“You bought a Jeep?” was one of the brand’s most successful ad campaigns in Australia. It achieved rare ‘cut-through’ among all the SUV advertising, and lifted Jeep sales at a time when they were on a plateau.
Then, a new CEO for FIAT CHRYSLER AUSTRALIA, personifying the worst elements of: “I’m from head office, and I’m here to help” said the campaign demeaned the Jeep brand, and stopped it. Plus, I might add, the current improvement in Jeep sales. They've never really recovered to a ‘robust’ number, since that decision by the now-departed CEO Steve Zanlunghi.
In a typical Australian, no bullshit fashion, the campaign took a phrase that may have been commonly used by friends and family, disbelieving that the prime subject had chosen a Jeep over competing SUVs, despite recalls, product failures and its image as a crude piece of product engineering.
Voilà, it worked. Jeep sales went on the upswing, but of late the old pendulum has swung back to the south.
Although it isn’t consistent with my general opinion of SUVs (‘Yuk’ x 2) I climbed up behind the wheel of one of Jeep’s most iconic models, the Wrangler.
The outside flanks are adorned with badges and decals highlighting Jeep’s rugged, outdoor image, whilst the inside is quite a tasteful treatment, but you never get the feeling you could ‘hose out the interior’ as you would with a Land Rover Defender. It looks like Jeep is having a punt both ways – even leather-faced seats and a proper audio system!
The Wrangler isn’t really as authentic as Jeep would have you believe, because in the marketplace it simply had to compete with SUVs which were both competent off-road and reasonably comfortable inside too.
We bounded up and over a short off-road course, and the huge Dueller tyres worked well when scrambling for traction.
When we appeared in front of a group of owners of various Fords and Chevys in a bush clearing they gave the thumbs up when they spotted the badge and Jeep's seven-barred trademark grille. You can't mistake a Jeep for anything else.
But back to the sales performance. In Australia this year, it’s pretty horrible.
Down Under, the arse has fallen out of Renegade and Compass sales, and the Cherokee is down about 30%.
In the USA only Grand Cherokee and Gladiator (below) are holding up the side. Mind you, Grand Cherokee is very civilised, considering it's the platform on which the Mercedes-Benz MLA is based - no complaints there.
In the USA, it’s serious. Jeep’s market share is behaving like a see-saw. Normally, about 4%-5%, Jeep has resorted to spending more dollars than it wants to on marketing, to bolster sales. Adding to marketing costs depletes profits – it’s a clear case of Yin and Yang.
Jeep’s PR machine wound itself up to full-volume over the past 20 years plugging Jeep’s connections to one of America’s most iconic off-road hotspots – the Rubicon Trail. However, it seems like the gentrification of the SUV means that Jeep is in a sort of no-man’s land – not quite the Rubicon Trail, maybe headed for a cul-de-sac.
So, following the Groupe PSA-Fiat Chrysler Automobiles merger(?), with the French company adding the famous Jeep brand to its catalogue, you’d have to ask, has Jeep got a future, or will it just become a carbuncle on PSA’s portfolio?
The ONLY place you can guarantee to sell Jeeps in any numbers, and the numbers are shaky right now, is the good ‘ole USA. European buyers have more product to choose from than at any time, and given the level of competition, European SUVs, led by Land Rover, are as competent as Jeep, more comfortable and represent more sophisticated product engineering and finish. Anyway, who really goes off-road these days?
Plus, the compeitiors have more money to spend on development and refinement. Jeep is the ONLY division of FCA in the USA which brings in decent returns, and thus the US corporation is absolutely dependent on growing Jeep’s sales NOW! Plus, right now, FCA is struggling for cash!
So, is the Wrangler a civilised Jeep? Surprisingly, yes. The ride around town is quite acceptable, the interior finish is of a high standard, with tight trim margins and good quality materials. And, I'm reminded about that great response to excessive tyre noise - "that's what the stereo is for."
Off-road, it was much as you expect, although on a couple of serious terrain differences, the rear hatch sprung open a couple of times due to torsional twisting of the upper structure. Also, when you fold down the rear seat, there’s no restraining mechanism, so every time you traverse a serious bump, the back seat rises and falls with a bloody great thump!
Oh, well – you can’t have everything – especially when you ‘bought a Jeep’.
Maybe the answer is provided by saxophinist Ben Webster: