The clock is ticking because concept vehicles have a short shelf life.

“It's not open-ended because there is a time when you can utilize the buzz generated by a concept,” Eberhardt tells Ward's. “We need to make a decision in the next couple of months.”

Chrysler has poured considerable money and resources into building the Jeep brand with targeted marketing strategies and the introduction of a broader variety of products.

Jeep Gladiator concept


Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8

It is paying off. Through September, Jeep sales in the U.S. rose 10%. And through the first half of the year, Jeep sales comprised almost 43% of Chrysler Group total sales outside North America.

Adding the Gladiator to the mix would, within a few years, bring to at least nine the number of models in the Jeep lineup, counting the high-performance SRT-8 version of the '06 Grand Cherokee and a pair of “soft-roaders” that debuted as concept vehicles at the recent Frankfurt auto show. (See related story: Jeep Tries FWD, Caliber Gets List of Firsts)

The Jeep Compass and Patriot, small cross/utility vehicles powered by inline 4-cyl. engines, are expected to get the green light for assembly at Chrysler's Belvidere assembly plant alongside the Dodge Caliber. All stem from the same architecture, developed in partnership with Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

The more urban front-wheel-drive (with optional 4-wheel-drive) vehicles represent a departure from Jeep's roots as rear-wheel-drive off-road vehicles.

The Compass and Patriot are designed to be daily drivers, but with the added dimension of Jeep toughness.

Chrysler has not officially announced production of the new Jeep CUVs, but if plans go ahead, the auto maker will offer “Trail-Rated” versions that feature enhanced capability, Eberhardt says in an interview here at the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show.

“They will be more capable than other offerings in their segment, but certainly not as capable as the Wrangler,” he adds, referring to the brand's rugged base vehicle that is primed for replacement.

Gladiator would continue Jeep's expansion beyond the traditional SUV.

“It would be a marketing guy's dream, that's for sure,” Eberhardt says.

The concept, which debuted in Detroit at the 2005 North American International Auto Show, features all of Jeep's iconic cues – the boxy profile, round headlamps and slotted grille – with the addition of a cargo bed that can be expanded from the standard 680 ins. (173 cm), to 107 ins. (272 cm) with the midgate and tailgate folded down.

The market features several pickups with off-road capability, Eberhardt concedes.

“What would be new is a more lifestyle-oriented pickup that's off-road capable. It certainly could not be a full work truck.”

The Gladiator would appeal to “weekend warriors” who use their pickups to commute from Monday to Friday but need the cargo bed to carry kayaks or haul the occasional load of drywall.

“It is in its final discussions right now to see whether we can make a viable business case,” Eberhardt says.

Critical to those discussions is anticipating the market niches where Jeep can best compete.

“The reason why we're not decided is the question of how many niches can you go after profitably?” he says. “We need to be sure that whatever we do is profitable from the outset.”

This process can take some of the fun out of product development, he admits. “Sometimes you've got to take your emotions and put them in your back pocket for awhile. It's even more fun when you have something that actually makes money in the marketplace.”

Chrysler believes it has a winner in the SRT-8 Grand Cherokee, which is a radical departure for Jeep. But program manager John Cathcart suggests it is a logical one.

“It's a natural fit to put a 4-wheel-drive vehicle in the SRT lineup,” he says on the Chrysler Group blog site.

Jeep Rescue concept

“Drivers aren't going to go the top speed, but they want to go fast from stoplight to stoplight. With towing capacity of 3,500 lbs. (1,600 kg), it's not viewed as a tow vehicle, but a daily driver.”

Meanwhile, Eberhardt is tight-lipped about Wrangler's replacement.

Sources tell Ward's Chrysler is contemplating 2- and 4-door versions, the latter inspired by the Jeep Rescue, a brawny concept unveiled last year in Detroit.

“The Wrangler will be replaced,” he says. “Whether it's two, four or some other number of doors remains to be seen.”

emayne@primediabusiness.com