A sepia-toned Viagra TV commercial is rolling in perfect timing with my thoughts as I write this. It's the spot with the cowboy pulling a horse trailer out of the mud, all by his lonesome. And I've also found myself toying with the idea of firing up a Marlboro. After all, I'm writing about the Chrysler Group's Jeep brand.
Like the Viagra ads of today, and as the Marlboro Man spots did way back in the day, Jeep is appealing to the deepest, most powerful drivers of the American psyche. Americans like to believe they possess qualities that set them apart – that they are rugged, and tough, and individualistic, and resourceful, capable, straightforward and indomitable. I know this first-hand because I grew up in California and there I was taught the apparently self-evident truths of American exceptionalism. Skilled and even earnest myth-making are at the heart of the country's Manifest Destiny vision for itself (yes, it was capitalized in school).
Jeep, then, is the most American of Detroit's car brands. It speaks directly to what Americans most like and admire about themselves, believe to be true about themselves. This is why Jeep is going to be the biggest driver of Chrysler's turnaround under Fiat SpA. The Ram pickups and such matter. Dodge is totally mainstream and holds great potential with the masses. And the Chrysler brand may one day achieve status as a true premium player. But Jeep is just so American.
Truth is, for decades, Chrysler has been desperate to tap a motherlode of Jeep potential. The former German ownership of Daimler never got the formula correct. But under British and Italian-Canadian leadership, the most American of car brands is on the cusp of becoming a global force.
The man who led Jeep to record sales last year is CEO Michael Manley, an Englishman from Edenbridge, United Kingdom. He started his career in English car dealerships in the 1980s and now he's overseeing Jeep of all things. Meanwhile, the Chrysler and Fiat CEO is Sergio Marchionne, an Italian who was educated in Canada. As Chrysler insiders say, nothing matters more to both than the value of the Jeep brand. It's a potential gold mine with global possibilities for outsized profits, especially in China where Jeep will push ahead with big plans for local manufacturing and sales.
This year, Jeep begins in earnest a complete overhaul and expansion of its lineup.
A revamped 2014 Grand Cherokee is coming in a few weeks and so is an all-new Cherokee, this one built on a platform shared with the Dodge Dart. The Cherokee will have, among other things, a 3.2-litre V-6, a nine-speed transmission and, most daring of all, bold and perhaps even polarizing styling.
As the months unfold into the years ahead, Jeep is set to expand its model offerings with a new small and large SUV, too. Just-auto.com reports that Jeep is planning a new subcompact model for perhaps 2014 and a big, premium SUV using the Grand Wagoneer name is coming.
Subcompact or B-sized SUVs represent a fast-growing segment all around the world, Manley told the insider publication. Jeep needs a B-sized SUV to meet lower weight and emissions targets.
At the rich end of things, the Grand Wagoneer is expected to arrive in 2014 or 2015. It could become a big seller not just in North America, but also in the Middle East and other markets such as Russia. Manley told just-auto.com that the Grand Wagoneer will compete with "the best in terms of engines, ride and handling as well as interiors." That suggests the likes of the Mercedes-Benz GL, for one.
The long-term goal, Manley told Automotive News, is to make Jeep "the No. 1 SUV brand in the world." And not just in sales, but in image and scope and capability and, of course, profitability.
The Wrangler will remain the heart and soul of the brand. It looks as tough as ever, but a newly refined interior and the new Pentastar V-6 engine has made the Wrangler – and its Unlimited four-door cousin introduced in 2007 – comfortable and capable. The Wrangler Unlimited has done wonders, accounting for 60 per cent of Wrangler sales and bringing in all sorts of new customers.
Meanwhile, the Grand Cherokee's move upscale continues. The first thing Chrysler did after emerging from bankruptcy in 2009 was to introduce a fourth-generation model in 2010 as a 2011 model. It's been a smash. To maintain momentum, Jeep is giving the 2014 Grand Cherokee a makeover, one that falls just short of a complete overhaul.
The updated Grand Cherokee will be equipped with an eight-speed transmission and an optional 3.0-litre diesel engine, not to mention big improvements to the interior and the exterior. The goal is to position the Grand Cherokee as a legitimate and far less expensive alternative to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz ML and Land Rover's LR4.
Jeep's product plan hasn't abandoned the lower end of the market, either. Earlier this year, Jeep unveiled updated versions of the 2014 Compass and Patriot compact crossovers. Thankfully, Jeep is scrapping the continuously variable transmission that customers complained about and certainly had no place in a rugged SUV, or even one with just a rugged SUV image. Instead, both models will get a new six-speed automatic.
The cabin upgrades are aimed at edging the Compass and Patriot towards the Grand Cherokee. That means better materials, new colour schemes, seat-mounted side airbags and more sound deadening.
Then then there's the new 2014 Cherokee, which was unveiled just before Easter at the New York auto show. The first Fiat-based Jeep – but most certainly not the last – will be available with front-wheel-drive, but a rugged four-wheel-drive system will give it the legs for wicked off-roading. It will also be available with all sorts of customer conveniences, including automatic parking and an 8.4-inch centre-stack screen.
Just as important, says Chrysler Canada president and CEO Reid Bigland, the new Cherokee has been engineered to deliver a whopping 45 per cent improvement in fuel economy over the Jeep Liberty it replaces.
Jeep's global sales hit a record 701,626 units last year, up from the previous benchmark of 675,494 set in 1999. The Chrysler Group's five-year plan laid out in late 2009 calls for Jeep sales to reach 800,000 units globally by 2014 – the largest single chunk of the 2.8 million in sales Chrysler is aiming for next year. As sales increase and the lineup expands, however, the biggest challenge will be to maintain Jeep's core emotional appeal in an era of crazy growth.
Here's a little advice about how to maintain Jeep's integrity and it boils down to the one question Chrysler's brain trust should ask with each decision: Would the iconic and mythical Marlboro/Viagra Man approve?