Payne: Q&Auto: Jeep guru learned the legend young

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
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Jeep marketing guru Jim Morrison got his first snoot-full of Jeep lore at the age of seven. In Canada. From his best friend's grandmother.

"It's out in the truck," he told grams, trying to help her locate a lost item. She took him aside.

"Jim, it's not a truck. It's a Jeep."

Forty years later, Morrison (no, he never sang with The Doors) is marketing the Jeep legend to the world. "From that day on I could see . . . how it was different from everything else out there," he says. "Having that little piece of me has helped make me part of this brand."

Formed in the crucible of World War 2, Jeeps are the Coca-Cola of SUVs. The Jeep Wrangler popularized the American SUV. The Grand Cherokee redefined the ute as rugged and sophisticated. And now Jeep wants to conquer the world with the Italian-made, compact Renegade. Leading the charge is Morrison, a 22-year Chrysler veteran who almost became a dentist (saved by an ornery professor whose low test grade kept him out of dental school).

Morrison has never looked back. On a Renegade-thrashing test drive in California's Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area (a playground for off-roaders. Love it), I talked with the soft-spoken Canuck about Renegades, Willys, and skiing.

Q: You were a competitive skier as a youth. You lived in Jeeps?

Morrison: Growing up on the East Coast of Canada, I was exposed to Jeeps early in my life. It was the only way you could get to the ski hill on time. Or get somewhere safely. Or even get out of your driveway. Where I come from, 1- or 2-foot snowfalls weren't uncommon.

Q: What is it about Jeep that buyers cross-shop with upscale brands like BMW and Audi?

Morrison: Jeep Grand Cherokee, in particular, has done a really good job articulating what the brand means: Freedom, adventure, and an enabler for all kinds of journeys and lifestyles. At the same time, we've added quality and luxury that customers at that level expect. The new Summit (Ed. Note: top of the line, $49k Grand Cherokee), for example, (has a) real, hand-stitched leather dash, real wood on the console and steering wheel. (All) wrapped in a brand that means that this is somebody who likes luxury but they also understands capability. They can go places that you might not be able to in another vehicle.

Q: Where does that rugged Jeep DNA come from?

Morrison: It goes all the way back to the Jeep heritage with the Willys-Overland in 1941 and it's ... stayed true to form over the years. Particularly given that vehicles have been purpose built over time and really have delivered on the promise of capability. (With) the current generation of Jeep vehicles, we've (made) that available to people as a no compromise choice.

Q: Wrangler and Grand Cherokee defined the SUV. But Cherokee was a late-comer to the C segment. Do you see the Renegade as a pioneer in the new, compact B segment?

Morrison: That's certainly the intent. (It's) good to be in at the ground level and to help to define for America what this small SUV category is all about. It's going to be fun to see how the segment develops over the next few years. I think it's going to be very fast moving.

Q: Who is going to buy Jeep Renegade? Youngsters bypassing subcompact cars?

Morrison: There are so many people it can appeal to. It can appeal to those already in that segment. Or to people who are buying midsize cars (who) can get the same kind of cargo capacity in a Renegade. It has the flexible seats that fold flat. It will attract people who need that space to live every day, but also need fuel economy and great parking capability. All wrapped in a package they can offer 4x4 capability if they don't want to get stuck in the snow. People are stuck in cars today because there was no crossover utility option with AWD.

Q: What does that mean for the Jeep brand internationally?

Morrison: Renegade's a great opportunity for Jeep brand to grow globally. Proudly designed and engineered here in America and crafted in Italy. The team is incredibly good at packaging small and efficient stuff.

Q: Renegade is made in Italy. Is Europe the target market outside the U.S.?

Morrison: There will be niches where this vehicle will take off all over the world.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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