At a recent press event, Chief Operating Officer Wolfgang Bernhard publicly aired a question that's been asked internally at theGroup for many years: “Does every Jeep have to be able to traverse the Rubicon Trail?”
This famously rugged path in California separates real SUVs from pretenders, and it long has been a test bed for measuring the mettle of off-road vehicles.
Because Bernhard is's COO, I'm not sure the diehards got a fair hearing before they were overruled, so let me speak for them.
Every Jeep has to be able to do the Rubicon Trail. If it can't, then it's not a real Jeep. It is a sissy Jeep created to cash in on the Jeep name, but without Jeep integrity.
And when you destroy a brand's integrity, you wreck the business.
Oh, the sissy Jeeps Chrysler intends to build in the next three years or so will sell for a while. But after that, the entire Jeep line will fall off.
If you want to build Jeep sales, play to the brand's strengths. Instead of following the herd into namby-pambyness, Bernhard should be strolling through Jeep's concept- vehicle warehouses and reviving those ideas. Here's what Jeep should do:
- Develop a Grand Wagoneer, a stretched Grand Cherokee with three rows of seats.
- Create a Desert Rat: a closed-up Wrangler, rough and ready but modern. Chrysler built a macho concept in 1997 called the Dakar that fills the bill. It's sitting in one of its show car warehouses. And it does the Rubicon.
- Lighten up the bloated Liberty. Get a few hundred pounds out. It needs to be more nimble and fuel-efficient.
- Rebuild the Jeep retail franchise; emphasize Jeep-only showrooms in smaller locations.
Besides Jeeps, Chrysler makes the most interesting vehicles of Detroit's Big Three: the Pacifica, the Crossfire, the coming rear-drive LX cars, the PT. Good Stuff, but Chrysler isn't marketing them right.
Chrysler's typical customers aren't ready for the $35,000 and $40,000 stickers many of these vehicles carry. It must win over a new breed of buyers. That takes time.
is trying to move upscale too, with only slightly better luck. The $40,000 Passat W-8 is no success. The $65,000 Phaeton is selling poorly in Europe and coming to the U.S. with low sales expectations. The $40,000-$50,000 Touareg has enjoyed good reviews, but we'll have to wait to see if sales hold up.
But VW has all the time in the world because it isn't hounded by Wall Street analysts who demand high profits.
Plus, VW has a new Golf to keep the fires going at the low end of the market, even if the upscale dream stumbles.
Chrysler doesn't have that kind of time.
It needs to speed development of an all-wheel-drive PT Cruiser and bring out a 2-door California Cruizer, and a PT panel truck. Wolfgang, you'll find concept car versions of those in the warehouse, too.
Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and a former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.