The usual formula for anything worth its weight in clicks on the automotive blogosphere is to mention the one name that has become the go-to benchmark for insanity and attainable power—Hellcat. The venerable engine can make any car, no matter how hum-drum, more desirable to the unwashed internet masses instantly. So, what happens when Jeep stuffs it into their best selling vehicle of all time?
(Full disclosure: I flew to Los Angeles on my own dime, at which point Jeep provided Andrew Collins and I with a 2016 Wrangler Willys Wheeler Edition to drive to Moab, Utah to attend the 2016 Easter Jeep Safari and the chance to drive Jeep’s seven concept cars, along with providing a near-lethal amount of free gourmet deli sandwiches and snacks.)
Let’s get this out of the way first. I’m not much of a bandwagon rider when it comes to things that are built simply to generate hype. I haven’t attended a Transformers movie premiere since high school and I don’t give an aerated turd about the next season of Game of Thrones because I’ve never seen it, nor do I care about a show that just got enough budget to have the CG dragons look anything other than hilarious.
It’s much the same with cars, Concept cars, at least for me, don’t evoke a child-like sense of what’s possible so much as it’s an excuse for car manufacturers to spend some leftover money at the end of the year, while showcasing that they still got it.
This time was different, or at least, it was supposed to be. As I stood with a few dozen other automotive journalists on that brisk Tuesday morning, the sky-scraping red rocks aglow with the dawn’s early light, the executives at Jeep made their sales pitches with Jeep’s seven concepts directly behind them.
They’d be telling journalists, who essentially have the task of disseminating the information to the world, that the Jeep brand is—like anyone in the pre-war generation—proud of its heritage and by no means were these concepts show queens but fully working cars that could be taken on the trail.
The line delivered was something like “We could’ve taken these to the New York Auto Show, but we brought ‘em here - God’s country - where you can see what they can really do.” A bald eagle flew overhead and perched on a nearby Wrangler, a single tear streaming down its beak. It then handed out Tea Party pamphlets and shotgunned a Miller Lite.
The concepts ranged from cars Jeep found on eBay and restored with modern-ish running gear to cars that maybe-kinda-sorta might be the platform for the next iteration of the same car they’ve built for the last 75 years, with the finale being the lime green, 707 horsepower, supercharged behemoth known as the Jeep Wrangler Trailcat.
The engine, now less restrained by the EPA because it was an one-off, roared into life as the FCA representative gave the formidable Jeep a few hearty revs for the journalists that were busy Googling smart-sounding alternatives to the phrase “loud as fuck.”
Apparently, we—Andrew Collins, David Tracy and I—would get to man this beast of a Jeep through a trail. This ended up not being true for two out of three of us. Lines started to form as publication after publication did their John Davis-like schtick, reporting into a GoPro and lav mic, fighting the day’s insane wind and hoping the YouTube commenters wouldn’t notice the audio noise in the final edit. They wouldn’t.
After a few hours of waiting and chatting with guys that I’ll never again remember because I’m horrible with names and faces, it was clear that the Trailcat drive was the one that was oddly tame. I saw guys get in, set it up for camera shots with drone fly-bys and a monologue, but never exceed parking lot speeds on flattish sandy ground.
It was hilarious when I then read the reviews of people praising the car for being some brutish hulk capable of thrashing the dunes and trail, meanwhile I knew that they were carted around like a five year old on a depressed Shetland pony at the county fair. There were no sideways moments, no tests of the car’s capabilities, and no one got out of the first of six manual forward gears, and here’s my theory on why that was:
Concept cars aren’t meant to actually do things. I applaud Jeep for making something like this and expecting it to work enough for journalists with two left feet to get in and ask what the third pedal does. That takes guts, and for an automaker to give that amount of trust and control to someone who can screw things up so quickly, that’s nearly unheard of.
By the same token, you wouldn’t want to drive a Liberty Walk Ferrari and you wouldn’t want to off-road a Trailcat- it’s too far of a departure from the tried and tested method of having things not break, doing what it was usually meant to do. For example, the trail-rated Jeep Compass I took on the trail fared remarkably well, despite it being adept to fight parking lot speed bumps in normal use.
The Trailcat had other issues.
The transmission and transfer case on the Trailcat apparently came from a manual Dodge Dakota and would likely be cleft in twain should all of the 707 horses want to come out at once. Jeep reps said that they haven’t done any dyno pulls or top speed runs but I suspect it’s because they don’t want a shattered bellhousing and gear oil all over the ground, with journalists snapping pics and making names for themselves as “Trailcat Killers.”
The frame, in one section, was so tight against the body that it made an audible creak over bumps. The remedy? They took a piece of cardboard and jammed it between the two metal surfaces. I admire the ingenuity of the fix, but when it’s your flagship concept, perhaps you won’t want to mash something into its structure to make it stop sounding like a haunted carnival ride—especially in front of people whose job it is to report stuff like this—but that was far from the worst of it.
Despite every other concept being somewhat manageable and economical within reason, the Trailcat “ran out of gas,” placing that phrase in quotes because I don’t actually believe that for a goddamn second.
The thing just wouldn’t start for 10 minutes, after which one of Jeep’s guys ran over and said “we need more gas,” managed to start it up and go for a fuel run. Twenty minutes after that, the Trailcat showed its SEMA-looking face over the horizon, parked on a hill, and couldn’t get started again for another ten minutes. This car ran out of gas twice in the span of an hour.
Either a fuel pump was failing in some regard or this Wrangler had Schrodinger’s gas tank, in which it is both full and empty at the same time. A show car it definitely was, and despite journalists repeating the gag-worthy line of “this cat has claws”, it seemed more like a cat that took a shit in the living room and went to sleep.
Yes, but will they ever make it? How did it drive? Why am I so lonely?! you may ask yourself. No, they will never make this into a production car because of the answer to the second question, according to the only one of us who actually drove the thing, Andrew Collins:
Steering felt heavy but loose, clutch was lighter than I expected, the gearbox was pretty compliant. The biggest challenge to keeping this thing in line is the suspension; so soft and bouncy that your feet were liable to slip on the pedals and burp too much power into the drivetrain.
Those tall shocks might be a little better on some high-speed desert passes, but since the car ran out of fuel twice in a few miles at 0 to 5% throttle, I wouldn’t want to take this thing too deep into the dunes.
In stark contrast to the amazeballs internet street cred that this truck has gotten for its outlandish and surprisingly well-done looks and arguably suicidal drivetrain, it’s clear that this car, upon closer inspection, is simply balls. It’s a big green penis pump that Jeep brings around to impress people that don’t know enough to realize that it’s useless as a car and completely impractical for a usable off-road vehicle.
But Lord almighty, does it sound great and I hope Jeep never stops making cars like this.