Jeep Ultima :: Building the J8 for Overland Travel

We have to thank the Egyptians for the J8. Throughout the past 30 years, the Egyptian military has been an impetus for several important iterations of the Jeep, going all the way back to the CJ-6 and the iconic TJL. These vehicles have been mostly built in Egypt for that market by Arab American Vehicles (AAV), but the US consumer has also benefited from the tooling and engineering of these small production runs, resulting in the availability of a highly capable option.

The J8 was born from similar roots, though its application has become global with sales into nearly every continent on the globe. The success of the J8 is a result of limited and aging competition. Most of the vehicles the J8 competes with for military and peacekeeping contracts were designed three decades ago and lack the refinement, safety, and performance of the modern Jeep chassis. A safer vehicle means fewer lives lost and reduced costs, as the J8 has proven it will outperform any other vehicle in its class in high-speed handling, stability, and reduced driver fatigue. The Jeep’s payload exceeds a metric ton, and the braking performance is without peer. Jeep recognized that this vehicle would not only be a success with military and peacekeeping units around the globe but also with the enthusiast. To test this theory, Jeep provided Overland Journal with a test vehicle at the 2010 Easter Jeep Safari and we can now share our findings here.

Evaluation

Technical Terrain Performance

The Jeep brand is known around the world for its technical terrain performance, further reinforced with the introduction of the Rubicon model in 2004. The Rubicon combines market-leading features like a push-button front sway bar disconnect, front and rear locking differentials, generous fender clearance for large tires and impressive approach and departure angles. The J8 benefits from all the chassis development work but strips away the electronic wizardry. This of course has its advantages and disadvantages. With the differential lockers and sway bar disconnect removed, the J8 sacrifices some performance at the limits of technical challenges, but benefits from ultimate simplicity. There is no ABS, no traction control, no electronic stability control and not even a seatbelt warning buzzer.

For traction, the J8 relies on aggressive BFGoodrich Mud Terrain tires and a heavy-duty rear limited-slip differential (LSD). We have tested this vehicle in extreme conditions, including 4+ trails in Moab, Utah and severe terrain in Arizona, the long wheelbase, wide stance and LSD carrying us through. Most conceivable overland travel conditions are unlikely to stretch the J8’s capability.

Overall driver fatigue performance is good with a rounded, predictable impact shock from surface irregularity and good chassis stability. Suspension amplitude on corrugations is small and induces limited lateral slip. There were no rattles noted or induced in hundreds of miles of corrugations. Low speed throttle modulation is excellent, thanks to the long pedal throw and the automatic transmission’s torque converter. Higher speed throttle modulation is a bit more of a challenge due to turbo lag. The VM Motori’s torque comes on like a freight train which is fun on the highway but can be difficult to modulate (causing unwanted wheel spin) on the dirt. It would be preferable to see the turbo come on a little sooner in the RPM range and operate more predictably.

High speed dirt travel is excellent, aided by the wide track and long wheelbase of 116 inches. The class-leading brakes inspire confidence and the overall grip provided by the suspension tuning and BFG tires result in a safe and stable road driving experience. My only complaint with the higher speed performance is the vague steering and significant main shaft angle required to yield the desired yaw response. This deficiency exists with all the J8’s competition (save for the G-Wagen), but should be better given the modern chassis. I also found the gas to brake pedal transition awkward, and although most of my trail driving employs left-foot braking, the height of the brake pedal was uncomfortable after a few hours of driving.

Ground clearance is excellent, with 9.1 inches under the huge Dana 60 rear axle and complemented with good overall running ground clearance. The quarter panels are protected by the Rubicon rock sliders and the front and rear bumpers look like repurposed railroad track. The four recovery points are rated to two times GVWR and are suitable for air lift. Visibility on the trail is average, especially out of the front windscreen, but it falls behind the G-Wagen, 70-series, and Defender. With the half-doors installed, the view out of the sides and rear is impressive. The one odd visibility quirk is that the snorkel blocks the driver’s view in the RHD variant and I am not convinced its placement is ideal on any account. Fortunately AEV will be producing a proper snorkel to remedy this. Despite the snorkel, the J8 has a serious air filter built by Donaldson which permits extended operations in severe dust environments. It will provide filtration for five-hours at zero visibility.

Suitability as an Exploration Platform

We know what makes the J8 a great trail vehicle, but is it suitable for long-distance exploration? Beyond capability, overlanders need a vehicle to be durable and carry heavy loads (capacity) over long distances without failure. The J8 addresses the payload requirements with a progressive rear leaf-sprung suspension and a 5,000 pound rear axle rating. Total payload exceeds 2,500 pounds, over two times the standard Wrangler’s rating. Just handling this weight is not enough as you also must be able to stop it. The J8 has best of breed braking with 13.2-inch front ventilated discs and rear 13.9-inch solid units. Fuel range is better than most with a 22-gallon factory tank and an estimated (best case scenario) range of 570 miles. This is quite good, and could easily be made better with the numerous options available to the Jeep Wrangler for extended fuel capacity.

Reliability has proven to also be excellent, with no failures of the Jeep in nearly a year of driving it. I also suspect that the reliability of the J8 will be similar to the JK Wrangler, for which we have longterm tests over three different units and a combined 100,000 miles of serious use. In all those miles, we have never had a warranty claim— impressive.

On-road Performance

The reality of overland travel is that a significant percentage of the travel miles will be on improved roads, sometimes driving for days or weeks between off-piste excursions. As a result, the on-road handling and comfort of the vehicle is important, and can greatly reduce driver fatigue, lessen the chance of an accident and allow for more efficient travel. The J8 reflects much of the driving comfort gained from the JK, including supportive seats, good HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) performance, reduced wind noise and a surprisingly smooth ride. Certainly there is more total NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) than a Grand Cherokee, but it is better than most comparable platforms. The one area I found lacking was the shock damping, which is mismatched to the spring rates and could be much firmer.

This is most notable in a lane change maneuver, where the chassis doesn’t settle as quickly as desired, inducing unnecessary sway. Fortunately, shocks are an easy thing to change.

Test Conclusions

As always, what separates great vehicles from simply good vehicles is in the details. The items I found exceptional about the J8 are the strength of the chassis and the recovery points. That combined with the large-diameter BFGoodrich Mud Terrains and an effective limited slip differential provides serious technical terrain performance. The 2.8L turbocharged 4-cylinder provides not only excellent acceleration and torque but also 26 mile per gallon efficiency. The oil capacity is 6.6 liters, more than any other 4-cylinder in its class. All of these details reflect the decades of testing and real-world evaluation Jeep has dedicated to the J8 platform. This vehicle is a pleasure to drive and provides endless fun on the trail. On-road performance and safety is lightyears ahead of the 70-series and Defender with significant improvement in stability and high-speed handling. When loaded for a trip, the additional weight doesn’t even put a dent in the 2,500-pound payload. The only unknown is the actual availability of the J8 to consumers in North America. It is possible to call American Expedition Vehicles and reserve a slot for the first order of 50. However, production of the base vehicles has not begun at Jeep. I am hopeful that good things come to those who wait.

Modifications

Base Vehicle Modifications

The J8 is much like the JK Rubicon, requiring very few modifications for serious use. In practice, the J8 requires even fewer modifications as the vehicle is delivered with a substantial payload rating, larger tires and more robust bumpers. We elected to make a few changes to satisfy our needs and satisfy my minimum requirements for an overland truck. The first adjustment we made was the installation of a 2M radio and a full recovery and tool kit. We tried out Viking OffRoad’s new gear bag and bought another Proxxon tool kit from T-Lo. Having a place to put all that gear securely (the Jeep still had a soft top) was solved quickly with a call to Adventure Trailers for a full-length drawer system. This was an innovation for them, and results in a wide, comfortable sleeping platform and full storage and lashing. The 40 percent portion of the split folding rear seat was retained.

