You might think that you'd at least have to be an automotive enthusiast to work at an automobile manufacturer. Unfortunately, the automobile manufacturing business is no different than many other businesses in America. People who need jobs eventually find them and quite often they have no real deep-down love for what they do. At the end of the day, it's just a paycheck from a somewhat stable company that's close to what they call home. The truth is that many Jeep employees don't go off-road and don't even care that much about automobiles. And to me, that's a sad fact for a company that was built on utilitarian capability and post-war enthusiasm for the brand. Jeep is in the business of keeping its innovative ideas a secret, building the vehicles based on those ideas, and then hoping they can sell them. And for this reason I think that every employee under the Jeep logo should have a clear vision of where the company has been, what it's known for, and what its customers have come to expect. And if your vision produced nothing more than a car with a Jeep logo, like the Compass for example, you'd get transferred to the Chrysler division.
Jeep is not just a visual company-seven slats in the grille, round headlights, angular fender openings, and muscular lines do not make a Jeep. Functionality and capability do. Engineering and robustness should carry the aesthetics, not the other way around.
So if I were at the helm of the Jeep brand there would be some significant changes, although they wouldn't be all that far from what has worked for the company in the past. Jeep enjoyed a steady growth in sales volume of 117,000 vehicles in the 1960s to a peak of 629,000 vehicles in the 1990s. Jeep had become the number-one SUV brand in the world through 1990. By the 2000s, Jeep had lost favor and sales volume decreased to 495,000 units. The U.S. economy hadn't crashed yet, in fact it was booming until only recently. So what happened? I'm sure there were several factors, but past history makes me ponder one possibility. What I find most interesting over the years is how the number of Jeep models available could affect sales performance. In the 1940s there were four different models available, sales volume was at 159,000. By the 1950s volume had dropped off to 119,000 with seven different models available. In the 1960s there were 14 different Jeep models and sales hit a new low of 117,000 units. All through the prosperous years there were fewer than six Jeep models, and at the peak in the 1990s, there were only three Jeep models that survived the decade: the Wrangler, the Cherokee, and the Grand Cherokee (the Comanche and Grand Wagoneer were on their way out in the early 1990s and their numbers didn't account for much anyway). Interestingly enough, during Jeep's greatest sales years, every vehicle offering had solid axles front and rear. Coincidence? By the 2000s Jeep was back up to seven different models, yet the company was rewarded with 134,000 fewer sales. Let's focus on the success of 1990s compared to today.
Basic business principals dictate that if you can sell more units while producing fewer models, your costs will be lower and profits will be greater than if you were to produce twice the number of models and sell fewer units. I'm sure there are some exceptions to this rule, but I prefer to keep it simple. In the 1990s the Wrangler Rubicon hadn't been conceived yet, so the Wrangler, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee all had very similar off-road capability. What was different was the comfort level and amenities each offered. For the nit-picky off-roaders, the Wrangler may have been a little better at tight twisty trails, but the two Unitbodied Jeeps would have been more stable for climbs and at higher speeds. Of course each Jeep was different and catered to a different crowd. If you really wanted a V-8 and all the luxury of a fine SUV, you'd go for a well-optioned Grand. If you simply wanted an inexpensive convertible 4x4, you'd opt for the Wrangler. And if you wanted something kind of in between, you probably found that the Cherokee fit your needs. Each had its own quirks and may not have handled best-in-class on-road, but they were all simple, durable, well-priced vehicles. They were what a Jeep is supposed to be. All three are what I consider to be enthusiast Jeeps, meaning that they could be easily modified for even more performance. Word of mouth went a long way. Jeep owners were and still are a key instrument in selling new Jeeps. This helped the brand build a reputation for durability and capability-a reputation that I believe the company now rides on the coattails of. Today the Jeep brand has been diluted, with vehicles seemingly designed by people who drive cars-not 4x4s or trucks. It's very likely that these individuals rarely spend much (if any) time off-road and certainly not at an enthusiast level. True off-road capability has been replaced with synthetic capability in the form of technology. Things like hill-decent control and brake traction control have replaced low gearing, ground clearance, and working limited-slip differentials. On paper and in a lab environment these new systems might sound great, but in the real world they don't always work out as well as planned. Ultimately I can honestly say I don't understand why anyone would want to damage a brand with such a strong heritage by producing 4x4 cars, especially when these pseudo Jeeps could have just as easily worn a Chrysler or Dodge logo. And what baffles me beyond comprehension is that while the company is literally selling every Wrangler it can build, why come up with other model vehicles that are not at all like it? That's like Willy Wonka deciding to sell toilet paper. It makes no sense!
