Jeep: Off Road or Totally Off Track?
One year ago [ Chrysler Suicide Watch 12] I opined that Jeep was morphing from the world's most uniquely-American brand into a schizophrenic abyss of muddled models. Of course, this analysis hardly required the keen insights of branding guru Al Reis. Jeep had just introduced the unconvincing Compass and platform partner Patriot to the market. And they were preparing to launch a re-skinned Jeep Liberty. The Liberty was the reigning best selling small SUV on the market. So one year later, how has the brand progressed? As a Jeep owner and acolyte of [what's left of] the brand, I'm sorry to say that Jeep's crisis is far deeper than before.
After the "merger of equals" between Daimler and Chrysler, the Germans correctly surmised the Jeep brand's importance to ChryCo's overall health. When Jeep did well, Chrysler did well. When Jeep sales flagged, Chrysler tanked. The bellwether brand was ripe for expansion; it only had three models (Wrangler, Grand Cherokee and Liberty/Cherokee). So the good Doktor wrote a prescription for more models. From a business standpoint, it fit the "feed your successes, starve your failures" template to a T.
The good news: Jeep sales are relatively flat in a sinking market, averaging 473,840 from 1996 through 2007. The bad news: the numbers are flat (Jeep sold just 475,237 vehicles in 2007). Remember: all three of Jeep's core models have been completely revamped in the last three years, and three new models (Commander, Compass, and Patriot) darken dealership doors. Jeep should be a lot further ahead.
In fact, call it "Are We Not Jeep?" Devolution is everywhere. The once ubiquitous Grand Cherokee has fallen the farthest. In 1999, Jeep sold more than 300k units. In 2007, they sold less than half of that total (120,937). The result seem quite so bad if you add in Grand Cherokee's platform-sharing sibling, the "we swear we're going to kill it" Commander. But even so, the platform is losing ground at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, Liberty sales plummeted from a high of 171,212 in 2002 to just 92,105 last year. In 2007, Cherokee/Liberty sales fell below 100k for the first time in the last eleven years.
Much digital ink has been spilled deriding the Commander and its woeful sales. But it's the Jeep Compass that really needs to go.
Jeep managed to sell more than twice as many Commanders during its first full year of production (88,497 in 2006) as the Compass did in it first full year (39,491 in 2007). Even if the Compass has a huge profit margin, one has to wonder why Cerberus would continue producing a chunky little Jeep with all the appeal of Hillary Clinton in a tankini.
Sales numbers for 2007 indicate nothing conclusive about the Patriot, which sold 40,434 units in a partial year. The Patriot at least looks like a credible Jeep and gets excellent gas mileage– compared to the rest of the Jeep lineup. It's a keeper, even though it's not nearly as good as it needs to be to compete with the likes of the RAV4 and CRV.
The only clear hero in the lineup is (may we have a military drum roll please)… the Wrangler. The jeepiest of Jeeps is shouldering the load of the brand-diluting models that Daimler, Chrysler and Cerberus leadership have in their infinite non-wisdom devised. Sales of this crude gas hog jumped 33 percent in 2007 to nearly 120k units. That's more than any other Jeep model except the Grand Cherokee (which barely edged it out, so to speak). Wrangler's year-over-year increase (39K) almost matched the number of Patriots sold during ‘07.
Clearly, the suburbanization of the Jeep brand has been an utter failure. Daimler failed to recognize that Jeep is not a plastichrome badge on a car.
Jeep is an outdoorsman's lifestyle. Jeep owners want to feel the wind in their hair– even if they don't have any– and the roar deafens them at highway speeds. They would rather have more torque than better fuel efficiency. They aren't as concerned with zero to sixty and quarter mile times as they are with ground clearance and break-over angles. They want the ability to drive anywhere; going around an oval doesn't much interest them. Jeep owners are participatory hands-on lovers of the untamed world. They want to be in nature with the top down and doors off.
Even if they don't. Either way, Jeep's customers are most decided NOT bobblehead dolls chillin' in the ‘hood. Has Cerberus figured this out? If only. Consider this: the automaker quietly and unceremoniously scuttled the annual Camp Jeep for 2008. At a single stroke, the automaker betrayed the brand faithful and signaled to the keepers of the flame that said blaze flickers on the brink of extinction. America's Ferrari is an endangered species.
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Jurisb, How about I put you down on the side of "Totally Off Track," and we just drop it.