversion. You’ll see there’s something odd about the rear doors, in that they are still shaped to accommodate a rear wheel arch that is now a lot a further behind them, but overall the conversion is very neatly done, with beautifully uniform welds and panel reshapes, when these are required. It’s a proud representation of ‘American workmanship’ as it used to be.
The Unlimited was always my personal Wrangler of choice. The wagon shape looks good and the superior ride quality, extra passenger capacity and luggage space the five-door provides is really useful.
The Brute ticks the box equally well for passenger accommodation – though, being a lot higher off the ground, it’s a lot more awkward to get into; I’m 1.8m tall and have quite log legs, but it was still a stretch, while my height-challenged wife required a stool (that I stowed in the back). Memo to AEV: Fold down side steps please!
The in-cabin luggage space has pretty much disappeared but, of course, there’s now that huge deck with a cantilevered cover. However, it’s only designed to keep out the elements – there are no locks to stop thieves from taking a look-see.
More about that deck? Measuring an impressive 1530mms by 1550mms, the load bed comprises an injection moulded, cored composite fitting that the maker says is not only stronger than steel but also considerably lighter and non-corrosive. A rubberized, skid-resistant coating protects the interior and four integrated tie-down anchors keep cargo securely in place.
Tucked below load compartment is a hidden under mount tyre carrier to securely hold the spare wheel. A hand operated winch allows for easy lowering and removal of the spare wheel when required.
Surprisingly, in respect to payload and towing ability, the Brute appears to be more wussy than its name suggests.
FCNZ has not provided detail about how much weight the deck can take, but suggests a cited maximum towing capacity, again Sport versus Sport, of 1588kg – against 2300kg for the Unlimited.
In respect to how much weight can be put onto the deck, AEV’s website makes clear it is no one-tonner, notes that “the Brute Double Cab is not designed to be a replacement for a traditional pickup truck. The Brute Double Cab is designed for overland travel.”
The 209kW/347Nm 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol is something of a hero engine for Jeep. Its implementation into the Wrangler four years ago promised significantly improved performance over the previous, well-aged 3.8-litre six and slightly reduced fuel consumption. It also came into the scene with the kudos of having occupied the annual Ward’s 10 Best Engines list for two years on the trot.
This installation does nothing to reduce the mechanical refinement previously experienced in the Unlimited. There’s a true big engine feel, with smooth and linear acceleration. In on-road operation, too, it also sounds good, with no small degree of growling and purring to remind this is an American operation.
Given that the AEV is so overtly off-road tuned, though, you’re probably going to give it greater regard for how it holds up when taming boulder-strewn mountain passes and toiling through sill-deep muck.
As we say, with Jeep asking for us to steer clear of extreme conditions, we can’t comment on how well this mill will hold up. But even though it was utterly unstressed by the work we did undertake, there were instances when we just had to think the 2.8-litre diesel that Wrangler also packs in some other formats would be even better. Certainly, our off-road expert, Mark Warren is unequivocal: His experience is that big torqueing diesels always do best in NZ conditions. He’s the guy who has been there, done that in basically every current rig on the market. Who are we to argue?
Certainly, too, the 2.8-litre diesel, which when I last checked offered 140kW and 400Nm, would be beneficial for on-road operation. Obviously, this machine is not set up for speed and you’d have to say it’s not shaped for that either. But even though the AEV implementation has clearly been undertaken with weight-saving in mind – hence the entire deck being rendered from composite – there’s no getting away from the donor being a hefty (close to two tonne) and far from aerodynamic chunk of Americana.
Jeep rates the Unlimited as having an optimum economy of 11.8 litres per 100km, but that’s in manual – not with the five-speed auto here. In any respect, the AEV is clearly even more wince-worthy.
By Waipukurau, the last town before Mark’s place, the vehicle had clocked 120kms – and sucked through half a tank of gas. We figured it prudent to replenish before going further; a sobering $60 exercise. Ouch.
