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Car and Driver: Adventures in Moab: We Tackle the Easter Jeep Safari

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As fans of the Chevrolet Corvette, Dodge Viper, and Ford GT, we obviously disagree with Enzo Ferrari’s old quip that, “The Jeep is America’s only true sports car.” Yet the rugged off-roader that evolved into the modern Jeep Wrangler has earned its place among those other American icons, even if its most-pertinent measurables are ground clearance and suspension articulation rather than acceleration and lateral grip. And for much of the nameplate’s existence, remote Moab, Utah, with its stunning slick-rock formations offering up both hard-core terrain and natural wonder, has become one of the greatest places to understand the Jeep thing.

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As the classic concept of the Jeep has transcended from a mere utility tool to a way of life—one with a unique and seriously enthusiastic fan base—Moab has evolved into more than just a challenging landscape. It’s also the site of the Easter Jeep Safari (EJS), an immersive celebration of four-wheeling organized for decades by the local Red Rock 4-Wheelers club. Now spanning two weekends around the spring holiday, EJS has grown into an annual mecca for both the Jeep faithful and the manufacturer itself. The event’s 50th anniversary in 2016 coincided with the brand’s 75th, so when Jeep invited us out to partake in the festivities—and actually drive its fleet of commemorative concept vehicles and production models—we couldn’t resist.

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Moab is a majestic destination on the shores of the Colorado River, where Utah’s desert sands bleed into bold skies and otherworldly topography. Along with being the location of the spectacular Arches National Park, the area also is a hotspot for adventure sports; there are more mountain-bike runs around Moab than 4×4 trails.

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The Metal

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Jeep’s EJS program started with a brief drive of the new 2016 Cherokee Overland, which is familiar to those who have experienced lesser versions yet more luxuriously appointed than any of the brand’s previous compact SUVs. Our commute ended at a desert trailhead, where lineups of vehicles could be seen snaking up and down distant cliffs like centipedes. But the Overland was inappropriate for real trail work here, emblematic of the compromises involved with selling modern luxury 4x4s in the real world.

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Fortunately, Jeep values the feedback EJS produces for the brand’s latest parts and models. The 2016 Trailstorm concept, for example, is a rolling showcase of the latest Mopar accessories for the Wrangler. And the Renegade Commander concept, with its two-inch lift, bigger wheels and tires, and lack of anti-roll bars, shows how capable the factory could make the wee 4×4 if it wanted to upgrade the production Trailhawk model.

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The event’s celebrities, however, were the concept vehicles, and the 707-hp Trailcat and its supercharged, 6.2-liter V-8 took center stage. This beast is about as intimidating in person as you’d expect a Hellcat-powered Wrangler with 40-inch-tall tires and custom suspension to be. While it’s surprisingly docile at low speeds, this howitzer of a Jeep was built for hill climbs and wide-open sand dunes. It’s beautifully insane. As much as we wanted to take off and rip through its six-speed manual gearbox, Jeep’s chaperones and carefully choreographed route kept us in first gear over small rock ledges and tight trails. Simply operating the Trailcat was immensely exciting, but driving it here felt like using a Formula 1 car as a golf cart.

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Better suited to the Safari’s slow-paced spectacle was the Crew Chief 715, which puts a military-themed, crew-cab-pickup body atop a lengthened Wrangler Unlimited chassis. Blending modern underpinnings with classic design traits, this old-school star captivated everyone with its Kaiser Jeep snout, matte-green paint, and 40-inch unidirectional rubber. The Crew Chief’s long wheelbase made it surefooted over obstacles, but the tires’ short, stiff sidewalls lent it a brittle ride for an off-roader. And with limited steering geometry to keep the tires from amputating the fenders at full lock, the 715 has the turning radius of an oil tanker. More important for a concept vehicle, though, it simply looked awesome kicking up dust in the wild. Note to Jeep: Please offer a Kaiser front-end conversion for the upcoming Wrangler pickup.

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Another amazing idea come to life is the Shortcut concept, a purist’s Jeep that combines a standard Wrangler chassis with a body trimmed down to classic CJ-5 proportions. With its open top, lighter curb weight, and two-inch lift with 35-inch BFGoodrich tires, this agile two-seater was the rig we most wanted to spend all day with on the trails. The Shortcut’s layout is purposeful, yet the attention Jeep paid to the details is impressive, from the upright windshield to the plaid seat inserts to the painted steel wheels. In light of the near-$50,000 production Wranglers Jeep had on hand, the idea of a more-affordable, back-to-basics 4×4 from the factory is tantalizing.

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On the lighter side, we also reveled in the oddity that is Jeep’s FC-150, the brand’s second concept based on its classic Forward Control cab-over pickup. (The first being the 2012 Mighty FC.) “I love [the FCs] because they’re so weird,” noted Mark Allen, Jeep’s head of design. “It’s less of a truck and more of a tractor with a heater and doors.”

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Despite its modernized chassis and running gear, the FC-150’s original, largely unrestored body and basic controls exude a quaint, old-timey feel. There’s a handy bottle opener bolted to the side of the bed, and Jeep even stuffed the cabin with copies of vintage parking tickets from the original owner. The cabin of the FC-150 gets hot with the 4.0-liter inline-six positioned right between the passengers and hidden only by metal paneling. You actually need to use the necker’s knob to smoothly twirl the flat steering wheel, and the super-tight pedal box makes it difficult not to smack the throttle and brake as the truck teeters over bumps. It’s a properly goofy driving experience, but one we’ll never forget.

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The Town

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Moab itself is as interesting as the multitude of four-wheelers that clogged the town’s arteries during the Safari (despite its name, EJS is not exclusively limited to Jeeps). Kevin Hawkins, a respected trail guide with more than 20 years of off-road experience, recounted how Moab was previously known for uranium mining in the 1950s and ’60s, with just a tiny main street and a single diner. It was largely those miners, he said, that created rough trails up the surrounding red rock to reach new sites to blast and drill. The state’s Bureau of Land Management now protects most of the area and its wildlife. But the trails still exist with the BLM’s blessing, some with ominous names such as Hell’s Revenge, Cliffhanger, Wipeout Hill, and Poison Spider Mesa.

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The town has since exploded with hotels, shops, and restaurants. From the Gonzo Inn in downtown Moab, the thrum of off-road tires on pavement lulled us to sleep each night and called out each morning. The streets teemed with activity as side-by-side ATVs scurried between massive diesel tow rigs and custom 4x4s that shared only their grilles with production Jeeps. It’s a festive atmosphere with a welcoming vibe and a sense of camaraderie among wheelers.

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That shared kinship is key out on rocky, technical trails, which can require spotting and winching assistance from others to navigate safely. Jeep’s 2016 75th Anniversary Wranglers and Grand Cherokees, however, needed no such help during our expedition on the relatively mild Seven Mile Rim trail. That these modern rigs could still access such remote beauty highlights how far Jeep has progressed over the years, from its basic military roots to today’s refined exploration vehicles. Even the Wrangler, which is about as simple of a production 4×4 as you can buy, has morphed into a pleasant, well-appointed daily driver with little degradation to its off-road abilities. The Wrangler’s pricing has similarly matured, with the fancy Unlimited model we spent most of our time in costing a shocking $48,530.

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In many ways a Jeep is a highly focused sports machine, one unbound from the restrictions of roads and racetracks. But the best part of the Easter Jeep Safari is that you don’t need a brand-new rig or a custom rock-crawler to enjoy it. With the dramatic settings in and around Moab, along with the enthusiasm the brand continues to share with its fans, EJS is a celebration of both Jeep and the outdoor lifestyle these tough 4x4s have encouraged for 75 years.

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