Jeep Heads South

Jonny Lieberman
by Jonny Lieberman

Grizzly Pete owned a Jeep. My college roommate's idea of a relaxing weekend: drive into Death Valley with a handgun and a knife and forage for food and water. Pete didn't need GPS; he could navigate via stars reflected off tortoise shells. Heated seats? He'd rub two Gila monsters together until they burst and spread their warm innards on his chair. Parking radar? Pete was the master of the dry lake reverse bootlegger's turn. And if Pete gouged his truck on the razor sharp spines of a Joshua tree, so much the better. A Jeep looked more like Jeep with trail damage. Amen.

Flash forward (mumble) years. I've spent a week putting (15 MPG) and blasting (8 MPG) around Los Angeles in a Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited. Yeah, it's got a HEMI, complete with cylinder deactivation/vasectomy. It was also equipped with a six-disk in-dash changer, Sirius satellite radio, a rear seat DVD player, adjustable pedals, heated leather seats, dual-climate zones, auto brights, a GPS navigation thingy, ParkSense (backup beeping), traction control, a manu-matic gear grabber and blingy chrome rims. I'd no sooner take this luxochariot off-road than I'd take Pete's battered Jeep down Rodeo Drive.

If I paid $43,830 for it, that is. Since I didn't, I drove it off a cliff. Then, with the help of Jeep's astounding Quadra-Drive II 4WD system and bona fide low-gears, I climbed back up. After that, I found a mud bog and did enough donuts to tank Krispy Kreme's stock. Off-road adventure accomplished, I slid the Cherokee into neutral, flipped the switch for the transfer case and calmly drove off to grab a beer. No question: the gussied-up Grand Cherokee is still a real Jeep.

Why wouldn't it be? Like virtually all Jeep products, it wore the coveted 'Trail Rated' badge. To earn this distinction, Jeep vehicles must satisfy the brand's criteria for a 'proper' off-roader. Here's the boilerplate: 'The Jeep Trail Rated® badge certifies that the vehicle has been designed to perform in a variety of challenging off-road conditions identified by five key consumer-oriented performance categories: Traction, Ground Clearance, Maneuverability, Articulation and Water Fording." Grand Cherokee? Yup, yes, absolutely, uh-huh and you betcha. And now… the new Jeep Compass.

Aside from the fact that Jeep's soon-to-be-released trucklette is uglier than a casino lobby at 7am, the Compass will be a terrific Jeep– for antiquing and wine-tasting. That's right; you guessed it: the Compass won't be Trail Rated. It will never cross the Rubicon, no matter how big the tires. Although the Compass isn't the first Jeep bereft of the badge– 2WD versions of the Liberty and Grand Cherokee share that dubious distinction– it will be Jeep's first non-Trail Rated AWD vehicle. And proof positive that the brand is ditching its off-road roots in pursuit of soccer moms and style conscious left brainers.

These are the same oxymorons who calmly insist that a passenger vehicle that can mount a 50 degree incline is as useful as a dyslexic accountant. While it's true that current Jeep buyers don't climb every mountain or see a stream and automatically think there's a ford in their future, they find their Jeep's untapped capability endlessly reassuring and secretly thrilling– like a condom in their wallet or America's nuclear arsenal. The Compass reveals a radical change in Jeep's marketing strategy, an attempt to court "non-traditional buyers." Or, if you prefer, they're chasing people willing to trade the actual, honest-to-God possibility of off-roading for the mere foggy idea of it.

Wrong answer. Does Daimler Chrysler really believe that buyers will stroll into their local Jeep dealer, have a look at the Grand Cherokee and ask if they have anything with a little less machismo? Maybe DCX is hoping potential customers will see the Jeep logo and brand design cues, assume off-roading ability, clock the lower price, sign-up and, please God, avoid the rough stuff. If so, it's a cynical marketing ploy that will bite the brand on its ass. A brand's identity flows from its products, not to them. A Jeep that can't survive Death Valley sells off the backs of the ones that can. And dishonors them all.

The Compass shows that Jeep has lost its bearings. Even if it sells well, it's an SUV that seems specifically designed to alienate the Grizzly Petes of this world, who gave the brand its cachet in the first place. In fact, I doubt the Compass will be a sales success. Aforementioned donuts to dollars, the faux Jeep will mimic the appeal of Land Rover's Freelander: unloved, unwanted and, most importantly, unsellable. But the Compass' effect on the Jeep brand will be incalculable. Like Buick, Lincoln, Mercury, Pontiac, Saturn and Saab, it will condemn the company to becoming yet another American automotive nameplate with no clear mission or purpose, slowly heading off-road for all eternity.

Jonny Lieberman
Jonny Lieberman

Cleanup driver for Team Black Metal V8olvo.

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