2011 AEV Jeep Wrangler Hemi

, Posted by Sports Cars Fans at 2:50 PM

It's no secret that when it comes to off-road capability, nothing quite tops the Jeep Wrangler. This grizzled mainstay continues to be the first choice for people wanting to get down and dirty with the great outdoors, and its success story is decades old. It's like the Porsche 911 of off-roaders.

Unlike the 911, however, Jeep has long foregone a higher-strength version of the Wrangler straight from the factory. Porsche, for instance, offers the base 911 Carrera alongside more than 20 other variants, all the way up to the hardcore GT2 RS. So where do Jeep enthusiasts go when it comes time to enhance the off-road experience of the Wrangler? The aftermarket. One such company, AEV, has a package that combines superb off-road prowess with all the creature comforts of an everyday driver.

Oh, yeah – and it has a Hemi V8.

We headed to AEV's workshop in Wixom, Michigan, where we were presented with a trio of Wranglers – two fitted with Chrysler's tried-and-true 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and one making do with Jeep's standard 3.8-liter V6. Here, we learned that shoehorning the big V8 under the Wrangler's hood isn't all that difficult – "it's pretty much plug-and-play," said one of the AEV product specialists. The same goes for the five-speed automatic transmission that replaces the four-speed in the V6 Wrangler. From what AEV tells us, it's easy-peasy.

That in mind, it comes as no great surprise to learn that AEV is already working on fitting Chrysler's new 6.4-liter V8 engine into the Wrangler. Based on our day of driving the 5.7-liter, we can only imagine the good things that will come with the 6.4.

We drove the three Wranglers from Wixom up to Harrison, Michigan – about 150 miles of nothing but highway. Our destination was Rocks and Valleys, an off-road park where we'd be putting the AEV Wrangler through its paces, climbing rocks, scaling steep grades and doing our best not to hack the side mirrors off on trees. Before that, though, the Wrangler needed to prove its everyday drivability on the road.

You can go ahead and clear your minds of any stereotypical scenarios starring Jeeps wearing mud tires, bouncing down the highway and struggling just to reach the speed limit. For the drive up, we hopped in the white Hemi Jeep, which had been outfitted with 35-inch BFGoodrich all-terrain tires fitted on 17-inch AEV-designed alloy wheels. While aggressive, these tires don't represent the end-all-be-all footwear for off-roading, but they aren't bad for mucking about. Better still, when it comes to on-road performance, we were shocked by just how smooth and comfortable the ride quality was.

AEV fits its JK Wranglers with a so-called high steer kit that optimizes steering and roll center geometry, allowing for better handling. This system also adds a larger steering damper to keep things steady and solid when turning. Of course, this all blends well with AEV's pièce de résistance, the 3.5-inch premium suspension lift kit. The company tells us this package was designed by former Jeep engineers. Special attention was paid to areas like overall suspension geometry and custom spring and shock tuning, to give the vehicle ride quality that's smooth on flat, paved roads, yet capable for off-road tasks. The whole setup includes – deep breath – frequency-tuned progressive rate springs, custom-tuned shocks, a geometry-corrected rear tower and trackbar, rear stabilizer end link, heavy-duty steering damper and front control arm drop brackets. They all work together to create an on-road driving experience that's unlike any other hardcore off-road vehicle. In our estimation, it's even better than the standard off-the-shelf Wrangler.

The real treat for our 150-mile highway drive, however, was the 5.7-liter V8 under the Wrangler's hood, offering a full 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque – increases of 158 hp and 153 lb-ft versus the 3.8-liter Wrangler. In other words, the Hemi is roughly equal in power to the Wrangler's V6 plus the 2.4-liter four-cylinder from the Jeep Compass. Now, don't assume this means the Wrangler is suddenly a speed demon – all of those aftermarket additions add weight, remember – but the extra grunt from the V8 provides more than adequate acceleration for on-ramps and highway passing, and at speed, there's simply much less effort and planning required for passing maneuvers. Our three-Jeep caravan frequently got separated when the red V6-equipped Wrangler simply couldn't keep up when it came time to pass a convoy of semi trucks.

When we arrived at Rocks and Valleys, we corralled in the open dirt parking lot until a little Jeep CJ-5 came barreling out of the forest, doors removed, mud everywhere (including the interior), driven by a small-framed man named 'Gar' who was smoking a cigarette. He was our guide for the adventure at Rocks and Valleys, and almost immediately, Gar skipped the introductions and started to fixate on all of the modifications fitted to the AEV Jeeps. If your mental image is still blurry, Gar and his CJ-5 can be glimpsed in the image below.