Tucson, Arizona — Maybe the corporate name for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles should be Jeep Ram Automobiles.
The SUV revolution has utterly upended the Fiat Chrysler establishment. Once a niche four-wheeler brand, Jeep has ridden the ute wave to become Fiat Chrysler’s dominant big-volume brand. Chrysler, along with its sister-nameplate Dodge, and Fiat — mainstream brands that built their reputations on sedans — almost have become footnotes in company sales.
Combined with Ram, which has surged to a 21 percent share of America’s perennially strong pickup market, Jeep is the Auburn Hills-based automaker’s foundation stone. Like GMC and Buick at crosstown rival General Motors, Jeep is emerging as the SUV heavyweight in a new American vehicle landscape.
“We were a niche brand just a few years ago,” remembers veteran Jeep designer Mark Allen, who introduced an all-new, more refined version of Jeep’s iconic Wrangler off-road warrior to media here this week.
Once known primarily for the World War II descendent Wrangler, Jeep has grown into a full-line ute-maker not unlike Dodge’s car lineup at the turn of the 21st century. Jeep boasts subcompacts, compacts and midsize segment vehicles — except they are all SUVs, not sedans.
The brand’s growth in the last 25 years has been meteoric according to WardsAuto figures. In 1992 Jeep sold 268,724 cars in the U.S. In 2016 it sold 926,376. While not yet in the league of megabrands like Ford and Chevy which sell over 2 million vehicles a year, Jeep has big ambitions.
“Could Jeep be a megabrand? I think they know the sky is the limit,” says Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “The world has rotated in their direction.”
Chrysler-Dodge sales, by contrast, have stagnated. Their numbers in 2016 (720,830) virtually are the same as in 1992 (710,707). Pickup-maker Ram, on the other hand, has nearly doubled its sales from 291,173 to 545,851 as its bold face and smooth-riding, coil-spring rear suspension — unique in the segment — has been embraced by buyers.
Jeep took advantage of what in retrospect seems a natural birthright to all-wheel-drive ute dominance.
Born in 1941 as the U.S. military’s primary four-wheel drive war vehicle, Willys Jeep went into commercial production after the war and grew steadily as outdoors enthusiasts embraced offspring like the CJ — and ultimately, Wrangler. When Chrysler purchased the nameplate from American Motors in 1987, it continued AMC’s push into five-door family vehicles like the Cherokee.
“The SUV market began to take off with the introduction of the Jeep Cherokee in 1984, the first four-door sport utility really designed for families,” said “High and Mighty” author and New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher in a 2002 interview. “Very stringent government regulations were keeping (Detroit) from making (their biggest, profitable models), by requiring them to meet very high fuel economy standards for cars.”
Continued Bradsher: “The bright idea that people at American Motors and Chrysler had was to start building more vehicles that could be classified as light trucks. That meant that they had to meet much more lenient fuel economy standards, so they could have the gas-guzzling engines that many Americans liked.”
Ford, Chevrolet and others followed with their own SUVs. Under its ownership of Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep from 1998-2007, Daimler-Benz increased Jeep sales to some 475,000 units with three models in addition to Wrangler.
But it was Fiat’s purchase of Chrysler out of government-led bankruptcy in 2009 that supercharged Jeep. Ironically, the Obama administration encouraged the Fiat merger in the hopes the Italian carmaker would introduce more 40-mile-per-gallon Chrysler cars. But Fiat products have struggled in the U.S. market and the promised fuel-efficient autos never materialized.
Instead, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne and Jeep boss Mike Manley unlocked the enormous potential of Jeep SUVs. Other Detroit makes like truck-bred GMC and sedan-builder Buick have reinvented themselves as SUV brands to kick-start sales.
But no one has benefited from the rush to utes like Jeep. “I think when Marchionne bought Chrysler it was all about Jeep,” says KBB’s Brauer. “He saw it as a real prize.”
From a Great Recession nadir of 231,701 units in 2009, Jeep sales have increased four-fold as management invested in the brand as a full-line SUV-maker, re-asserted the Wrangler as icon, and added three new models: the (reborn) Cherokee, compact Compass and subcompact Renegade. Sales bloomed.
“It would have been hard to predict (the market) would shift this quickly this fast, but without FCA’s vision and products we wouldn’t be in this position,” Scott Tallon, Jeep marketing chief, said in Tucson this week.
U.S. sales are just part of the story. Jeep is surfing the SUV wave rolling across the globe to Europe, South America and China. Not only is the ute-maker now Fiat Chrysler’s sales leader, it is arguably Chrysler’s first international brand.
International sales in 2016 were nearly 500,000 units (for a global total of 1.4 million) and Jeep has grown from four plants in one country (the U.S.) in 2009 to 10 plants in six countries this year. The Jeep Compass alone is made in four countries, the Renegade in three.
With SUVs generally selling at $2,000 more than equivalent sedans and Ram pickups playing in one of the industry’s most profitable segments, Fiat Chrysler’s sales-toppers are money machines. And more utes are coming with Jeep expected to show a three-row Wagoneer for 2019.
“There’s been a shift in the marketplace,” says Tallon. “The timing could not have been better.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.