By Bill Griffith, NEMPA
Jeep’s re-engineered Grand Cherokee has won more than 30 awards in the past year, including NEMPA’s Winter Vehicle of 2011. That award was especially meaningful because New England now buys 22 percent of Jeep production, the most for any region in the United States.
“New England is where Jeep lives. It’s all about the weather, and Jeep is ready for all weather,” Brad Pinter, head of Jeep Product Marketing, told NEMPA members on at a dinner event on November 8.
“Jeep is serious about competing in NEMPA’s latest Winter Vehicle competition, so we brought up two Grand Cherokees, three Wranglers and two Compasses for NEMPA members to experience firsthand during the tough New England winter,” said Lisa Barrow, Chrysler’s East Region Communications Manager.
The auto industry is recovering from the economic downturn of the past three years, and among manufacturers Chrysler is making the biggest rebound. In November 2009, Jeep CEO Michael Manley demanded major changes to quality, configurations and styling. The results have been astounding. Jeep sales for the first 10 months of 2011 are up an industry-leading 44 percent over last year. In addition, the brand has moved significantly upmarket, winning over more high-demographic buyers for the Grand Cherokee and also the Wrangler Unlimited.
“We’re seeing new customers to the brand and the Grand Cherokee has emerged as a true American luxury SUV,” said Pinter.
The entry-level Compass model, once dismissed as a “Jeep wannabe,” is now also poised to make new headway in the market. The Manley-mandated changes include a new front clip, with grille and projector headlamps that give it an unmistakable family resemblance to the Grand Cherokee. The Compass interior was also refreshed and upgraded with better ergonomics and a high-quality steering wheel (the part of the vehicle we touch most). Perhaps even more important, the Compass is now Trail Rated–Jeep’s term for vehicles that meet its off-road standards. This came with the addition of an optional transmission with a crawler gear that lets it go where “softer” AWD vehicles can’t.
“The Compass is going to be a winter must-try,” said Pinter, especially as it carries a price tag only half that of the Grand Cherokee.
Other major changes in the Jeep lineup:
Wrangler–The iconic “little vehicle that can” remains the carrier of the brand DNA at Jeep. Last year it got a more refined interior; this year it gets Chrysler’s new Pentastar V-6, the same one that’s the base engine in the Grand Cherokee “It gets 21 miles per gallon and has 40 percent more horsepower [than the previous engine],” said Pinter. The Wrangler is as much fun as ever to drive and distinctly more refined-relatively speaking-on pavement.
Wrangler Unlimited–Introduced in 2007, the larger, more upscale Unlimited now accounts for 60 percent of Wrangler sales. “A lot of people who had Wranglers before they had families are coming back to the brand and using the Unlimited as a family vehicle,” said Pinter. Thanks to its longer wheelbase and more powerful V-6 engine, the Unlimited is more comfortable and capable on the road as well as more fuel-efficient.
Grand Cherokee–Since the newly refined Grand Cherokee exploded (marketing-wise) onto the scene a year ago, GC sales are up 59 percent. “This has enabled us to reclaim the premium SUV market,” said Pinter, “and we’re competing successfully for folks who’ve been buying the BMW X5, Acura MDX, or Lexus RX350.” However, he admitted that Jeep made one mistake: Underestimating the demand for the top-of-the-line Overland edition. For 2012 Jeep is making amends with a new, fully loaded Summit variation of the Overland, with an MSRP of approximately $46,000. Engine options are a 3.6-liter V-6 or a 5.7-liter V-8, with a high-performance SRT-8 version just around the corner.
Jeep’s tremendous gains in a still-soft market are just one indication of parent company Chrysler’s rebound. Another, according to Pinter, is that Consumer Reports ranked Chrysler as the most reliable domestic brand for 2011.