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On patrol with Jeep's J8

2008-12-10 07:23
Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer Jeep
Model J8
Engine 2.8l turbodiesel
Power 118 @ 3 800r/min
Torque 400Nm @ 2 000r/min
Transmission Five-speed manual
Airbags Optional

Lance Branquinho

Jeep, a brand steeped in military history, has been usurped by Hummer (recently) and Land Rover (for decades) in the steely-eyed dealer of death image race. Not anymore.

Based on the Wrangler Unlimited, J8 is Jeep’s interpretation of what a contemporary Willys should represent. Built in Egypt, the J8 range comprises Jeep’s military and governmental contract range.

Right-hand drive Jeep bakkie?

During the African Aerospace and Defence show in Cape Town late September I was wandering around hangars looking at all manner of expensive radar and avionics equipment.

Turning a corner in one of the display hangars I stumbled upon a J8, the bakkie version – they do a four-door too. Peculiar thing was, it had the steering wheel on the "right" side, and after haggling with the Jeep product manager, I scheduled a brief test drive for the following Monday.

I don’t really care for the euphemistic reference of J8 being engineered to be a "true off-road patrol leader" – South Africa builds the best wheeled military vehicles in the world already. J8’s appeal is in its simple detailing and bakkie architecture - don't you just love those black steel wheels for example?

Old-school suspension

As the ultimate Unlimited (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) J8 features a strengthened frame and Dana 44 front and 60 rear axles with leaf-springs, which increases carrying capacity from 425kg to 1 339kg, which is pretty decent for a bakkie.

The revised leaf-sprung suspension and new, heavy duty, bumpers clear the way to approach and departure angles of 44.4- and 40.5-degrees respectively – compare this to 37.7- and 31.3-degrees on a standard Unlimited.

Those heavy duty bumpers feature dual front and rear bolt-mounted shackles, which are up to the task of suspending the J8 from a Chinook, or any other helicopter with the requisite carrying capacity, enabling airmobile delivery to a Middle-Eastern insurgency flashpoint or Wild Coast fishing spot - your choice. 

Standard engine, more endurance

All the reengineered components ramp up kerb weight from 1 969kg to 2 019kg. Power is from the Italian-sourced VM Motori 2.8l in-line four turbodiesel producing 118kW and 400Nm. Jeep’s Command-Trac system distributes drive to all four wheels via a five-speed automatic gearbox (even in combat, Americans refuse to self-shift), with a 2.72:1 low-range transfer case available for tough hauling conditions.

Ensuring the engine is able to keep driving a reconnaissance patrol along, from one Wadi to the next, is a desert-rated induction system. Featuring enhanced filtration, it should keep the air-intake as clean as possible for up to five hours in a severe sandstorm.

For those badly orchestrated beach landings, Marine NCOs will be heartened by the 762mm aquatic obstacle crossing depth capability – up from the 482mm on a standard Unlimited. 

Driving it

I drove the J8 for 45 minutes, and without being able to comment on its airmobile capability (we were too pressed for time to hitch it to a Oryx for a test flight) the J8 is a blast to drive.

With the interior being standard Jeep, it’s still pretty agricultural from an ergonomic perspective, but you’re so taken up by the open-topped military styling package that ergonomic foibles are a lot less irksome.

Air conditioning is optional, though without a roof, you'd really have to crank it up to make any difference in desert conditions. There is a 12V or 12V/24V electrical system, with 180 A @ 12V or 45 A @ 24 V current.

Perhaps the most heartening feature was the ability to cruise around the off road track, without a seat belt – or just open one of the undersized doors – and not have the reminder system bonging, it has been disabled for J8 military applications.

You hardly want to deploy a six-man reconnaissance patrol close to the enemy at night and have the "open-door" or "key-in-ignition" warning buzzer wailing within earshot…

The suspension feels a lot stiffer, and you bounce about a little more severely off-road, though it really has a feel of increased capability and toughness – you drop wheels into holes and ramp it up inclines with scant regard for the mechanics.

Combining the virtues of two-door bakkie layout and binning the roof renders a great alfresco driving experience whilst enabling excellent visibility, allowing one to pin-point front-wheel placement on and over obstacles.

Those small, frameless, doors are super-light too – opening and closing them is effortless – and in a severe cross axle situations they’re small enough to still swing open and allow debussing; although you can just hop over the top too.

J8 was a grin-inducing experience to drive. I can only imagine many civilian Jeep owners must be highly perturbed at its unavailability to private buyers - especially considering many of those heavy-duty suspension modifications and engine endurance features are exactly what adventurous owners yearn for.

Don’t even mention the utilitarian, and undoubtedly cool, two-door bakkie configuration, which would have massive local buyer appeal. Best, and most disconcerting of all, is J8’s availability in right-hand drive. It’s nearly the most fun two-door open-top I’ve driven all year.

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