To further enhance backcountry performance and self-sufficiency, we installed the fast and reliable Warn 9.5 XP winch with 100 feet of Viking’s synthetic line. To address lighting while on the trail, we installed a pair of Lightforce 170 HIDs and their new Genesis 200 mm HID units on the front bumper. As a first for Overland Journal, we are testing the new FLIR color thermal night vision system. With an effective distance four times the headlights, we can see deer crossing the road at 400 yards. Imagine the added safety this unit will bring in third-world travel, if you can get it across the border.

That was the extent of our base vehicle modifications. I had considered other bumpers and possibly a front locking differential, but after months of testing, we are going to leave it alone.

The Habitat

One product that we have been excited to test and feature is the new Adventure Trailers JK Habitat top. This unit replaces the factory soft or hard top and requires no permanent modification to the vehicle. It even looks (mostly) like a factory top and can retain all factory doors and window positions. It installs in just a few minutes which allows the Jeep to still be a Jeep, enjoying open air travel on those sunny days. The Habitat is constructed from automotive quality fiberglass with a gel coat finish. The top opens with the assistance of a torsion spring and crank handle, allowing setup to occur in less than a minute. Once deployed, the Habitat allows up to nine feet of headroom and sleeping for four. The forward half includes a three-inch mattress for a queen-size bed. The back half can be configured for storage, sleeping for two more occupants or even a few chairs.

Access to the Habitat is best through the rear passenger doors, stepping into the Jeep much like if sitting in the back. Two panels are moved out of the way and then it is possible to stand up in the space above the rear passenger area. The opening is more of a hatch than a huge portal. This is by design, allowing the original roll bar to be retained. The tent is constructed from breathable and water-wicking fabric. A skirt flips over the top sides and prevents pooling. Window sizes are conservative but should permit sufficient ventilation. The Habitat also presents a surprising value, especially when other options are considered. The cost of a factory hard top (as an option), a roof rack and quality roof tent would easily be more than the Habitat and likely weigh more as well.

Beyond the top, we worked with Adventure Trailers (AT) to add a few comfort systems to the Habitat. Along with the excellent drawer unit, a water storage bladder and hot water shower system was added. The hot water unit holds two gallons and mounts behind the passenger (driver in this case) seat. AT also installed their new model fridge slide which integrates a Partner Steel stove on a second slide. The entire unit double-slides allowing access to the fridge and both burners. It is one of the coolest products I have seen in years. On the Jeep tailgate, we installed one of Off Road Trail Tools flip-down tables.

These modifications have made a notable improvement in camping comfort while not affecting the performance of the vehicle or introducing unnecessary complexity. The J8 with these few changes has proven to be a favorite in our offices with every staff member clamoring for the keys. It proves that a high-quality, simple solution is ultimately the most appealing, and in the end, the most effective.

Specifications

2010 Jeep J8 Diesel:

• 2.8L VM turbo-diesel
• Extreme dust filtration system and snorkel
• Four-speed automatic transmission
• Dana 44 front axle, 3.73:1 gearing
• Dana 60 rear axle, 3.73:1 gearing with limited-slip
• 1 Ton braking system with front and rear discs
• 17″ steel wheels with 5×5.5 bolt pattern
• 285/70 R17 BFGoodrich Mud-terrain tires
• Coil front suspension
• Leaf sprung rear suspension
• 2,500 pound payload (1,133 kilograms)
Modifications:
• Warn 9.5 XP winch with mounting plate
• FLIR IR night vision camera
• LightForce A-pillar HID lights
• Yeasu 2M radio
• Escape Gear seat covers
• Mopar rubber floor mats
• Mopar rocker panel protection
• GearSafe rear locking compartment
Habitat System:
• JK Habitat top with queen-size bed
• 2.5 gallon hot water system
• Adventure Trailers full-drawer system
• 10-gallon fresh water bladder
• HD Deka AGM battery with 240 AH
• Blue Sea fuse block
• National Luna Weekender fridge/freeze
• Partner Steel stove on slide
• ORTT rear tailgate table


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Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and include three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar travels include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. He lives in Prescott, Arizona