Impression: AEV Jeep JK 350 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicle

Dec. 21, 2016 By Josh Burns
This turnkey package from AEV celebrates its 20th Anniversary along with the final year of the JK.

It’s hard to believe that the Jeep Wrangler JK has been around 10 years. The JK reshaped the landscape of Jeep, the SUV market, and in many ways the off-road aftermarket as a whole, because this four-door SUV brought with a reality many dreamed of: best-in-class off-road performance and the ability to be a legitimate daily driver during the week.

American Expedition Vehicles is one of those companies that made a big splash during the JK years, and being that AEV is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2017, it only seemed appropriate to offer a 20th Anniversary edition of the vehicle that really took the company to the next level.

We recently had the chance to drive the first JK 350 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicle package, along with the 20th Anniversary edition of the Ram 2500 XL Prospector. After we spent some time with the Ram we focused our attention on the JK. AEV Marketing Manager Matt Feldermann was on hand to walk us through the details and why the company decided to build them.

“Back in 1997, when the company literally started in the garage, we never thought that 20 years later we would be where we are today,” Feldermann said. “There’s a couple of important things about this vehicle: one, this is the final year of the JK, and the JK is really what put us on the map and is a vehicle that we credit much of our success to. So we really wanted to send off the JK. And it also just happened to work out that our 20th anniversary coincided with the last year of the JK, and so it just made sense.”

Bilstein 5160s are employed in the 4.5-inch suspension lift. The shocks are all tuned to AEV's unique specifications.

Only 20 of each of the 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicles will be produced, and AEV feels this is an opportunity to show both where it has been and where it is going.

“So while the JK is going out, the Ram program is kind of starting for us,” Feldermann said. “The Ram program is only two years old, it’s pretty new. So highlighting these two vehicles really celebrates where we’ve gotten to and where we look to go in the future.”

AEV ups the ante on its 20th Anniversary edition with a larger 4.5-inch lift (compared to a 3.5: on the standard JK 350 package) that allows the Jeep to fits 37s underneath.

What Makes This JK Package Unique?
At this point, there’s a seemingly multitude of ways to build a JK. There are literally thousands upon thousands of parts available in the aftermarket for the JK, with everything from mild to wild build options out there. So what makes this JK 350 special, unique or simply worth buying?

“With the Wrangler, without a doubt, our overall theme was to make the ultimate dual-purpose vehicle,” Feldermann said. “[We wanted] something you can drive everyday to work comfortably, at highway speeds, have the vehicle be safe, reliable, handle better than stock, ride better than stock, but on the weekends you can take it and handle some of the hardest trails in the country and then drive it home. That’s really what we wanted to bring to market that really wasn’t there.”

The rear bumper also safely accommodates the 37-inch spare. Behind it is a cannister for additional fuel.

So the JK 350 package strives to bring that magical combination of great on-road drivability and awesome off-road performance. Many companies hope to find that balance but very few can achieve that ideal middle ground. AEV’s approach is to blend together parts that work in harmony, all the while using everything it has has learned in the past 10 years about what does and doesn’t work well on the JK.

“We achieved that [balance] by not just focusing on one component but by creating an entire vehicle system, a family of parts that work together in unison, where our suspension is designed to work with our wheels and our front bumper to give you all the tire clearance that you need,” Feldermann said. “No matter if the suspension is fully articulated or fully compressed, you know everything is going to work exactly as it should because each component was designed to work with each other.”

AEV diff covers are featured front and rear, and the Bilstein piggybacks for the rear are visible.

