Jeep Concept Cars: March 2005 Test Drives
A Jeep concept car "ride and drive" event provided Allpar with a chance to not only get a close look at recent Jeep concepts, but also to drive selected vehicles from the recent past. We had already been in the Treo, but this was our first up-close look at several others.
John Sgalia, Director of Jeep Design (styling and "human factors" engineering) discussed the reasoning behind the styling of various Jeeps. He noted that the first Jeep was a "lightweight reconnaisance vehicle," and praised the first civilian Jeep, the CJ2a: "There's no BS to it - it's all functional. This is what we want to keep... The Jeep image isall kind of based on the CJ-2a."
Sgalia called Jeep "open, fun, not mainstream... approachable, friendly, not high-falutin'; it gets you there and brings you back, but we're not too highbrow in the image we project. We don't try to project kind of a scorched-Earth militaristic image." Styling is not only the seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheel openings, but must remain approachable, functional, and friendly - more the World War II liberator image (to borrow Sgalia's analogy) than the conquering imperial look of the Hummers and intimidation of the Expedition.
How Jeep concept cars are designed
"Every year around November, we open up a competition to every designer to put their ideas up," said Sgalia. This means sketches with a larger package of information. It's an "opportunity to show what they feel the next inspiration is - an opportunity for young designers as well as old." The 1997 Icon, for example, was designed to be the ideal of the next-generation Jeep, more efficiently sized: smaller but instantly recognizable as a Jeep, with the roll bar integrated into the design. If fuel economy became more important, the Icon could point to a downsized Jeep style. Information, though not photos, on the Jeep Icon is at this page.
Many Chrysler concepts are made by Metalcrafters, a firm which specializes in that sort of thing.
John Sgalia ranks the Hurricane above even the Jeepster, calling it "our pride and joy." According to Sgalia, "Dieter came in for his review," and said that Dodge had made jaws drop with the Tomahawk, and then Chrysler had made jaws drop with the ME-412; now, according to Dieter, "it's Jeep's turn, you guys come up with something." The challenge was "daunting - what do we do to compete, and it still has to be an expression of Jeep - the ultimate Jeep?" Eric Azutti "took this challenge to heart," and had the idea of dual Hemi engines, and the basic design and architecture. The styling is purely functional, with a carbon fiber body, with pure billet aluminum where aluminum is used. The result is a surprisingly light, strong, and expensive body. Rock-climbing is aided by crab-steer to go to the side, and a spin mode to get through mud or turn around. There is a tremendous amount of wheel travel. Controls for the various steering modes were designed to be as easy to understand as possible (see photos) and the interior is well instrumented, with a consistent look but enough difference between various displays to allow for rapid comprehension.
Engineering the dual-Hemi (with two transmissions) must have been interesting; the entire vehicle was designed in ten months, with "not a whole lot that's off the shelf." Everything but an early plywood model was done electronically. Dan Zimmerman handled the interior styling, Azutti the exterior.
The Hurricane is loud, with both Hemis apparently lightly (if at all) muffled. Under hard acceleration, the front rises up and the rear squeezes down noticeably - but it moves very, very quickly. Acceleration is, to say the least, thrilling. Only a Chrysler driver operated the Hurricane, for obvious reasons.
The 1997 Jeep Dakar had a fifteen-inch increase in wheelbase but added four doors, a functional roofrack, an integrated shovel on the side, and the first look at an all-solid body for the Wrangler chassis (normal Wranglers and CJs have removeable doors and a fold-down windshield.) The rear seats were moved ahead of the axle for a smoother ride. Other features are a canvas sliding sunroof, spare tire storage on the roofrack (with a sliding mechanism for easy removal), jerricans built onto the rear tailgate - good offroad but probably illegal on-road - and, inside the rear door, a kit with a night vision scope, binoculars, flashlight, and compass.
