First Drive: AEV RAM Recruit

Dawn broke early over the distant mountains, and a warm glow fell upon the valley. We were in Southern New Mexico, and parked before us was a gleaming Ram Recruit, fresh off the factory line. Thus far it had racked up just 2000 miles on the odometer, and not one of them had been on dirt. We were there to change that.  After the Recruit’s release there had been plenty of excitement as well as skepticism in the online community. On one hand it was great to see a front bumper, heat reduction hood, and a new suspension system for the 1500, but on the other there was doubt that this smaller, and more expensive, upgrade package could offer anything that the 2500 based Prospector did not. We talked at length on the subject, but in the end there was only way to settle the matter, a real world test. We then set out with New Mexico Backroads and American Expedition Vehicles to see what this new 1500 could do.  

Note: Because this review is based on the Recruit and not the 1500 platform, we will focus on performance directly relating to the AEV systems. For those who didn’t read our initial release article, the first thing you need to know about the Recruit is that it’s based on an Independent Front Suspension (IFS) vehicle. This separates it from every other AEV model in production, and makes the 4” Dual Sport Suspension lift far more complex than those used on their solid axle trucks. It starts with military grade A206 T4 cast aluminum steering knuckles, which reduce unsprung weight and help shift the front hubs forward by 8mm to eliminate tire rubbing. They then move the axle center off of the engine mounts and onto chassis mounts via bushings and a 4mm steel skid plate. This not only improves clearance, but adds protection for vital components. The final steps are swapping out the shocks, and adjusting the rear suspension to retain the factory pinion angles and geometry.  Our test model also had the long awaited 18″ wheels, complete with custom low profile tie rods to make them fit. After our initial peek at the truck with 20″ wheels I was thrilled to see these smaller wheels in place. Besides the obvious improvement in performance, I feel they’re a better fit for the RAM, and really round it its final look.  So, how does the Recruit perform with all of these changes? On paved roads this truck feels smooth yet planted, and you would never know it was lifted on 35” tires by how the engine responds to the throttle. Body roll is minimal through the corners, and at 75 miles per hour the cab is as quiet and comfortable as any sedan. Add in the comfort of AEV’s leather seat and the truck’s Alpine sound system, and the miles seem to just melt away.  Of course IFS vehicles are known to have good road manners, and it’s the off-road manners you came here to read about, so let’s cut to the chase. On dirt roads the Recruit feels agile and predictable, inspiring confidence on even the loosest of surfaces. The suspension handles dips and heavy corrugations with ease, and while it certainly isn’t designed for jumps or large impacts, it will run forest roads at 50 mph all day long. Where it really shines though, are trails and two tracks.  On these slower back roads I was repeatedly impressed by how little we felt bumps and ruts. Even large embedded rocks were no match for the dual sport suspension, and we regularly floated over rough sections with only the slightest sway in our seats. I felt myself bracing time and again for impacts that simply never came, or rather we’re never felt.  But this comes with a trade-off right? Aren’t independent front ends limited in articulation and clearance? Yes, but AEV has done their best to minimize these drawbacks, and based on the truck’s trail manners we’d say they’ve done a darn good job. In cross axle situations the Recruit stays in contact with the ground far longer than I had expected, and when it does eventually lift a wheel the traction control keeps forward momentum with very little spin. It still does not have the range of travel seen on their Power Wagons or 2500s, but it’s an impressive stretch nonetheless. Overall clearance is good, but the Recruit does feel a little low amidst the AEV Prospectors and JK’s. The seating position of the 1500 is flatter than in the 2500, which reduces visibility over the hood, and makes it harder to confidently navigate the trail. We also noticed that the front left tow hook rubbed in the dirt twice during the week, which leaves something to be desired from the approach angle. Even so, the engineers’ work relocating the axle center above the skid plate is nothing short of brilliant, and when combined with the four inches of lift and 35″ tires, provided enough clearance to make every obstacle on our trip a drama free affair. Sure, an additional inch of lift or 37″ tires would be nice, but they’re far from necessary.  That’s because what this truck lacks in raw clearance, it makes up for it in maneuverability. Unlike the Prospector which relies on 40” tires to roll over rocks, ruts, and small countries, the Recruit uses its 9″ shorter wheelbase to maneuver around obstacles and tackle them from better angles. We found this to be especially useful in the trees, where we were able to weave around branches that posed a challenge for the larger trucks. I’m sad to report that we didn’t encounter enough sand or mud along our route to make a through evaluation of the Recruits performance in them, however we hope to get the chance on another trip in the future.  By the end of our journey we had spent more time behind the wheel of the Recruit than any other journalist so far, and yet we still yearned for more. Its plush ride, powerful motor, and easy demeanor made it a pleasure to drive, and we feel confident in stating that it stands apart from the Prospector. In every way it is the smoother and more civilized brother to the 2500; a truck that packs all the style and utility of the Prospector into a more affordable and comfortable package. While it may lack the awe factor of 40” tires, and the huge articulation of a Power Wagon, it has the fuel economy, maneuverability, and capability to take you anywhere you need to go, while still fitting in the garage at home. 

To find out more, visit the Recruit home page at aev-conversions.com/vehicles/recruit

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Chris didn’t receive a real taste of the outdoors until moving to Prescott, Arizona, in 2009. While working on his business degree, he learned to fly and spent his weekends exploring the Arizona desert and high country. It was there that he fell in love with backcountry travel and four-wheel drive vehicles, eventually leading him to Overland Journal and Expedition Portal. After several years of honing his skills in writing, photography, and off-road driving, Chris now works for the company full time as Expedition Portal's Managing Editor.

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