I'm reasonable; I know that many Jeeps never actually make it off-road, at least with their first owners. I'm not asking for 40-inch tires or to Rubicon-ize everything that rolls off of the assembly line. Jeep needs only four different models and a few derivatives to meet the needs of the majority of its customers. Anyone with needs outside of these four models is not likely to be looking at the Jeep brand anyway and should be able to find what they want in a Dodge or Chrysler vehicle. There should be a Jeep mini SUV, the Wrangler, the Grand Cherokee, a full-sized pickup truck, and a few derivatives of the more popular models.
The Mini Jeep
Over the past 70 years the diminutive early CJ has morphed into the modern day JK Wrangler. Today's Wrangler is much bigger and heavier than those early models and even noticeably larger than the previous generation TJ Wrangler. You can't even get the Wrangler with a four-cylinder anymore. I believe that puts off a lot of potential economy buyers who still want a Wrangler-like vehicle, but demand a four-cylinder engine with good gas mileage. Jeep needs a mini-SUV. And I'm not talking about something with a car chassis, like the current Patriot and Compass offerings or a rebadged Fiat Panda. I'm talking about a real enthusiast Jeep. Something even the lunatic fringe Jeep owners would embrace, because they are actually a big part of the Jeep sales team when you consider the buyers who come to them for vehicle recommendations.
Think Suzuki Samurai. Something with an overall width of 60 inches and a wheelbase of less than 80 inches, maybe even smaller. I wouldn't even mind a Unitbody. The Jeep could have a sub-2.0L four-cylinder engine like the Fiat 1.4L FIRE Multiair engine belting out 100 hp at 6,750 rpm and 75 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 rpm. The Fiat 1.4L would be a monster compared to the 66 hp fuel-injected 1.3L found in the last Samurais built. But if a little more oomph was needed, perhaps the 170 hp turbo version of the Fiat 1.4L Multiair could be employed, although it seems excessive. Anyway, the standard 100 hp Multiair engine would likely muster nearly 30 mpg in the small Jeep. Solid axles front and rear with coil spring suspension and radius arms similar to what is found on the early '90s Range Rovers would provide a simple solid foundation and a decent ride on- and off-road. Extra large wheelwells with 27- to 30-inch-sized tires would allow the mini-Jeep to maintain a low and stable stance. Of course, it will also need a two-speed manually-shifted transfer case. Even better still would be an optional three-speed T-case. There would be very few interior and exterior accoutrements. I'd let Mopar and the other aftermarket companies run wild with the mini Jeep to keep the initial buy-in price low. I think that either a full convertible or a pull-back ragtop is an absolute necessity. Although similar, the mini Jeep wouldn't really steal sales from the two-door Wrangler. It would fill a currently empty niche of high-school and college-age kids looking for a fun convertible 4x4 that gets good gas mileage in the sub-$15,000 category. Then, if the small Jeep takes off in popularity, perhaps some derivatives could be considered-such as a Rubicon model, a four-door, or a small utility truck.
Wrangler and Derivatives
Typically when a company sells all it can manufacture of a particular product, the company finds a way to take advantage of the marketability and offers it in new colors, flavors, and models. Every company producing products ranging from iPods to Star Wars action figures seems to know this, except Jeep. Where did these people go to business school? Whenever I ask about new Wrangler derivatives, I am consistently disappointed when the response is, "Why? We're already selling all the Wranglers we can build." Are the people at Jeep that complacent? If so, I am embarrassed for them. I'll admit, Jeep hit nearly a homerun with the JK Wrangler and the Unlimited four-door. If I were at the helm, I'd keep them both cranking but offer some different powertrain options that many customers have been clamoring for since day one. There should be a limited-edition Hemi V-8 option as well as a diesel in North America. Make it a $3,000 to $5,000 option. Many consumers want the engines badly enough that they often spend nearly half the cost of a Wrangler to have the aftermarket put them in. But what really kills me is that I suspect it's the same marketing people that didn't believe in the Rubicon that don't think Hemi and diesel Wranglers would sell. Here we are seven years and tens of thousands of Rubicon models later and it's still a viable business case, regardless of what they originally believed.
