Road Test Review: American Expedition Vehicles J8 MILSPEC


Whether you’re a diehard Jeep enthusiast or just looking to start your own private militia, American Expedition Vehicles has the vehicle kit for you. AEV will sell a limited number of military-spec Jeep J8-derived single-cab pickup and four-door utility vehicle kits in the U.S. The trucks are tough enough to defeat almost any trail or off road obstacle, but at a price only the Pentagon might love. Estimated to be ready for action – with the addition of an aftermarket motor – for just over $50,000, there hasn’t been a military surplus item with a higher price-to-purpose ratio since the $435 Defense Department hammer. To find out how tough it is, we partnered up with Jalopnik to do some backwoods wheeling.

The Jeep J8 has already found a home in the Egyptian army’s motor pool. It’s assembled at a factory in Cairo to fulfill a variety of missions, from troop-carrying to ambulance services. Almost all the J8’s hardware, though, comes from suppliers headquartered around Detroit. That makes it easy for Michigan-based AEV to collect all the parts needed to build a rolling chassis and pre-wire it to receive either a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 gas engine or a 2.8-liter four-cylinder VM Motori diesel crate engine.

For the J8 MILSPEC, the body panels are the only finished parts shipped in from offshore, after being stamped in Detroit and sent to Egypt for paint and assembly on the foreign J8’s production line.

Technically, AEV isn’t allowed to sell the J8 under the Jeep name, because that would imply the J8 is sold and backed by Chrysler as a genuine Jeep product. It’s not. The AEV J8 MILSPEC – of which only about 100 will be built for public purchase – is being sold only as a kit car without a warranty. “Jeep” has been scrubbed clean from all its surfaces, though you’ll still find the J8 has the iconic slotted grille and round headlights that are as identifiable today as they were in the original Willys Jeep runabout that fought in World War II.

Losing the “Jeep” name doesn’t mean the J8 has lost any of the legendary Jeep capability, as we found out after driving one for several days around Michigan. Our early-production test truck had the 174-horsepower, 339-pounds-feet-of-torque VM Motori diesel engine and floor-mounted 545RFE five-speed automatic transmission. That’s the same transmission that shifts gears in the 2009 Dodge Ram 1500.

The 2.8-liter common-rail turbodiesel fired up and ran with the unmistakable clatter that only a compression-ignition motor makes. It was paired with a high-pitched whistle from its turbodiesel that returned every time we lifted our foot off the accelerator. Diesel powertrain noise was especially audible in the J8 given it lacked creature comforts like carpeting, sound-deadening materials, or a steel roof and sides to shield us from the noise. The Hemi and its 330 hp and 375 pounds-feet of torque is more powerful and refined, but it wouldn’t be a proper MILSPEC experience without a diesel running under the hood.

Even though the J8 wears a simple canvas top (the four-door version has a plastic hard top) to protect its occupants from the elements, the J8 pickup isn’t a lightweight, tipping the scales at approximately 4,600 pounds. That’s almost 500 pounds heavier than the 116-inch-wheelbase Jeep JK whose platform underpins the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon four-door, from which the J8 MILSPEC is derived. Most of that weight comes from added reinforcements to the frame and body for severe-duty applications. It also has stronger solid front Dana 44 and rear Dana 60 axles, with thicker tubing than the stock Jeep JK.

“The durability cycle the J8 has gone through is three times longer and three times more severe than the Jeep JK durability cycle,” said Dave Yegge, AEV’s operations manager. “For example, the axles are run through a 60,000-mile durability test, versus 20,000 for the [stock] JK. It’s some pretty serious torture.”

Our J8 also rode on old-school rear leaf springs instead of the sophisticated multi-link rear suspension used in the Jeep JK. The leafs have a less comfortable ride but can handle up to 2,557 pounds of payload — important if you’re going to, say, shuttle ammunition instead of groceries in the cargo box.

On the highway, the J8’s ride was surprisingly civilized despite its backcountry origins, no doubt thanks to its relatively short wheelbase and leafs that didn’t bind up at highway speeds. The cloth seats were also very comfortable and supportive. For such a heavy truck combined with a light-duty diesel engine, acceleration was better than expected, especially when we hit the accelerator hard. Peak torque seemed to come around 2,500 rpm, and there was plenty of it to motivate the truck when necessary. Noise was the biggest distraction. It flooded in from the relatively unique 33.3-inch LT255/80R17 BFG Mud Terrain T/A KM2 tires, as well as from wind cutting across the thin canvas skin. Lacking even a basic AM/FM radio, we had no tunes to distract us, and cell phone conversations were difficult. We also quickly found out why the driver-side mirror was convex, like the passenger side: The canvas siding created a major blind spot that made lane changes tough in rush-hour traffic and required double-checking when backing up in parking lots and tight spots.

