MOAB, Utah—First things first: This cliff-climbing battery-electric Jeep concept vehicle is not headed for production, despite the hopes of many Jeep fans assembled in Moab, Utah, for this year’s Jeep Easter Safari. The Magneto is an open-book or life-sized laboratory into the mind of Jeep and the brand’s future.
The company has already begun to embrace the future of battery-electric propulsion, and actually, the Wrangler 4xe is the best-selling plug-in hybrid in America. In fact, Jeep showed its first iteration of the Magneto last year, though with a simple drivetrain of just 285 hp (213 kW). Jeep has rapidly awakened to a variety of uses and iterations of battery-electric power to the extent that five of the seven concept vehicles it has recently shown to the press and public use electric propulsion. And the zenith of all this is the Magneto 2.0. And we’ve driven it.
The Magneto began life as a regular Wrangler, but Jeep lengthened the wheelbase 12 inches (305 mm) and fitted huge 40-inch-tall tires mounted to 20-inch wheels. Huge differentials supported by heavily beefed-up suspension bits live underneath, while a throwback bikini top and an early ’60s SoCal custom-ish paint scheme keep the visuals fun.
The Magneto starts from a button, as does any electric vehicle. From the passenger seat, Jim Morrison, Jeep senior VP and head of Jeep for North America, suggests using both the brake and clutch on start-up just in case. A big ol’ cue-ball manual shifter sits between the seats, right next to the familiar transfer case selector for 2WD and both low- and high-range 4WD operation. Since the manual transmission is redundant, you select a gear appropriate for the road ahead—or lack of road—and step off from rest tipping into the throttle as would be normal in a conventional BEV. With a faint EV whir and lots of steering angle dialed in, the slight slip and chirp of tires at the business end of locked hubs made for a combination of two separate sounds rarely, if ever, heard before.
For off-roading, traction and control of speed is best in lower gears, and therein lies the crux of this powertrain combination. For a pure road-going BEV, a manual gearbox behind an electric motor would be, for all intents and purposes, kinda silly. Not much upside to that equation. But in the off-roading environment where crawling is crucial, be it over boulders, through mud, or anywhere else that requires extremely fine, rheostat-like control over power and throttle, gear reduction and control of pace is paramount, regardless of propulsion type. It is also a way to provide far greater control over descending hills with poor traction. In fact, Jeep has programmed the motor’s regeneration to the extent that it required a cracked throttle to descend hills, even hugely steep ones. That’s an elegant engineering solution to the whole hill-descent control question when applied to ICE-powered off-roaders using throttle and brake intervention.
The Magneto dispenses with the steps, the inclines, and the obstacles in Jeep’s controlled off-roading course setup in the Moab Desert with only one glitch. The transfer case popped out of gear twice, interrupting power delivery twice, which was no fault of the electric powertrain, nor even the manual transmission.
Looking at the basic specs of the Magneto, there’s an axial flux electric motor (hold the capacitor) that spins up to 5,250 rpm. Four lithium-ion battery packs generating a total of 70 kWh (running at 800 V) sit in the middle and the rear of the vehicle to distribute weight as evenly as possible within the truck’s overall packaging. Also, an inverter borrowed from hybrid race cars converts the DC power to AC for the new motor. A peak of 600 A for up to 10 seconds helps enable output of 850 lb-ft (1,152 Nm) of torque and post a 0-60 sprint on tarmac in just 2.0 seconds.
While the Magneto will never see production, it does open up two whole new ideas in off-roading. First, the manual transmission as gear-multiplier behind an electric motor. Second—and an even greater revelation—the potential silence of electric off-roading.