The Dakar is almost obviously a study for production, because it is fully functional, which is rather rare for a concept. The instrument panel is taken directly from the Wrangler. The engine is not constrained, the turn signals and gauges work - though the speedometer read 40 mph when we suspect we were going 10 mph - and the steering felt normal. The leather interior, done in a light brown, looked classy with the woodgrain door accents. The different colors made the interior look brighter and upscale. The ride is softer than the standard Wrangler, due no doubt partly to the longer wheelbase and partly to softer shocks. The rear space is adequate, yet cargo capacity is good - much better than the Wrangler. The Dakar could easily be a production car; it shows only one sign (the optimistic speedo) of being a concept.
The Jeepster is beautiful in person, even more so than in photos - and classier than the original Jeep roadster, itself both odd and elegant. Sgalia said it was "the one until recently I'm most proud of."
It was, in his words, "more of a hot rod," with a high-output 4.7 liter V8 (at the time, Chrysler's hottest V8), an experiment to see if a non-wagon form could expand the brand. Despite its sports-car looks, the Jeepster can go off-road, and has four wheel drive; thanks to an adjustable-height suspension, you can "speed off to the mountains and then hit the trail" in the same car. The dashboard is a thing of beauty and precision, imparting a look of luxury and utility that shows up the spartan LX series in the same way a Jaguar body shows up an entry-level Ford.
Sgalia on the 2001 Jeep Willys 2: "Some of the aspects of the very fundamental Jeep in terms of the efficient size," with round headlamps, high window sills for a feeling of safety, huge wheels to scale the vehicle; trying to answer the question of "How do we break out of the Jeep formulas while retaining the key pieces." That said, our first impression was that it was 1957 again. The interior is done in shades of green, the old-fashioned speedometer has a translucent green shade, and in general a retro theme seems to permeate the interior. A tricked out stereo done rather elegantly and in very retro style is in the trunk, but we doubt this is a test of any real future design direction.
The Willys 2 has a clear roof but a perforated-metal roofrack that blocks the view of the sky. The automatic control is clever (see photos), with two levers hooked up to long chrome rods, one controlling the gear, the other controlling the four wheel drive mode. The door locks are also clever, if less than ideally functional: you push a button and the latch pops out, ready to be pulled. A safe double belt / harness is on every seat. The rear bucket seats have ventilation holes. The Willys 2 has decent enough room, despite the trunk stereo. The overall theme is refreshing and cheerful if old-fashioned; somehow we can't see the design elements appearing in a new Jeep, though.
This wagon-like vehicle was "to test the waters - what if Jeep developed some sort of rally car in a more crossover type of architecture?" according to Sgalia. It had the off-road capacity of the Liberty, and a "very precise interior." Unfortunately, oops! we thought we had already been in this one, and didn't test it out...so just a quick interior shot! We don't expect the real thing to look like this, though some elements may be used. It looks considerably classier than many current vehicles, partly due to its use of metal rather than plastic (we wonder if that can make its way past safety concerns). Unfortunately, the production model carried over, um, none of the interior details. Shame, really, because we think the Compass, as shown below, would be quite refreshing and could even jump-start a new trend in interior designs.
The Jeep Compass, based on the Caliber platform and produced in the Belvedere plant, is now in production. See our Jeep Compass page for details. (Also see the Jeep Patriot, based on the same platform.)
Keep watching the Jeep concepts. We suspect that Jeep is not content to watch Hummer and others take up their position, even though a "soft Jeep" has been talked about. While Chrysler is backing away from the Rubicon test - all Jeeps must be able to take on the Rubicon trail at the moment, albeit with the probable exception of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8 - the new Trail Rated test is a good measure of a vehicle's off-road fitness, and the Rubicon is reportedly not friendly to long-wheelbase vehicles. That seems to be a hint...we'll see.
Concept cars are often made so a car’s feel can be evaluated, problems can be foreseen, and reactions of the public can be judged. Some concepts test specific ideas, colors, controls, or materials — either subtle or out of proportion, to hide what’s being tested. Some are created to help designers think “out of the box.” The Challenger, Prowler, PT Cruiser, and Viper were all tested as production-based concepts dressed up to hide the production intent.