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September 1, 2005, by Bill Cawthon
First and foremost, if you haven't done it yet, please see if there is something you can do to help the people in the states hit by Hurricane Katrina. You hear the reporters talking about it being "almost" impossible to comprehend the extent of the damage, but it there's no "almost" to it: it is impossible to get your mind around the devastation and the pain is just beginning. If you can, make a donation to the American Red Cross, Second Harvest or check the Federal Emergency Management Agency website for other ways you can help or for references to other organizations that can put your donation to good use.
[Editors note: You can also buy this model from Promotex Online and make a contribution through Promotex Inc. to the American Red Cross.]
Recently, I loaded up my notebook and camera and headed off to Camp Jeep. Camp Jeep is Chrysler's traveling showcase that brings some of the features of the full-size annual event to cities around the U.S. and I got an invitation to visit the Houston exhibition before it opened to the public.
From its beginnings near Vail, Colorado, eleven years ago, the real Camp Jeep has become the largest event of its kind. Over a three-day weekend, thousands of Jeeps and Jeep owners get together for off-road driving and outdoor activities that can range from fishing and kayaking to carving a walking stick. It's designed to be a family event, so even the kids can find something to enjoy.
Camp Jeep has now spread beyond the United States. The fifth Euro Camp Jeep took place in the southern French resort, Chateau de Lastours, in July. The second Camp Jeep in Egypt is scheduled for November.
This year, the American version pitched its tents at the Jack Frost Ski Resort in northeastern Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains. It's estimated that 5,000 people and 1,500 Jeeps converged on the Poconos over the weekend of August 12-14 for three days of 4X4 trail rides, off-road driving instruction, live music and other activities.
This year the theme was "The Star-Spangled Banner" and one of the highlights of the weekend was 140 red, white and (mostly) blue Jeeps organized to form an American flag.
Naturally, DaimlerChrysler uses Camp Jeep to promote the brand and showcase new products, but it seems to me it's a better idea than a bunch of TV commercials. Several companies are using touring events to promote their cars and trucks, but there is something special about Jeeps and their owners that make this more than a three-day sales pitch.
From the wooden arch that marks the entry to the tents that serve as exhibit halls and activity centers, the touring edition of Camp Jeep is designed to evoke memories of summer camp. "Campers" can try their hand at simulated rock wall climbing (Houston, where the elevation varies from 0-90 feet above sea level, is somewhat short of actual rock walls to climb) and carefully controlled bungee jumping. There are courses for Jeeps and mountain bikes to allow visitors to get a (very small) taste of the off-road experience.
You can see classic Jeeps, like the 1949 Willys station wagon and a restored Navy MB, as well as some special one-of-a-kind Jeeps, like the bright green SoBe promotional vehicle and Jeep Fender with its guitar-shaped bumpers, speaker system and dual Fender guitars mounted in racks in the rear.
There's an activity center and a Jeep-shaped moonwalk for the kids. And it's all free.
While Chrysler wanted the Texas auto writers to visit Camp Jeep, the real reason we were invited was to preview the new Commander, Jeep's biggest-ever SUV. So, there we were, on a sunny Friday morning when the temperature was well on its way to a high in the mid-90s and the heat index was already close to 100, standing around a new Commander, getting an introduction.
Fortunately, the people doing the introductions were also in the heat and kept their speeches short and entertaining. Dan Renkert, senior manager of the Jeep Design Studios, gave us an overview of the concept and development of the design and Tom Bennett, manager of Jeep marketing, told us about the target market and how the Commander was designed to meet its needs.
Pulling no punches, the Commander is designed to appeal to men, especially men with families large enough to limit their transportation choices to one of the school bus-sized rigs from Ford or GM or the dreaded minivan. With a base sticker starting around $28,000 for a two-wheel drive version, it's within the price range of a lot of those guys. For those who want the full treatment, a maxed-out 4X4 with the Hemi V8 will top $40,000.
Following the presentation, we were given a choice of driving a Wrangler on the small off-road simulator course or taking a new, air-conditioned, top-of-the-line Commander Limited out for a spin. I hope the fellow in charge of the Wrangler had thought to bring a book, because everyone headed for the air-conditioning.
There are lots of reviews of the Jeep Commander out there and more will be coming. I haven't yet had a chance to live with it for a few days, so all I can tell you is that my first impression was that Jeep did a good job. For a seven-passenger vehicle, it's relatively compact, being just a couple of inches longer than the Grand Cherokee. I like the fact the Commander is a very capable off-road vehicle doesn't require a ladder to reach the driver's seat. It handles well and the Hemi V8 definitely supplies plenty of get-up-and-go. The seating is refreshingly firm and supportive, a nice contrast to certain some other SUVs, which seem more like driving living room furniture.
Dan Renkert was very big on the stadium-style seating, where each row is positioned slightly higher than the one in front of it and it does improve the view for passengers. However, when I was behind the wheel with all three rows of seat in the full upright position, I was glad I spent a few years driving a truck where one relies on the side mirrors as rear visibility is quite limited. It really needs a backup camera like the one on the Range Rover. Not just to avoid crunching other vehicles when backing up but to reduce the potential for hitting someone who might be unseen behind the vehicle. According to the Center for Disease Control, hospitals treated an average of 2,492 children for backover injuries each year from 2000 to 2003. In 2003 alone, 61 kids were killed, usually by their parents or a family member who couldn't see them.
Okay, enough soapbox. Overall, I thought the new Commander was the best large SUV I have ever driven and I thought Camp Jeep was a great idea.
Fall is around the corner and we're going to be seeing lots of exciting new cars and trucks in the coming year, both in the U.S. and Europe. But what is especially nice is the fact we will be seeing more of them in 1:87 scale than ever, including some new American cars. There are some great projects in the works. More on that after the iHobby Expo show next month.
If you live in San Francisco, California, or Denver, Colorado, you can visit Camp Jeep when it comes to your city. It will roll into San Francisco for the weekend of September 10-12 and hit Denver two weeks later, September 24-25. Find out more at the Camp Jeep website.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.
In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for just-auto.com, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.
He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.
Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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