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July 2011 Column Shift Editorial

Posted in Features on July 1, 2011
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As you probably know, we recently awarded the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee our coveted Four Wheeler of the Year award. It was a tight test, but in the end, it was deserving of the title. Yet, we still hear the same tired complaint from many of our readers: “Jeep is going soft.”

We get it—the Grand Cherokee has moved away from its ZJ roots, and not every Jeep model can take on the Rubicon. With products released in the last few years, such as the Compass and Patriot, as well as a newly all-independent Grand, we can see that there is basis in the grievance.

But I am okay with the Jeep brand expanding with models beyond the traditional solid-axled trail thumpers. Why? Because the Wrangler now offers a four-door model, in effect replacing the hole in its lineup that opened up when the Grand went upscale. And upscale or not, the Grand still has the chops to wheel and it is comfortable to boot.

The whole thing reminds me of what Porsche went through when it introduced the Cayenne SUV in 2003. The purists said it would water down the brand and cause Porsche to lose credibility. Now, almost a decade later, the Cayenne is Porsche’s most profitable and highest-volume model. It is a huge part in bringing in the funds to continually reinvest in R&D and develop new products, such as the Panamera, and more importantly newer and better 911s. And I don’t see the purists complaining about that.

In my mind, not all Jeeps need to be Trail Rated, as long as they remain the most capable vehicles in their respective classes. Small, more fuel-efficient Jeeps help the brand’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy and give customers options for those who want to remain in the Jeep family, but don’t have a need to wheel. The bottom line is that as long as the Wrangler continues on as the hardcore, solid-axle icon of the brand, I am fine with them offering vehicles that are less capable.

In this day and age of overregulation and political correctness, it is amazing we still have a vehicle like the Wrangler. Imagine that the Wrangler didn’t exist and you were asked to develop a brand new vehicle for 2011. It would have to be a solid-axle 4x4 with a convertible top, removable doors, and a fold down windshield. It would have front and rear lockers, knobby tires, and a 4.0:1 transfer case. It would have to be capable enough to conquer some of the toughest trails in the world, but friendly enough to drive on the highway every day. It would also have to meet all current safety regulations, with a full compliment of air bags and pass a crash test. Let’s face it—if someone asked you to build that vehicle, you’d think they were crazy.

But the Wrangler is real and it isn’t crazy at all. It is the Jeep that defies politics, puts smiles on the faces of children, and has saved the brand more than once. Unlike retro-styled vehicles that are brought back from time to time, the Wrangler is a direct descendant of the original flatfender. It is even more popular than numerous mainstream vehicles, despite the fact that many of its owners didn’t purchase it based on a need for its niche capability.

Jeep hasn’t gone soft at all—it is growing up and being responsible in a time of direct criticism focused on the auto industry, and in doing so has secured its continued existence. This is great for enthusiasts like us, because while other automakers are abandoning our favorite pastime, it is Jeep that continues to make enthusiast-focused vehicles like the Wrangler. These guys are sticking by us, and you won’t see me lamenting about that.

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