Jeep CEO remains 'big fan' of a Jeep pickup

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News
The Jeep J-12 concept was produced for the annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari off-roading event in 2012

The idea of a Jeep pickup has tantalized fans of the off-road brand since the Comanche pickup was discontinued more than two decades ago.

Jeep in recent years has played with the idea of a Jeep pickup through concept models. The most well-known are the Jeep J-12 produced for the annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari off-roading event in 2012, and the Jeep Gladiator based on the Jeep Wrangler platform that debuted at the 2005 Detroit auto show.

"I remain a big fan of a Jeep pickup," Jeep CEO and President Mike Manley told The Detroit News earlier this year. "I think we have history that says it belongs in our portfolio."

But just because a Jeep pickup seems like a great idea on paper, Manley stresses it doesn't mean it will come to fruition anytime soon.

"At this moment and time, I have higher priorities. That doesn't mean to say that we don't work on it, we're not looking at it," said Manley, adding he had "nothing further to add than that."

A Jeep pickup is not part of Fiat Chrysler Automobile's plan through 2018, but now seems as good a time as ever to resurrect the idea for the next five-year plan: Jeep SUVs and Ram pickups are selling at record rates, and development of the next-generation Wrangler — a possible base for a small pickup — is underway for 2017.

The Jeep J-12 concept was produced for the annual Moab Easter Jeep Safari off-roading event in 2012

"How many SUVs can you make? They're running out of space within their own lineup to generate sales with new product," said IHS Automotive senior analyst Stephanie Brinley. "The only one that makes sense is a small/compact pickup truck."

Jeep pickups date to the 1940s with Willys-Overland Motors, the original American auto company that designed and built the first World War II military Jeeps. The last production model was the Comanche; only about 197,000 were sold from 1986-92.

Creating a successful Jeep pickup is not as easy as throwing a Wrangler body onto a Ram pickup frame or re-badging a Ram 1500 as a Jeep. Of the automaker's current plants that make sense for a Jeep pickup, all are at or near capacity. It would possibly mean substantial investments and significant changes in the automaker's current operations.

Warren Truck Assembly already is running six days a week with a voluntary Sunday workforce to produce enough Ram 1500s. A Jeep based off the Ram full-size pickup would lower supplies of the highly profitable vehicle — an unlikely option.

Basing the vehicle off the platform of the Dodge Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs also is feasible. But Jefferson North Assembly in Detroit is running at least six days a week to meet production demands. While the Durango and Grand Cherokee have comparable lengths and wheelbases to some midsize pickups on the market, their construction isn't the traditional body-on-frame process used for most pickups and off-road vehicles.

That ultimately leaves the next-generation Wrangler as the best current option for a Jeep pickup. It would satisfy Jeep off-road enthusiasts and stay true to the brand's heritage, which Manley has prided his team on doing.

"It could fit with Jeep's DNA better than a lot of other products could," Brinley said. "Jeep is not likely to ever be a sedan."

Analysts speculate a Wrangler pickup could be based on the next-generation Wrangler. It would likely be close to or smaller than crosstown rival General Motors Co.'s smallest 2015 midsize Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. Having a smaller truck solves another product concern: It wouldn't be in-company competition against the Ram 1500 — a business transgression in the eyes of Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

Like Fiat Chrysler's other truck and SUV plants, Toledo Assembly Complex, home of the Wrangler, is having trouble meeting demand. But unlike the other plants, a solution may be in the works in Ohio, where city and state officials are purchasing land and preparing incentives to keep production of the next generation Wrangler in Toledo.

Part of the plan involves more than 100 acres adjacent to Toledo Assembly Complex. It's speculated that Fiat Chrysler could expand its current plant with a flexible body-on-frame line or lines that could increase Wrangler production — and possibly make room for a pickup.

"It's feasible and it wouldn't be as much as an entire plant as far as an investment goes," said Jeff Schuster, LMC Automotive senior vice president of forecasting.

Fiat Chrysler has declined to comment on the city's land purchases, which came after Marchionne said significant enhancements to the next-generation Wrangler — including a possible aluminum body — would likely lead to production leaving its home in Toledo, where the first World War II Jeeps were made.

"If they decided that this product was something that they needed, there's ways in the system to make it happen," Brinley said. "The question is, is it worth the investment and will they get the volume out of that?"

Brinley stressed the most important thing for Fiat Chrysler right now is to focus on development and production of the next-generation, highly profitable Wrangler before assessing the feasibility of a Jeep pickup.

Whether Jeep brings a pickup to market, the Gladiator concept, above, remains an alluring idea 10 years after its Detroit auto show debut.

In 2014, Jeep marked its third consecutive year of record global sales by selling more than 1 million vehicles for the first time in the brand's history. Wranglers accounted for 23 percent of sales. Fiat Chrysler's Mopar brand currently offers a JK-8 pickup conversion kit for $6,150 that can transform a four-door Wrangler into a two-door, two-seat small pickup; it is on back order. Mopar has sold more than 800 kits since their debut in 2011.

Whether Jeep brings a pickup to market, the Gladiator concept remains an alluring idea a decade after its debut.

"If they could revive the Jeep Gladiator by snapping their fingers, they would," said Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer. "There's no doubt in my mind if they could revive that vehicle … it would have a market."

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