Unlike a conventional pickup, the cargo floor of the J8 MILSPEC spills right into its two-passenger cabin. It lacks any hint of a forward wall to seal off the load space. That made for easy access to gear and luggage, but also allowed loose items to hit against the seats or fly into the center console area – once. We also missed having more than two cupholders. A barren interior is one thing, but a lack of cupholders to keep coffee, cell phones and other small items caused a small battle to determine what was cupworthy and what was left on the floor or stored out of sight.

Of course, the unabashedly utilitarian J8 isn’t made for the road. We found ourselves lucky enough to drive the J8 off-highway at Michigan’s Island Lake State Park just outside Detroit. It’s normally closed to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

The terrain at Island Lake is a mixture of open brush land, tall sandy hills, hardwood forest and open meadows, with swampy puddles left over from recent rains and the late winter thaw. It offered a variety of challenges to test the J8’s mettle.

The interior of the J8 MILSPEC is bare bones. No airbags, carpet or radio. You hose it out if it gets dirty. We installed a nifty ultra-slim GPS screen made from trees.

Despite its steep price tag, the J8 lacks gear that many off-roaders take for granted in modern OHVs. The front and rear differentials are open instead of limited-slip or locking, and hill descent control consists of your brain, foot and the disc brakes from the half-ton Dodge Ram.

The first challenge was a sharply angled sandy descent from wide-open fields along single-track trails down to boggy swampland. The automatic-equipped J8 MILSPEC we drove had a respectable 33.5-to-1 crawl ratio (3.00 first gear ratio/2.72 transfer case low range ratio/4.10 final drive ratio), not accounting for the torque converter slip that's inherent in an automatic gearbox. Still, it took liberal application of the brakes to stop from sliding down the steep grade. If you want a better setup for rock-crawling and hills, Yegge said the Getrag 238 six-speed manual transmission is optionally available with the Hemi V-8 motor. It gives the J8 a stouter 47.2-to-1 crawl ratio (4.23/2.72/4.10).

The J8 swam through modestly deep puddles in Island Lake’s flood plain like it was Michael Phelps, even after it dove into water like an enthusiastic retriever. Water that topped its flat front bumper had no effect on the desert pickup. But just in case, our J8 had a hood-mounted snorkel to keep air flowing for even tougher aquatic workouts. Hemi J8 MILSPECS can be equipped with a snorkel positioned high on the A-pillar.

The J8 carved up another challenge, called the cherry pit, by running quick horseshoe-shaped sprints up the side of a giant sandy mound. Brown rooster tails flew as its BFGs ate away at the sand for traction and the VM Motori engine wailed in first gear.

In a testament to the durability and strength of the J8 MILSPEC’s over-engineered construction, we wheeled over to another challenge where not once but twice the J8 jumped up and over a 7-foot hillside that launched all four wheels off the ground and brought the pickup back to earth with a huge impact, soaked up by its front suspension. We expected to see the truck’s front end caved in, shattered or separated, but the sturdy J8 and its solid front axle took the shock without a scratch. At this point we started to deeply understand where at least some of its $50K price could pay for itself.

Who says Raptors are the only trucks that can fly? Does it get any cooler than this?

The rest of our time at Island Lake we picked random trails and obstacles that looked like they’d provide interesting challenges, then threw the J8 up against them. In a few tight spots, its relatively short wheelbase was a natural advantage to cut turns that stopped longer-wheelbase trucks. After several hours we came away thoroughly impressed and convinced of the J8’s off-road capabilities, even if it doesn’t come with the latest off-road gear.

The AEV J8 MILSPEC is a special truck to drive. It drew salutes and waves from knowing Jeep enthusiasts in Wranglers and a few Cherokees (Compass owners lacked any clue), and won us over with the purity of its simple yet bullet-proof construction and its tough yet reasonably efficient oil-burning motor. Still, most folks won’t quite get the J8 and its 50-large price tag. We still shake our heads twice at its high cost (AEV also builds a more affordable kit that can turn an older Jeep TJ Wrangler into a two-door “Brute” pickup for $8,995 plus labor). Yes, we covet the J8 MILSPEC. Yes, we recommend it, but it’s likely out of reach for all but the most dedicated Jeep lovers. If you want it, too, but can’t seem to bring yourself to pull the trigger, we’d suggest you think of it as the same price you’d pay for just 115 military-grade hammers.

For a second opinion of the J8 MILSPEC, check out what our friends at Jalopnik have to say about our time off road.


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