A more modern auto would help. Clearly, while this one does the job, its old design is off the pace next to the modern engine it is connected to, with less flexibility than the six, seven and eight-speed units that are now commonplace. Shifts are slow and though the manual mode – accessed by moving the shifter left and right – makes it better, it’s no star.
Its steering is vague, slow and a bit inaccurate, it can be affected by highway cross-winds and its ride is jiggly on bitumen roads. So what’s new? It’s a Wrangler, comes with the territory, etc, etc.
The reason why the Wrangler feels so wobbly on-seal is because the suspension – indeed the whole vehicle – is engineered to be unstoppable off it. Jeep's traditional proving ground is the granite-fringed Sierra Nevada mountain range in the United States – the final sign-off for all key models is to traverse a wee country run called the Rubicon Trail. Take a look at some AEV videos and you’ll see that famous pioneer trail would be considered something of a training run in preparation for The Real Thing. Which, in AEV’s world, includes terrain that would be impenetrable on foot, let along (you’d think) by vehicle.
Generous ground clearance, heavy-duty axles and short overhangs front and rear, those massive knobbly tyres – 35-inch BF Goodrich 35 Mud Terrains that are much fatter and taller than anything you see on a factory Jeep - are there to take you, well, anywhere. Providing, of course, you’ve started out by hauling on the classic second lever on the transmission tunnel that lets you switch between two-wheel drive and high and low-ratio four-wheel drive.
However, the impression is that this rig will go places that even a standard Wrangler would possible demur from tackling. The Brute has superior approach and departure angles – 57 and 32 degrees versus 35 and 28 for the Unlimited – and significantly better ground clearance, 273mm versus 220mm. AEV also credits its in-house developed DualSport suspension. The brand says it’s “manufacturer-level approach to suspension engineering” creates “a true dual purpose suspension system that is extremely capable off-road, while also offering unparalleled performance and handling on the road.”
What’s all the more impressive is that the Sport is just the starter kit. The Rubicon edition benefits from a Dana 44 heavy duty front axle, an extra low range gearbox ratio, Tru-Lok front and rear electric locking differentials, body-protecting ‘rock rails’ and an electronically disconnectable front anti-roll bar for extra axle articulation.
It’s not all nuts and bolts stuff. Wrangler is modern enough to have a stability programming that includes a roll mitigation system and the anti lock brakes also include an off road mode, but you get the sense any electronic assists are simply icing.
The best thing about the road driving is the ride. That long wheelbase makes for a very comfortable gait. The worst thing? Well, recheck the first sentence of this sentence. It’s a vehicle that demands a careful approach: Those big tyres have much more grip traversing boulders than coarse chip and, on a winding road, it demands a lot of consideration to its size and weight. You can see that other road users are thinking the same thing, too.
Good luck taking it to town. The huge turning circle and 5.4 metre length are challenging; forget U-turns, it’s too long for some angle parks and while it does fit – just – parallel parking between filled spaces requires plenty of nerve because there are lots of blind spots and no parking radar.
You need an open mind, deep pockets and a thick skin to drive any kind of Jeep Wrangler. A taste for denim, bourbon supped neat and ability to wear a Stetson without appearing self-conscious helps as well. More than anything else, you need to be motivated to head to where the wild things are. It deserves no less.
The AEV Brute is the Big John of the ute world: Huge appetite, prone to clumsiness, more than a little daft. But it has massive appeal – there’s no Jeep with more character – and there’s nothing to suggest that it isn’t massively effective in its primary, primal role. Even if the tray deck load limit is a trifle light.
It’s the kind of vehicle that some will laugh at and others will laugh with. The same could be said about flagship factory-made Jeep sold here, the high-performance SRT8 with a 6.4-litre V8 petrol.
The primary reason for buying in is obvious: There’s absolutely nothing else quite like it. It’s a challenge to drive, but great fun, too.
Just steer away from taking it in the sandstone hue, ‘Dune’, provisioned here. Yes, it’s an original Jeep hue, but that’s the problem: You’ll get tired of being asked if you’ve got yourself an army surplus Desert Storm veteran.