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  AIL Storm 3, AKA Jeep J8 - world exclusive road test

We take the Israely Armed Forces new Jeep to the heart of the desert, to find a most refined companion - a true Jeep. Too bad we can't buy one for ourselves.

April 2009 / Story & photo: Asaf Katzir, Jeepolog.com / contact Jeepolog.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like the US Army, most of the world's armed forces have long ceased the use of Jeeps as military vehicles. Humvees and various derivatives of the original World War II Jeep have taken the brunt of military duties, while Jeep products have become the life style icons we appreciate and enjoy so much. When Chrysler decided to get back into the military game, it took the Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, the world's most capable civilian off-road vehicle, and made it tougher, heavier, and diesel-powered Jeep J8.  But did they actually improve it? We got our hands on a pair of fresh J8's in IDF desert tan, complete with communication racks and checked it out for ourselves.

Ah, Sarge, What is a J8? What in hell is "Storm 3"?

Chrysler's new military platform introduced in 2007 is not sold or manufactured anywhere in the US. Continuing a tradition started in the '60s of local manufacturing in far corners of the world certainly a factor in making Jeep such a recognizable Icon everywhere J8 is assembled from kits in local plants around the globe. One of the first plants to do so is AIL Automotive Industries Ltd. located in the original city of Nazareth, Israel.

AIL has been building Jeeps for four decades. Heavy duty versions of CJ6, CJ8, YJ-L, known as M-240 'Storm', and lately TJ-L 'Storm 2' (road test here). The Storm (actually 'Sufa' in Hebrew) is a cult favorite in the Negev desert, the mainstay of the Israeli 4X4 community, and so the name carries on, and The Israeli J8 got labeled 'Storm 3'. First units are rolling off the line in Nazareth, and we were honored to be the first journalists to have a go at them.

Inside, the J8 is almost identical to the JK Wrangler, for better and worse. In the context of a military vehicle, from the soldiers point of view (we are all reservist soldiers here as well), this is way better than anything before it. Dual Air-con! Automatic transmission! Roll cage mounted speakers! Let's go to war, yea-ha! We do spot some changes, like the passenger airbag disconnect being bolted where the left tweeter used to be, and a local made , lavishly cushioned rear bench which does not fold, but is quite a bit more comfortable than standard JK issue.

Outside, the flat-black grille immediately sets the soldier's Jeep apart, as well as the no-nonsense steel bumpers and military recovery hooks.  Then you notice the air scoop on the hood, rather odd, but necessary for the complex air filtration system which makes J8 drivable in zero-visibility desert sand storms. 17-inch extreme duty steel wheels are needed to clear the oversized disc brakes lifted off the Dodge Durango. Leaning  and looking under the rear of the J8 will reveal the semi-floating Dana 60, 35 spline axle, suspended by leaf springs, which complements the Dana 44 front axle, suspended by heavy duty coil springs. Various chassis frame reinforcements and gussets are also visible.

Under the hood is the Italian made VM common rail turbo diesel. A Modern European diesel, it is smooth, quiet and abundant with torque (295 lb-ft available at 2,000 RPM). The power goes through a 5-speed automatic Chrysler transmission, a great companion to the engine, with ratios nicely matching the 4.10:1 ring and pinions in the axles.  J8 is a heavy vehicle at over 2 tons, but feels quick, almost nimble, and handles very well on road for a Jeep that is. Acceleration is effective and we find it easy to keep being ahead of traffic rushing south. The road experience is however spoiled whenever pavement isnt perfect by the harsh suspension designed for 1.5 tons of payload.

We spend a chilly night on the shores of the Dead Sea, the lowest campground in the world. In the morning we head up mount Sodom. From there several choices of trails lead north. We take the hard one today, a trail that was re-opened recently after being washed away by flash floods during the winter. The only tire marks in the soft soil are those of army HMMWVs training here sometimes. Civilian SUV prints take off in on a bypass. We play the soldier part dumb - and drive on the Hummer tracks. The J8 answers the challenge. When shifting the NV241 transfer case to low range, the idle speed increases to 1,000rpm, and the brakes become more sensitive. The Jeep crawls over the trenches and trough the axle-twisting, off-camber bends with no hesitation, and then it runs quickly on the sandy wash. We find that the suspension is flexible when crawling, and the high spring rates work great when running fast, but it feels really bad in medium driving speeds on the washboard roads. The semi-elliptic leaf spring setup is simply too hard when not fully loaded.

Next, we head to the Yair Pass, one of a handful of trails crossing the thousand foot shear cliff wall separating the Judea desert plane from the Dead Sea. Usually, it takes a lifted Jeep with at least a rear locker to climb here. But now the ascent is in bad shape, with loose rocks all the way, and at the very top, the notorious Yair ledge which denies many, forcing them to winch to the crest. We put the Storm 3 in low range, first gear, and keep the revs a little over 1,000. It does the rest, all the way up, as we count pieces of torn SUV plastic discarded about. And that nasty rock ledge? It's behind us, too easy. One jeep crawls back down and up again, just for the pictures.

What made it so easy? A Jeep made of steel upon nicely sized BF Goodrich rubber, no useless plastic on the outside waiting to fall off, a great drive train, and a superbly effective traction control system on top of limited slip differentials. No lockers to engage, no decision making required of a tired soldier, just put her in low gear and go.

This very combination took us the next day to the ridges of Dimona. Long off-camber goat paths, dry river beds strewn with boulders and dry waterfalls, steep hillsides of soft soil mixed with limestone. We usually don't come here with Jeeps wearing less than 33s, not to mention two diff locks. But we feel reassured with the J8 by now, climbing and slowly crawling in low range. The day is great, safe fun. And the Jeeps keep asking for more.

The drive back to Tel Aviv is long enough for us re-think, to contemplate one of those rare dates with a car that makes you fall in love. I look at the odometer and realize that we never tested any SUV for so many miles, but these Jeeps didn't care. It wasn't cheap - the turbo diesel is almost as thirsty as the lazy V6 gas growler JK. But it was money well spent, crawling the Negev desert with good friends in real Jeeps. Storm 3 J8 probably, the best Jeep ever.

Will we ever be able to own one? Chances are slim for a civilian version. We'll probably have to wait a few years and hope some Storm 3's find their way to the surplus lots intact. We return the pair of tan Jeeps to Nazareth and climb back on the trusty old '95 Storm. You need to last a few more years, baby.

AIL Storm 3, AKA Jeep J8: technical specifications:

Engine: VM 2.8L CRD I-4 turbo diesel
Horsepower: 158bhp @ 3,800rpm
Torque: 295lb-ft @ 2,000rpm
Transmission: 545RFE Five-speed automatic
Transfer Case: NVG241 Command-Trac part-time
Front Suspension: Four-link coil
Rear Suspension: Spring-under leaf
Front brakes: Disc
Rear brakes: Disc
Axle Ratio: 4.10:1

Front axle: Dana 44
Front differential: Trac-Lok limited slip
Rear axle: Dana 60
Rear differential: Trac-Lok limited slip
Wheels: 17x7.5 steel
Tires: BFGoodrich LT245/70R17 (LT265/75R17 optional)
Curb weight: 4,451 lbs
Payload: 2,756 lbs
Towing capacity: 7,716 lbs

Length: 175.2 inches
Width: 73.9 inches
Height: 69.4 inches
Track: 63.4 inches
Ground clearance: 9.1 inches
Approach angle: 44.4 degrees
Departure angle: 40.5 degrees
Fording depth: 30 inches
Fuel capacity: 22.5 gallon

 

 

 

 

 

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