Much like the Prospector XL we recently tested, the 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicle JK 350 will feature unique parts not found on the standard JK 350 package. Being that the 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicle is based on its top-flight package (there’s also the JK 250 and JK 200) there are hardly any options for this kit. Based on a Rubicon package, the JK 350 typically maxes out at 35-inch tires and a 3.5-inch lift, but for the 20th Anniversary version AEV takes it up a notch with a 4.5-inch DualSport RS Suspension kit. The increased suspension height allows AEV to stuff 37-inch BFGoodrich KM2 mud-terrain tires on its slightly offset satin bronze Borah Wheels. The end result is a relatively low-COG Wrangler that isn’t lifted six inches or more to be able to accommodate 37s. Of course, the AEV Premium Front Bumper helps in the tire clearance department as well, and out back an AEV rear bumper and tire carrier hold the full-sized spare. The AEV Fuel Caddy keeps extra fuel on hand if needed.

What a sight: A 6.4L HEMI is an option (as is the 5.7L).

AEV also employs its Heat Reduction Hood on the 20th Anniversary model, and a Raised Air Intake means no sweating mud holes or water crossings. There’s a host of trail protection found on limited-edition model also, such as an AEV Front Skid Plate, AEV Rear Corner Guards with Protection Tubes, and even heavy-duty AEV Differential Covers.

Other noteworthy features also found on the Jeep include a Warn winch, IPF 901 LED Driving Lights, Satin Onyx exterior components, Satin Bronze detailing, unique seat patterns inside the cab with special accent stitching, and of course 20th Anniversary badges and branding.

We may have buried the lead a bit here, but there’s really only two options on the JK: buyers can opt to upgrade to either a 5.7L HEMI or the 6.4L HEMI from the Grand Cherokee SRT.

Testing the HEMI
We’ve been in our fair share of modified JKs over the years, but this is one of the very few with a 6.4L HEMI. We met up with the AEV crew early one morning in Gorman, California, and we had the chance to get a feel for the HEMI-equipped Wrangler on the highway and out in the dirt.

We drove the 6.4L HEMI JK on the road and off.

OK, what Wrangler owner wouldn’t love the option of a HEMI in their rig? We know we’d opt for the factory option… but there isn’t one. For those looking to stuff a HEMI in their JK there is not exactly an abundance of companies out there willing to do it, and even of those out there it’s going to cost an arm and a leg. AEV’s options aren’t exactly inexpensive either (because frankly, it’s just not a cheap upgrade), but considering they get the engines directly from the manufacturer and the fact that they warranty their turnkey vehicles with a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty (and that includes the HEMI!) it makes taking that leap a little less stressful.

Enough cost reality… we were ready to drive the thing! Stepping on the gas for the first time makes that whole money “stuff” go out of the window. The 6.4L HEMI feels very natural in the JK, especially one pushing around the added weight of 37s and a host of bumper and armor upgrades. As we cruised on the highway making our way toward the freeway, the JK felt very smooth and effortless to driver – no fighting with the steering around turns. The engine and transmission felt in tune, and the only sound was the occasional growl from the big HEMI and the gentle hum of the big mud-terrain BFGs.

Yep, there's a 6.4L HEMI in there. One of the many unique 20th Anniversary badges is found above it.

The acceleration from stops is awesome, and the JK suddenly feels far more aggressive and mean. The stock 3.6L Pentastar V6 is a decent motor, but once the upgrades, and added weight from said upgrades, start to get tacked on, the 3.6 just gets bogged down on most modified JKs – especially on the highway. The 3.6 actually still works fairly well on modified rigs on the trail, but on the highway and when pulling away from stops it can feel sluggish. The HEMI, on the other hand, just motors away with ease, and we used that power to blast onto the freeway.

Once on the freeway and merging with semi-trucks and sedans, the HEMI power showed itself once again, as we effortlessly would overtake big rigs at 70-75 mph thanks to the 6.4’s 475 hp and 470 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s easy to focus all the attention on the engine, and in all honestly we kind of did for the first 10 minutes or so, but as we settled in it became clear the overall package of the JK 350 rides really nicely. Even with 37s and 4.5 inches of lift, the JK 350 feels planted around turns and doesn’t show any notable signs of body roll when cornering or quickly changing lanes. The AEV-tuned Bilstein 5160s shocks front and rear keep the Jeep from rolling during turns or lane changes.

Plenty of flex on the JK 350 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicle.

