We owe off-roading to the Russians. In 1904, Tsar Nicholas II hired French military engineer Adolphe Kégresse to head the Court Garage in St. Petersburg. The harsh wintry elements inspired Kégresse to outfit a Mercedes 32/45 with the first halftrack, thus inventing the first all-terrain vehicle.
For extreme off-roading devotees, basic four-wheel drive doesn’t cut it. When it comes to next-level conversions, the brawnier, the better. Big wheels and heightened suspension push hearty vehicles to the extremes. Enthusiasts covet snowy mountaintops, babbling brooks and remote trails, all in the name of rough-and-tumble outdoor play. There’s a satisfaction in conquering obstacles that, on the surface, seem insurmountable.
But conversion vehicles are best-suited to X Games sports settings, and generally seem out of place in everyday driving conditions. Thus, we were pleasantly surprised to find American Expedition Vehicles’ JK350 handles with astonishing grace. We traveled to the AEV offices in Commerce Township, Michigan to test drive their “aggressively functional” Jeep Wrangler in a wooded, suburban Detroit setting. It was a soggy, unseasonably warm late December day—perfect for a vehicle that looks best splattered in dirt. The JK350 certainly doesn’t mind getting wet.
From a distance, the mud tires and heightened suspension give the souped-up Wrangler the look of a distinctive badass. When we cranked the engine and felt the growl of the 5.7-liter HEMI V8 reverberate in our thighs, its menacing personality was confirmed. Yet, once on the open road, the Jeep handled more like a well-mannered SUV than an awkward 18-wheeler. Despite the vantage point of its 3.5-inch lift, we were able to make neat turns on narrow suburban streets, easily avoiding mailboxes as we got the hang of the seating and placement. We stopped being quite so gentle on the throttle and slinked over potholes. Even without a winch, tow hitch, or a mountain in sight, we found the JK350 a rowdy and spirited ride.
For such a rugged exterior, the inside is relatively cozy. Leather seats equipped with Corduva covers mean you can drive this car as intended, and make a mess without feeling destructive. The air of athletic authenticity and liberating joy of being positioned so high off the ground make you feel ready to take on any challenge.
Named for a street near Olympia, Washington, American rock band Sleater-Kinney and its Pacific Northwest vibe are the perfect fit for the JK350. The recently reunited trio is set to release their eighth studio album, No Cities to Love, this year. The second single, “Surface Envy” is an ideal anthem for a modest on/off-road expedition. The audacious drums, rip-roaring guitars and motivational lyrics capture the gusto we feel behind the wheel of an AEV conversion, as we scratch the Earth’s surface. A unique conversion like the JK350 has character suited to a rock legacy—fierce, unexpected and ready to rage.
“Throw me a rope, get me a line
I haven’t seen daylight in what must be days
I took the long way down, was tracking myself
Confidence fell down the steepest of slopes
But if you get me a line, write me a note …
I feel so much stronger now that you’re here
We’ve got so much to do, let me make that clear”
Song of the Car matches music with automobiles, old and new. Appearing fortnightly on Cool Hunting, each feature takes a look at a car’s distinct personality and pairs it with a suitable song.
Images by Tamara Warren