ROYAL OAK, Michigan—The power of Mopar is not at the Pebble Beach Concours. It’s at the Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise north of Detroit, where it belongs, even if the boulevard/dragstrip isn’t ideal for displaying the off-road acumen of Fiat Chrysler’s hottest brand, Jeep.
“Ninety percent of Wranglers have at least one aftermarket accessory,” says Mark Bosanac, head of Mopar Service, Parts, & Customer Care for FCA North America, who replaced the recently retired Steve Beahm as Mopar Service’s chief. Jeep Gladiator customers, he adds, are spending more than $1,000 on average on Mopar accessories, of which more than 200 are available, including Jeep Performance Parts (JPP). What better place to show off what the Fiat Chrysler parts and accessories division can offer?
Bosanac touts a “transformation into the digital side of the business,” including a revamped website now allowing customers to purchase Mopar parts and accessories online, a recently announced partnership with Google and Harmon, and a Uconnect market service, allowing restaurant reservations and purchases on-screen. But really, Mopar was here to let local and international auto journalists sample its automotive candy—cars, trucks, and SUVs modified for SEMA, the Jeep Jamboree, and other events.
Mopar brought 10 vehicles, and I sampled half of them, limited by thickening traffic and various local constabularies on two or three miles of prime Woodward Avenue dragstrip. Here’s what I drove:
2017 Dodge Challenger Shakedown
This car is a 1973 Dodge Challenger body with its facelift reverted to a ’71 Challenger model, then built on a ’17 chassis, with the modern model’s suspension, steering, a Tremec six-speed manual, and a Mopar 392 crate engine making 485 horsepower. Its Shaker hood scoop features a black “Shakedown” badge with red outline, and gloss-black and gloss-red stripes. The ’71 Dodge Challenger’s body is shaved and its nose and taillamp caps are replaced with ’17 Challenger headlamps, grille, taillamps, etc.
At first, the steering felt loose, like it might have come from the original Challenger. But these Mopar samples are essentially concept cars, and once I got the car howling down Woodward, it was clear everything underneath is modern. The fat rear tires hook up with little drama, thanks to modern stability and traction control. The Tremec six-speed, the T6060 used in the old Dodge Viper, is a sweetheart of a gearbox, with snicky short-throw shifts and a light and progressive clutch pedal that feels like it came out of a Honda. The 392 crate motor makes big V-8 noise, and the car feels ready to take on any other Challenger, old or new, on Woodward. The new nose and tail on the old body triggers second- and third-looks. What Challenger is this, exactly? Mopar design manager Nico Vardis, the car’s minder in its passenger seat, says it took a lot to make the old and new body parts work together, especially in plan view. But it’s a cool and convincing mash-up, and everything about the way it drives feels modern.
1967 Plymouth Helvedere
Take a light turquoise metallic ’67 Plymouth Belvedere two-door hardtop with a 318 cubic-inch V-8 and column-shift automatic and drop in a supercharged 6.2-liter Hellcrate Hemi V-8, six-speed Tremec Magnum gearbox, and Hellcat cooling module, without changing much else but the seats, and you’ve got the Helvedere, a 707-horsepower car with steering that’s more vague than a Matthew McConaughey Lincoln TV commercial, putting down 650 pound-feet through 15-inch wheels. The buckets are modern, with electric-powered controls and actual bolsters.
No electronic nannies have been added, so the first couple of journalists sampling the Helvedere on Woodward, too young to remember when all American car steering was like this, warn of how too much throttle would easily get this car sideways. Traffic is pretty thick by the time I get behind the wheel, so I settle for impressing my passenger, Mopar accessories and product engineering chief Neil Young Jr., by downshifting and accelerating through a concrete-walled freeway underpass “ditch” on Woodward Avenue. Sweet, rumblingly raspy V-8 sound.
The Helvedere’s Tremec manual is much like the Shakedown’s, by the way, although the clutch is a bit heavier, and releases toward the bottom of the floor, much like my Bugeye Sprite’s.
Yes, the Helvedere’s tail will squirm from a standing start, but even the thin, large-diameter steering wheel can straighten it out with just a tad oppo lock. It’s a controllable sort of delight to finesse this old car with a powerful new engine, limited by Dream Cruise traffic and police, without traction or stability control. Even if it steers like a bumper car, the Plymouth Helvedere is the most tactile vehicle here.
2019 Jeep J6
This is a two-door, two-seat Jeep Wrangler with a six-foot pickup truck bed. It made its debut at the Moab Easter Jeep Safari last spring, triggering a loud Jeepista chorus to demand, “produce it.”Are there enough Jeep consumers to pass up on the four-door Gladiator, with its space for three friends, in favor of this two-seater? Lead designer Frank Pionisopoulos isn’t sure, though he’s certainly like to see it come off the Toledo line. He notes that unlike the Gladiator, with its Ram 1500 rear suspension, the J6 is all Wrangler Unlimited underneath. It also showcases five-inch offroad lights front and rear, A-pillar brackets, a concept grille guard, concept rock rail, concept light bar, body color spray-in bedliner, rear spare tire carrier and circa 1978 badging, which JPP is considering for the Mopar catalog.
With its two-inch lift kit, 37-inch outer diameter BF Goodrich KM3 Mud-Terrain tires on 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels, the J6 isn’t exactly my sort of Woodward Dream Cruise fodder. But its enhanced Brilliant Blue paint with Brass Monkey finish is designed to evoke the 1978 Jeep Honcho. Unfortunately, Jeep PR didn’t lift off the steel hardtop because of the threat of rain, which would have made the Woodward experience better. But those big, fat tires do squat when you call on the 3.6-liter V-6, kinda like a drag racer. The J6’s box is a foot longer than the Gladiator’s. But at 201 inches, the J6 is a couple of feet shorter than the four-door Jeep pickup, which seems reason enough to build it.
2018 Ram 1500 Big Horn Low Down concept
From SEMA 2018, the Low Down has been dropped by two inches, but with 22-inch oversized production wheels in Gloss Black with Brass Monkey accents. It has gloss black over “Brassphalt” silver-gray paint, with Billet Silver and Brass Monkey lower body accents, and Mopar conceptual wheel flares. The bed is covered with a one-piece Mopar hard tonneau, and the truck has five-inch exhaust tips. Engine is a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8.
Finally, a full-size pickup to which I can relate. Not exactly sports car ride height, but I wasn’t able to look directly into the eyes of the local bus drivers, either. Downside is that with two inches less suspension travel and 22-inch wheels, the Low Down rides and drives like a lowrider, bucking over expansion strips. For show, not so much for go.
2018 Jeep Trailpass concept
Based on a Jeep Compass Trailhawk, the four-cylinder compact SUV has a 1.5-inch lift-kit and 18-inch wheels with what Mopar calls a “unique pocket accent” on Continental TerrainContact tires. There’s a Jeep roof basket, cross rails, and rock rails. It has Gloss Black side mirror caps, a custom hood graphic, side stripes, tinted headlamps and taillamps, and a Mopar/Thule roof basket.
Perfect for the weekend camping trip, or in my case, weekend shopping at REI. I felt a bit of kickback at the steering locks when maneuvering out of the parking lot onto Woodward, but otherwise, this made for a normal, calm commute-type drive down the boulevard.
Seen, not sampled…
Mopar also showed off a Mopar-modified 2019 Ram 1500 Big Horn, the Jeep B-Ute concept, Nacho Jeep concept, Jeep JT Scrambler concept, and Jeep Gladiator Gravity concept.