Life is circular, and few things drive that home more than recreational off-roading. Think about it: child is born; child plays in the dirt; child grows up, gets a job, and buys something to play in the dirt again. This is a fundamental part of the human condition, it seems, and auto manufacturers have responded in kind over the last decade with a bevy of high-performance tough trucks offering out-of-the-box off-road glory. The Ford F-150 Raptor. The Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. The new Jeep Wrangler. The forthcoming 707-horsepower Ram Rebel TRX.
Purists may miss the honest past of stripped-down, bare-bones four-wheel-drives, but it’s undeniable that at no point in history has so much advanced technology and engineering knowledge gone into the art of stomping around off-road. Today is also the first time factory trucks can really hang with homebuilt rigs—so if you’re willing and able to drop a decent amount of coin on something truly capable and fun, why wouldn’t you get a complete package from a big-time manufacturer instead of cobbling together parts from the fractious aftermarket?
Well for starters, because therein lies the really good stuff.
More importantly, you can skip the headache and let an outfitter like AEV build the off-road truck of your dreams, one that’s equally at home as a daily driver and an expedition vehicle. The Michigan-based company gained a cult following in the last decade thanks to their Jeep Wrangler “Brute” pickup conversions, but with Fiat-Chrysler bringing their own bedded Jeep to market, AEV is ready to get back to focusing on the words in its name: American Expedition Vehicles. Enter the AEV Recruit. For $15,000, its engineers and fabricators will take any 2013-2018 Ram 1500 trim you bring them and work their magic to create about as pure an overlanding vehicle as you’ll find in a professional package.
The centerpiece is a proprietary four-inch lift that raises the truck’s independent front suspension and increases wheel travel while preserving the on-road drivability of the unmodified original. Meanwhile, a healthy list of options ensure you can indulge your aftermarket fantasies in a safely-warrantied domain.
But like I said, there are a lot of ways to play in the dirt these days, and not everyone is looking for a light-duty truck with heavy-duty spinning bits to have fun with once or twice a month. So I headed out to the Rowher Flats Off-Highway Vehicle area just outside Los Angeles to see if AEV could make a recruit out of me.
Ram Heads to Boot Camp
The AEV Recruit is based off the outgoing generation of the Ram 1500, so any example from the 2013-2018 model years can apply for what amounts to the truck version of one of those personal makeover shows. The biggest one of all is that ingenious four-inch suspension lift, which no doubt makes up the bulk of the purchase price. Independent suspension systems like the Ram’s lack the traction of solid axles off-road, because the opposing wheel doesn’t get pushed down when the other gets pushed up. The physical assembly also sits lower and reduces ground clearance. AEV’s DualSport Suspension works to correct those weaknesses with special aluminum steering knuckles, a relocated front differential, and new Bilstein shocks that are all engineered to play nicely together and leave the driving experience as unchanged as possible.
Trucks equipped with factory air suspension retain those systems and the height adjustments, too. Behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget you’re driving anything other than a regular full-size pickup…until you pass an SUV and see clear over its roof.
The base package also includes that high-clearance front bumper, 18-inch wheels with knobby 35-inch tires, AEV’s head-reduction hood, and all the special badging you could want. The options list throws on the snorkel—err, “raised air intake system”—a Warn winch, power-retractable running boards, extra lights, a bed mount system, and a new leather interior are all on the table. Check every box in the book, and you’re looking at close to $30,000 on top of the price of the donor Ram.
You’re also looking at the truck I tested, which was maxed out as a display vehicle for last year’s SEMA show in Las Vegas. It’s not exactly subtle, but the tasteful paint and factory appearance pull it back from the broverlander-truck realm. And while the optional goodies are fun, the only thing you really need above the base package is a winch. The rest is mostly window dressing on 37-inch wheels.
Where the Rubber Meets the…Dirt
So it doesn’t wander like a drunk on the highway despite the 4.0-inch lift. But did all that math get the job done in the dirt? The comparison is inevitable, so let’s get this out of the way: no, it’s not a Ford Raptor. The AEV Recruit isn’t designed to run Baja, or jump over a sand dune. It’s designed to swallow up ruts and rocks at a moderate pace, to the point where you could drive this thing on the asteroid from Armageddon and not notice a difference, apart from the lack of oxygen. It really is that smooth over daggers.
(By the way, that snorkel is more for dusty air than turning your truck into a submarine. AEV politely asks that you keep the waterline below the headlights.)
What goes up, must come down.
The increased wheel travel definitely helps keep the Recruit more stable on a rough trail; the tires held on at several points where I was sure that sweet embrace of grip would break. It’s still not at the level of a rig with solid axles, but for anything besides intense rock crawling, the Recruit has plenty of grip and clearance at hand.
What it doesn’t have plenty of is visibility, as the truck’s seating position makes it hard to see over the expansive hood when cresting a hill. Another downside is the lack of a locking differential in the rear. Even on the Rebel trim, this generation of the Ram 1500 was never blessed with a rear locker, going with a limited-slip setup to help dig the truck out of trouble. AEV decided against changing that out for cost reasons—as well as the fact that the other enhancements do make it largely unnecessary. Mostly. There were a few moments where I sat there bouncing halfway up a steep slope as the LSD tried to do its thing when I’d have much rather pressed an diff-locking button and marched up the hill like a mountain goat.
Even with a short bed, this crew cab Ram is a hefty truck. But it feels lighter and more maneuverable off-road than expected, and it gives you an unearned confidence after just a short stint behind the wheel. It’s overbuilt, extremely capable, and if you (somehow) block out the copious AEV branding, it really does hit the senses like a special overlanding trim straight from Ram itself.
Recruit Must Go Forth and Explore
That’s really the point of the AEV Recruit. Here’s a built rig offering a whole bunch of upgraded parts, all hand-picked and installed by professionals—but it’s still backed by the same peace-of-mind and protections as a new truck. American Expedition Vehicles offers a three-year/36,000-mile warranty, and because it uses a network of over 120 certified Ram and Jeep dealerships around the country to sell and service its products, you can get your Recruit fixed without ever seeing a bill or laying down a dollar of your own money.
Yes, $15,000 isn’t exactly cheap. But throw the base Recruit package at a lowly Ram Tradesman and you’ll still come out under $50,000 starting price of the Ford F-150 Raptor with a capable truck that’s more maneuverable, and a little less extreme. If I were looking for a base for an off-road camper build or a vehicle to really explore the American Southwest, this would be at the top of my list, thanks to its rock solid suspension, tidy footprint, and impressive comfort.
But if we’re just talking about having simple, stupid fun, you may get a little more bang for your buck in something like the Raptor, the Colorado ZR2, or the Wrangler Rubicon. The upgrades and enhancements in the AEV Recruit make it more suited for taking the back way into a national park than mucking around with your friends at an off-road park. It would honestly be a waste to invest in the Recruit and not use it to its fullest potential, while there’s something (slightly) less tragic about people who buy a factory off-roader and only use it properly once a year.
In the end, though, idle time probably won’t be an issue. This is the kind of rig that compels you to play in the dirt—all you have to do is listen to that little voice deep inside.
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