Jeep is killing it these days. This past December saw a whopping 41.7% increase in sales across the brand over the previous year. Jeep is by far Fiat Chrysler’s most profitable division, which is particularly noteworthy since they only make SUVs. Despite my recent technical difficulties, Project MJ has already shown me that what makes a good Jeep also makes a good pickup truck. To expand sales even further, I think a return of the Jeep truck would be a great addition to their fleet.
Chrysler’s acquisition of American Motors in 1987 spelled the end of Jeep trucks. Chrysler already had their own lineup of Dodge trucks, and unlike GM they didn’t want two truck divisions competing with each other. They allowed the recently introduced Comanche to live until the end of its production cycle, then pulled the plug to favor Dodge Dakota sales. There hasn’t been a Jeep truck since.
Since then the compact pickup truck has disappeared in the US. Ford Ranger, Chevy S-10, Dodge Dakota – all gone, as well as their Japanese competition. Even mid-size trucks have all but disappeared, with prices increasing to where, for a few dollars more, you can buy a full size truck. This is America, where bigger is better, right? Not really. It can be a pain to maneuver and park even a smaller full size pickup in urban areas. Traditionally the larger trucks got worse gas mileage, though modern turbo and diesel motors are overcoming this disadvantage. Full size trucks from the three American brands all start in the $26,000 range, but those are for stripped down work trucks built to a price point. You can buy two Ram Tradesman trucks for the starting price of one fully loaded Ram Limited.
A new Jeep truck would give Fiat Chrysler a contender in this currently untapped market. It could just as easily come from Ram, but they seem to be suffering from their recent rebranding after they split off from Dodge, while the Jeep brand alone would sell a whole bunch of these trucks. The Jeep name sells the Compass, for crying out loud, which is just a rebodied, rebadged Dodge Caliber.
This past September, Automotive News reported that a Wrangler based pickup is coming to offset the loss of the KL Cherokee from Jeep’s Toledo, OH plant. However, AN “learned independently” about the pickup, and Fiat Chrysler made no comment on whether this is true or not. They cite no source for this report, despite it being the focal point of the article that many other automotive news outlets picked up on. It sounds more like wishful thinking to me.
But it would make a lot of sense. Back in 2005, Jeep teased at a Wrangler based pickup concept with the Gladiator. More recently, in 2012, they teased the Jeep J12. Both times people drooled over the concepts and begged them to build it, but it never happened. The interest is clearly there, but I think Jeep/FCA has been holding back on bringing back a small truck until they were sure it would be profitable, and not just a bunch of fleet sales to courier companies. They love small trucks. I drove Ford Rangers and Mazda B2300 twins for a courier company for a couple of years.
Speaking of Ford, they’re considering moving Ranger production back to the US. The Ranger never died – they just didn’t sell it here, believing there isn’t enough of a market for it and preferring to boost sales of their full size trucks instead. But now GM offers a smaller truck, so it’s possible that Ford may bring back the Ranger to compete with it. And again, despite many reports that the Ranger is definitely returning, it’s actually far from a done deal. But if Ford does move production here, and considering that it currently has no answer to the Colorado/Canyon, it would make sense to actually sell it here.
So what about
Dodge Ram? Do they bring back the Dakota as an also-ran? Ford’s main argument against selling a smaller truck is that it would take a bite out of F-series sales. They have a good point there, and a new Dakota would do the same to full size Ram sales, which already aren’t tremendous. But FCA has a trick up its sleeve – Jeep. Leave the Ram line alone, introduce a small truck as a Jeep instead, and there is no competition between the brands. They sell different products. Plus there are many people who would buy a Jeep truck over Ram/Ford/GM simply because it’s a Jeep, or who would buy a Jeep truck instead of a Wrangler because it’s a cool alternative.
In their article, Automotive News points out that the Wrangler and Cherokee production lines are almost completely different, since the Cherokee is unibody while the Wrangler is a good old fashioned body-on-frame design. In addition, Jeep can’t afford any down time in Wrangler production to retool the line for the new 2018 model. It would make sense to retool the current Cherokee line for the new Wrangler while continuing JK Wrangler production on the current line until they’re ready to switch. But then what do they do with the JK production line? Retooling it to produce a new Wrangler based pickup wouldn’t be a stretch at all. In fact it would be far more efficient to build it at the same plant as as the Wrangler since they would share many parts. This wouldn’t be the first time this happened in Toledo – the XJ Cherokee and MJ Comanche were both built there.
As much as I’d like to see a new Comanche, I don’t think that would happen. Though both the old XJ and new KL Cherokee are unibody designs, the KL is front wheel drive based, its platform shared with the Dodge Dart and Chrysler 200. Even the four wheel drive systems favor front wheel drive, disconnecting the rear wheels entirely when sending power to them is not required. The KL Cherokee has become a crossover, and is too much like a modern car for a true usable pickup truck to be based on it.
Despite the hype of the more recent J12 concept, I think it would be cheaper and easier if the new truck was identical to the Wrangler from the B-pillar forward, just like the Comanche was the front half of a Cherokee with a pickup bed. Call it the Scrambler, like the CJ8 model. If based on the Wrangler Unlimited, it would have a good sized, usable pickup bed like the Gladiator concept. Unlike the original CJ8, it would be more like the Comanche in that it would be an actual pickup truck that’s usable in the real world. Though it would be cool if FCA decided to emphasize this fact by naming it the Comanche.
The only downside is the price. The current Wrangler starts at $23,895, and the Wrangler Unlimited at $27,695. That’s right around the same as a full size Ram, Ford, or Chevy/GMC truck, which is what killed small trucks in the US in the first place. Is the Jeep brand enough to sell a smaller truck for the same price? It is for some. But will that, plus the simple desire for a small truck, be enough to make a Jeep truck profitable? Or is the Chevy Colorado, starting at a mere $20,995 for an extended cab, a better option? Probably, unless Jeep can bring down the price of their truck close to or below Wrangler territory. How low they go depends on how much Jeep wants to sell a good small truck, or how much they want to sell the Jeep brand.
UPDATE 1/11/2016: CEO Sergio Marchionne confirmed today that a Wrangler pickup will be built alongside the Wrangler at the Toledo plant after the Cherokee departs!