Jeep celebrates 75 years with record growth
In the past 75 years, wars have been fought with Jeep and they’ve been fought over Jeep. The original four-wheel-drive utility vehicle took GIs across Europe in WWII, then was domesticated for sun and toil after the war. It provoked mergers between automakers and has become the brightest star in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles family.
“Jeep is bringing sales,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst at Edmunds.com. “Their focus on smaller SUVs with respected fuel economy hits the sweet spot.”
Jeep sold 1.2 million units last year for 22 percent growth globally and 25 percent domestically; Latin America experienced the largest Jeep growth, 135 percent.
That’s not the entire hillside. According to Automotive News, Jeep increased its load as the best-selling brand within FCA. It totals more than Dodge and Chrysler combined. Acknowledging truth, FCA will drop the Chrysler 200 and Dodge Dart to expand Jeep production.
“Globally, FCA doesn’t use Jeep as much as they should, but has aspirations to make it more of a global brand,” Caldwell added. “Jeep has a lot of brand equity and could expand more.”
Even though the American icon is waving its flag across continents buying into the SUV craze that Jeep helped initiate so long ago, the history of Jeep is a global one.
It all started with one simple little vehicle.
The bugle called in July 1940 for a light reconnaissance vehicle that could carry 600 pounds, run 50 mph, have four-wheel drive and ground clearance of 6.25 inches. American Bantam answered. Concerned American Bantam couldn’t meet demand to deliver a prototype in under two months, the Army also gave contracts to Willys-Overland and Ford. More than 650,000 units were built during World War II.
Willys wasted no time rolling out a “Civilian Jeep” in 1945. It had a four-cylinder engine and solid axles, but was dressed with brighter colors and nicer seats for the mass market.
The larger CJ-5 (1955 to ‘83) and even larger CJ-7 (1976 to ‘87) hit streets and trails until surpassed by the Wrangler, which replaced the CJ series in 1987.
Along the way, Jeep launched pickups such as the Gladiator (1963 to ‘87), a civil servant Dispatcher for the U.S. Postal Service and more luxurious models like the sporty Jeepster (1948 to ‘51) and the first true luxury SUV: the Wagoneer (1963 to ‘91).
During the 1980s, Jeep thrived on suburb-ready SUVs such as the four-door Cherokee, which combined sedan comfort with all-road capability. Baby boomers loved them enough for Chrysler to launch the Grand Cherokee in 1993.
Jeep endured through successive owners, many of whom consumed entire automakers to snag the profit-generating brand. Willys-Overland sold Jeep to ship builder Henry J. Kaiser in 1953. Jeep became part of American Motors in 1970, was purchased by Chrysler in 1987, and has been controlled by DaimlerChrysler, Cerberus Capital, and now FCA.
Under FCA, smaller crossovers such as today’s Renegade and Cherokee have elevated Jeep to new heights.
Yet a look beneath the fenders confirms the brand’s parentage.
Wrangler is the fully framed off-roader it always was. Grand Cherokee shares basic architecture with the Mercedes GLE SUV, developed when Daimler controlled Chrysler. Fiat donated architecture and powertrains for the Cherokee and Renegade subcompact crossover, the latter built in Italy alongside the 500X subcompact crossover. It’s a melting pot of ethnicity, bolstering a broad portfolio.
“Jeep is a good complement with Fiat vehicles,” said Jim Morrison, who was director of the Jeep brand from 2009 until March 1, 2016, when he took over the Ram brand. “The Fiat guys are really good at packaging components and small displacement engines, as demonstrated by Renegade. It’s also an efficient business model.”
Sales are strong despite quality issues that have placed it near the bottom of J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Study. The study highlights real-world experiences of consumers reporting defects after three years of ownership. Issues have ranged from infotainment confusion to transmission failure.
In 2013, Jeep was fourth from the bottom with 178 defects per 100 vehicles. It placed third from bottom with 197 defects in 2015, but improved to 181 for the recent 2016 report.
“We recognize what they’re saying,” Morrison said. “We continue to improve our vehicles and listen to customers. Still, we’ve had six consecutive years of growth.”
Considering rising sales, do ratings matter?
“Jeep is kind of a Teflon brand,” Caldwell said. “It takes criticism, but with record market share, doesn’t really affect them.”