For the Love of Jeep
The love of all things Jeep ranks high in the automotive pantheon of passion. Porschephiles, ‘Vettistas, Hemiheads, Scuderia– they ain’t got nothin’ on Jeepaholia (Hi, my name is Brad and I love Jeeps.) Jeep devotees are a hardy breed, born to be wild. Other than domestic and commuter runs, they ALWAYS take the road untraveled; sneering at mud, chuckling at chuckholes, belly laughing at boulders. Hummers, Land Cruisers, 4Runners and other four wheel-drive pretenders to the throne are equally capable in certain situations, but they lack Jeep’s visceral appeal. So what is it about the brand that keeps the faithful faithful?
It’s in the genes. When Willys and Ford produced the first Jeeps for the military in WWII, the go-anywhere, do-anything vehicles earned millions of soldiers’ unlimited respect. Some 600k Jeeps proved their worth in the harshest possible environments, from Malaysia’s steamiest jungles to Norway's frozen wastes. When American G.I.s returned stateside, more than a few had developed a taste for those tough little trucks with the Go-Devil engines. An iconic brand was born.
Jeep purists will tell you that the only “real” Jeep is a CJ. Don’t believe them. Today’s Wrangler is every bit as trail-capable as the CJs of yore, and it sits at the brand’s heart. By the same token, pay no heed to those who suggest that anything other a Wrangler is not a “real” Jeep. While Jeep DNA says outdoors like an Armani suit says espresso bar, Jeeps have not always been trail-ready. In its storied past, Jeep has made pickups, sedans, proto-SUVs and station wagons. Ever since hostilities ceased, the company has stretched the brand’s original remit like Turkish taffy.
In that not-so-great tradition, Jeep’s current brain trust have recently moved the brand away from its mud-spattered proletarian roots. Given that the public thinks Jeep = Off Road, it’s amazing that Jeep’s Detroit masters have felt so free to swim against a powerful, profitable and powerfully profitable current.
In 1992, the suits torpedoed the Jeep Comanche, a utilitarian little pickup truck that kept the brand in touch with its working class pedigree. Meanwhile, they gave the bloated Commander the green light. While the Commander was probably a focus group knockout (what do you guys think about a Jeep with a third row?), the realization of this marketing “dream” was too slow and thirsty for urban work, too uncomfortable to comply with the Geneva Convention, and too ugly for Medusa.
Jeep’s handlers also killed the original Cherokee and replaced it with the Liberty, answering a question no one asked. Saying that, the U.S. market responded positively; the Jeep Liberty hit the “cute ute” sweet spot, luring many women into the Jeep fold. (The four-door Wrangler is an attempt to woo back disenfranchised Cherokee fanboys back into the fold.)
Jeep Inc. then launched the twin brand-engineered demon spawn of the Dodge Caliber. The Patriot and the Compass were a hit and miss affair (literally). While the Patriot reeks of Jeepness, the Compass does not. The Powers That Be also passed on the Rescue concept (a Wrangler-on-steroids over a RAM 2500 frame/drivetrain) and the Gladiator (the long-anticipated Comanche replacement).
The Wrangler-based Gladiator was a slam dunk. The pickup would have reconnected Jeep with its working class base and given Chrysler/Jeep dealers a nice little truck to sell. Even better, the Gladiator would have seven-slotted into the underserved small pickup niche, where the outdated Ford Ranger reigns supreme.
As a brand, even Jeep’s wins cause angst. The four-door Wrangler is a huge hit– which the company can’t produce quickly enough to meet demand. Things are so backed-up in Mopar-land that Jeep has stopped taking orders for ’07 Wranglers, and won’t begin accepting deposits for ’08s until summer’s end. Jeep seriously misjudged demand for both the four-door models and both flavors of the Rubicon. Oops.
Surveying the brand’s recent track record, it’s clear Jeep still represents a “back to basics” meme which resonates deeply and uniquely with a large segment of the car buying populace. Fans of the brand understand– and expect– a Jeep to be a simple, uncluttered and dependable machine with a can-do spirit. Granted, the bar on “simple and uncluttered” has been raised a bit since Willys’ glory days, and dependable no longer means you can fix it yourself on the fly, but the Jeep brand still stands for something authentically American.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Wranglers are to SUVs what minimalism is to art, and what Stickley is to furniture. To remain an iconic brand, Jeep must keep their eye on the ball, and that ball is clearly marked “Trail-Rated.” Jeep’s new owners should rid themselves of the Bloatmobile (Commander) and the Tonka-Toy (Compass) and build the brand around respectfully extending the real icon – the Jeep Wrangler. Now that, anyone can understand.
I'm a marketing guy, who loves cars - but hates most automobile advertising. I'm also a writer, graphic designer, animator, musician, and stand-up philosopher.
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