In the dirt, the JK 350 is just awesome. AEV suggests the JK350 be installed on the Rubicon package, which will include the factory lockers and beefier Dana 44 axles. Since that package provides a great off-road foundation, AEV then goes to work with the suspension components and trail-worthy upgrades. We didn’t crawl in low range long enough to really notice if the Heat Reduction Hood had a long-term impact, but we can imagine the additional cooling will only help with either HEMI upgrade (or the 3.6L V6). The raised air intake is another nice feature to alleviate the concern of water crossings.

Both the front and rear bumper systems on the rig are sharp looking and help aid in approach and departure angles and tire clearance. Whether scaling over the rocky slopes at Hungry Valley SVRA obstacle course or twisting up the frame on other obstacles in the area, there’s plenty of ground clearance and tire clearance inside the wheel wells for the 37s. In the current JK state where now 37s are the new 35s, we’re actually happy how well this Jeep feels on the trail since it isn’t jacked up to the moon. Creatively fitting 37s with a 4.5-inch lift keeps the center of gravity low, and while that low COG is important to the keep consistent road manners, it also imparts even more confidence to the driver on the trail as well. After giving the JK great marks on the highway, we’re also confident this JK could live up to AEV’s promise of being able to tackle some of the toughest trails in the country and still drive home after.

The AEV roof rack is just one of the additional parts not found on the standard JK 350 package.

When we asked Feldermann about the availability of these 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicles, he said to expect them at the start of next year, which is when we’ll have the specific MSRPs as well.

“The official launch is going to be in January of 2017, and we’re building 20 of each vehicle, the JK 350 and the Prospector XL, and it’s going to have a set content list, with the exception of the Wrangler having an optional 5.7L HEMI V8 or a 6,4K HEMI V8.”

To put the options into perspective, the typical cost of the JK 350 package starts out about $16,000. For the 20th Anniversary model, the price will be closer to $25,000, and that’s not simply for graphics and special edition badging – AEV includes a number of options not found on the base 350 package, such as the AEV Roof Rack, Rear Corner Guards, Raised Air Intake, larger suspension and bigger tires, and of course all of the unique styling cues such as the satin onyx and stain bronze accents. So instead of running out and piecing the parts together yourself, AEV offers a turnkey kit (which you can order from one of its dealers and finance all in one shot) so it’s ready to roll when you pick it up.

The rear corner guards are a nice upgrade for this trail-ready JK.

The HEMI options are not necessary upgrades on the 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicle JKs. The 5.7L will run about $23,000, and the 6.4L HEMI will run closer to $30,000. So, all in, after the cost of a Rubicon, a buyer is looking at the $90,000-$100,000 range when all is said and done. In some ways that’s a hefty price tag, but we have honestly seen hundreds of $100K+ JKs on the roads in recent years, and not all of them are as clean and well built as this one. Getting it all in one place and from the same manufacturer makes this kit a great option. While the HEMI isn’t a cheap upgrade, the added peace of mind of AEV’s warranty on its turnkey package makes the 20th Anniversary Edition Vehicle JK 350 a dream vehicle we’d love to have.

Here’s a rundown of the parts list for the AEV 20th Anniversary JK 350
- AEV Heat Reduction Hood
- AEV Premium Front Bumper
- AEV Front Skid Plate
- AEV Winch Mount
- WARN Winch
- IPF 901 Off-Road Lights
- AEV Front Skid Plate
- AEV Rear Corner Guardes w/Protection Tube
- AEV Rear Bumper/Tire Carrier
- AEV Water Pump Kit
- AEV 4.5” DualSport SC Suspension
- AEV ProCal
- AEV Jack Base
- AEV 17" Borah Wheels in Satin Bronze
- 37” Mud-Terrain Tires
- Satin Onyx Exterior Components
- Satin Bronze Details
- AEV 20th Anniversary Badging
- AEV Instrument Cluster
- AEV Seat Pattern w/Accent Stitching
- AEV Body Side Decal

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