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‘Sandstorm’? Sounds like a WWF wrestler… No idea why, but giving anything an overly-macho name immediately makes me think it’s a bit camp, and look for the irony. Tall people named ‘Tiny’, chihuahuas called ‘Fang’, that sort of thing. So when Jeep mentioned their Sandstorm Concept, I thought it might be a Renegade (Jeep’s smallest product, based on a Fiat 500X, mostly with front-wheel drive) special edition. Especially if you say ‘Jeep Sandstorm’ in a Power Rangers voice. Not here. So what is it then? The Sandstorm is a Wrangler with some serious upgrades. A 392 cubic-inch V8 (6.4-litre) sits up front, a crate motor nicked from the MoPar performance parts catalogue. You can pick up one of these engines for about $10k in the US, complete with around 485bhp and 475lb ft straight out of the literal box - the standard version of the reduced-stoke 6.2 Hellcat motor and without the supercharger. There’s a six-speed manual, a choice made for the simple reason that ‘it’s more fun’ according to the Jeep engineers, even if an auto would be more appropriate. Excellent.
Just a V8 Wrangler? More than that, it’s conceived as a kind of fast-attack desert racer instead of Jeep’s more familiar off-road rock crawling. But that means the usual undercarriage just doesn’t cut it, so Dana 60 axles are matched to four-link coil-over springs with bypass shocks that provide a languorous 14-inches of travel for the front axle and 18 for the rear - that’s a lot for a new ‘JL’ series Wrangler. Those massive 39.5-inch tyres sit on beadlock wheels, so you can air down without fear of ripping the bead off the tyre at low pressure. Sounds… good. Tell me more. Look closer and theres a fair bit more going on than just extreme bolt-ons. The axles have been moved (the front 4-inches forward and the rear a couple of inches rearwards), meaning that the wheelbase is half a foot longer. There’s a pickup bed, ‘cage, race fuel fillers, on-board compressor, high-rise front wings and an interior that switches from full-on comfy standard in the front to a pair of hose-down race buckets in the rear, accessed by a pair of cut-down mini-doors. The bonnet is carbon, the bumpers replaced with shortened tubes and there’s a spare wheel mounted Trophy truck-style in the rear bed. Although it’s wise to note that the spare is actually a smaller size than the actual wheels… which is probably the ‘concept’ part of the specification. It must drive like a monster truck though… Not really. The best bit is how it drives. There’s an element of one-offness to it, but everything works, and the engine sounds like a hurricane in a metal dustbin. The manual transmission is a bit loose, but nothing you can’t deal with, and allows for raucous double-declutching and throttle blips at the most inappropriate times. As ever with these wide and tall trucks, it’s pretty hard to know where all the edges are - the wheels poking out past the fenders that you can actually see - but it’s not a particularly huge machine in the first place, so you soon figure it out. And when you get a chance to punch it, it makes even more sense. What initially feels like suspension set up on the lollopy side of soft morphs into the kind of feature-absorbtion that doesn’t match what you’re seeing. Basically, you tense up to hit a step or bump, and then wonder where it went as the suspension sucks it away into nothing, getting smoother and more controlled the faster you go. It’s not a particularly relaxing car; loud, intense and jostling your senses, but it feels robust and perfectly suited to the terrain. And even though there’s a lot of unsprung mass held a long way from the centre of the vehicle, again, it’s nowhere near as hard work at the wheel as you think it might be, and all the time, there’s that engine giving everything a sharpened edge of naturally-aspirated horsepower. It sounds like a laugh, actually… Fun bits? Gun it on a corner, even on a loose, sandy surface, and Sandstorm squats the rear suspension and pulls the back down and diagonally away from the apex of whatever you happen to be apexing. A bit of a speedboat, but actually very regular and driveable once you get used to it - the advantages of this suspension set-up far outweighing the fact you have to modify your driving style. Watch Stadium SuperTrucks on the internet if you want to get an idea of what the physics look like in real life. Good then? Well, we were hampered by a course designed to keep various random journalists from smearing the precious concepts across the rather beautiful but unforgiving scenery, but we did get some time to ourselves, and Sandstorm has an absolute bucketful of potential. It feels like a ‘real’ Jeep, works well, and is tremendously appealing - if for no other reason than the noise and unstoppable feeling. Given that a lot of the Jeeps infecting Moab for the Easter Jeep Safari have elements of Sandstorm in their aftermarket make-up, a special limited edition Sandstorm would likely find buyers. Or maybe that’s just us being hopeful.