Along with optional powertrains, I'd add some derivatives to the Wrangler line. There would be a strippy version of the Wrangler, as well as an extra-cab pickup. The strippy would come standard with a radio delete plate, minimalistic interior, and only basic features. Rather than having floors covered in carpet, the strippy floors would be sprayed with bedliner right from the factory. I'd also offer the Rubicon components individually with the strippy JK. Want the 4.10 gears, rear locker, and the 4:1 Rock-Trac T-case or just the sway bar disconnect and the rear locker? Or how about a factory three-speed transfer case? We could do that.
In place of the glove box and passenger-side dash in all Wranglers, I'd offer a removable module. Of course the Wrangler would come standard with a glove box module, but it could be easily removed to slide in an optional high-output power inverter, a 12-volt refrigerator, an onboard welder, an air compressor, or an electric stovetop. The modules would simply slide in and out of the dash and a power outlet with a locking mechanism. Each of the different modules would be available at the dealer and no doubt through the aftermarket.
Grand Cherokee Rewind
With the '11 Grand Chero-car already rolling down the assembly line, it would be extremely difficult to put the entire machine in reverse. You can't exactly send a baby like that back.
The new Grand is not an enthusiast Jeep. German automobile manufacturers and consumers see no need for off-road capability. There is no place to drive off-road in Germany. German consumer vehicles are designed with this in mind. Right about now you're wondering why the '11 Grand Cherokee being sold in the U.S. features a German-designed Mercedes M-Class 4x4 chassis and suspension. Good question, I'm wondering the same thing. The next generation of Grand Cherokee would need a redesign.
I think the whole crossover SUV thing is ridiculous. When fuel was inexpensive the traditional car buyers switched to trucks and SUVs in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I believe they are now moving back into cars. It's time to stop making trucks and SUVs carlike and time to start building trucks and SUVs for the traditional truck and SUV buyers.
Don't get me wrong, I like many of the technological advancements that make the '11 Grand Cherokee safer and more capable, but technology can only go so far. Complexity can turn off a lot of potential buyers who would never use all the gizmos to begin with. I mean, come on-do we really need a five-position terrain adjustment knob and ride height control? That's fine and great on a high-end Mercedes SUV, but I don't think the added cost and complexity does much for the consumer's perceived value of a Jeep vehicle. The Grand needs to get back to basics with a little more ground clearance and some electronically-controlled limited-slip differentials front and rear. And ya know what? I want the robust front and rear solid axles back, too. I don't care what Motor Trend or Australian Outback Magazine says about the head-toss a solid front and rear axle causes. The truth of the matter is that more solid axle Grand Cherokees have been sold than IFS models. Pick pretty much any year from 1993 to 2004 and compare solid axle Grand Cherokee sales to IFS Grand sales from 2005 on out. You'll find that the solid axle Jeep numbers are more than double, and in some cases, even triple that of the IFS versions. And what's worse is that the customers who love the Grand Cherokees of the past generally don't think too highly of the new Grand. In my book, that's a failure on Jeep's part that needs to be rectified.
I've always lamented that the Power Wagon was a Ram-branded vehicle. When the Power Wagon was introduced, I didn't mind the Ram brand touting that its truck was the most powerful or that it had the highest tow capacity in its class, but being most capable in its class should have been under the Jeep logo. I don't know who was on watch that day. Whoever it was should have put a kibosh on the Ram Power Wagon and handed it over to the Jeep guys, even if they were only to slap on a seven slot grille and Trail Rated badges. Sorry Ram fans, with Cappa in control the Power Wagon becomes the new Jeep FSJ.