Let’s dot all the “i’s” right away: the 1998 Jeepster concept Jeepster was not a planned baby. And, accordingly, was not created with the expectation that it would become the prototype of the production car. It was an experiment, an answer to the occasional “What if?” question. Sometimes large automakers allow themselves such liberties. But not very often.
As Rick Aneiros, vice president of Chrysler Group Jeep and Truck Design, recalls, it all started when a designer suggested creating a crossover. “It was a challenge to ourselves: what if we could combine the power and driving pleasure of sports cars with the durability and handling of our best SUVs – like the Jeep Wrangler?”
That was the idea behind the concept car. In the initial stages of development, the car was codenamed “Project Grizzly,” but it was quickly abandoned. “We dug into Jeep’s heritage and decided to go with the Jeepster, which was the name of a rare 1950s Willys-based convertible that now has some collectible value,” adds Rick Aneiros.
“Even in the early stages, we decided that the end result should be a bright, stylish car that would be equally fun to drive on the mountain serpentines and participate in the Rubicon Trail,” says Rick. Whether the ideas came to life is unknown, because the concept Jeepster managed to ride only a few people. Although the car was completely walkable.
Its premiere was held in 1998 at the North American International Auto Show. Despite the abundance of unusual solutions, like a body made of unpainted plastic and polished aluminum roof pillars, the crossover is easily guessed features of Jeep: it is the corporate grille with seven slits, and round lighting (both front and rear), and falling to the front of the hood, designed to improve visibility on off-road.
At the same time, in profile the Jeepster resembled another Chrysler car – the Plymouth Prowler hotrod. That’s because the crossover’s sill line was ascending from the front to the rear. Other interesting exterior features include the towing eyes on the front bumper, as well as a massive aluminum underbody protection, which joined the side steps.
Although the Jeepster itself inherited many elements of another concept car – the Jeep Icon, shown in Detroit in 1997 – it became a source of inspiration for other cars. In particular, solutions implemented in the Jeepster can be seen in two Willys concept cars, the Compass crossover and the Cherokee SUV. And its 4.7-liter 16-valve V8 debuted six months later on the production 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee – that is, the WJ generation.
The powerful V8 was mated to a Quadra-Trac II four-speed automatic transmission. It distributed power to the front and rear axles, and had a downshift range. The exact dynamic characteristics of the Jeepster are unknown, but given that the crossover weighed only a ton and a half, it would hardly be considered slow by the standards of that time.
Thanks to fully independent suspension and adaptive shock absorbers Jeepster promised to be quite fast and not only on the straights, but also in the corners. In “road” mode, the crossover clearance was 145 millimeters, but had to translate the suspension in the off-road mode, as ground clearance increased to 245 millimeters. The choice of suspension presets was made with the help of two toggle switches in the cabin.
In general, the interior of Jeepster was rather utilitarian: audio system, microclimate unit, seats with integrated four-point seat belts and coarse red leather, which can be washed with a hose … Of the luxury elements – only a small navigator screen and a scattering of large instruments, among which altimeter, roll sensor and thermometer. However, you don’t need more for driving in a summer weekend.
Jeep shows cars, similar to Jeepster almost every year, but all of them have a status of concept cars. Probably, after recent expansion of the Fiat-Chrysler concern, an open youth crossover will appear in Jeep’s lineup: Wrangler is a fruit of another field.