Cherokee, Sweetheart

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
cherokee sweetheart

“When I see a Range Rover on the street, my blood boils, because we should be able to do a thing like that,” quoth the great Sergio, “And we will.” Say what you like about the leadership Chrysler has had since the days of the AMC/Renault Alliance, but with this comment about the need for a grander Cherokee, if you will, the maximum leader of FCA has shown that he understands the Jeep brand, and its role in America, less than any of his predecessors.

Bloomberg reported on Sergio’s comments at the opening of a Maserati dealership in Toronto last week. At first blush, the man from La Marchionne has a point. There’s a lot of profit to be had in Range Rovers, particularly nowadays. Hard not to look at that money and feel envious. Was it just yesterday that Range Rovers were priced closer to the Mercedes E-Class than the S-Class? And was it just yesterday that you could lease one for $599/month over thirty-six months with a grand out of pocket? Really, tell me it was just yesterday that the Range Rovers for sale in the local showroom came in just one variant, and that variant had been effectively the same vehicle for twenty years.

No longer. Today’s Range Rover is a thoroughly developed luxury vehicle that bears only a vague resemblance to the country-estate runabouts of the distant English past. The nameplate that once carried noble-born English hounds to the hunt now takes Instagram “models” from the Dubai airport to the penthouses of the sheikhs. If any traditional landed gentry remains in Scotland, France, or the Black Forest, they aren’t buying new SVAutobiography LWB pimp-wagons. The current buyer base for full-sized Range Rovers is all new money, all the time, and unlike their predecessors they don’t pinch pennies or prefer vinyl seats. They have plenty of money.

What they lack, perhaps, is class. As with Aston Martin, Range Rover is in the business of selling some sort of fake Britishness to non-Brits. Those people associate Britishness with class, with social presence, with savoir faire. The people who buy these trucks expect them to convey a certain image, and they want that image to improve theirs. Look at it this way: When Lord Foppington of Stoke-On-Stoke took delivery of a two-door Rangie in ’78, he didn’t expect that people would be impressed by the vehicle. He expected people to be impressed by him. He expected that the prestige of the Range Rover would be lifted by his ownership and operation of one, not the other way around. The Land Rover advertisements of the Eighties and Nineties featured royal and ducal seals to take advantage of those associations. The Queen of England is still the Queen whether or not she gets out of a Range Rover or a Land Rover Series II or a Mini. When people who are not the Queen of England buy a Range Rover, it’s often done with the expectation that the vehicle will speak on their behalf in social situations.

Is there, or was there ever, an American equivalent to Land Rover’s “100-inch wagon”, a nondescript working-class vehicle operated by the upper crust? I think that for many years, the fully-loaded Ford or Chevrolet station wagon filled that role. The 1970 Chevy Kingswood was probably the American counterpart to the 1970 Rangie. It was a family vehicle for affluent families whose social position was utterly secure and therefore in no need of the middle-class status boost that would come from having, say, that new-fangled Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, essentially a Ninety-Eight with a rear door.

When the station wagon disappeared, the Suburban and full-sized Wagoneer (later Grand Wagoneer) assumed that role, trolling slowly around Martha’s Vineyard and the Outer Banks, dirty and dented and full of picnic baskets. These were vehicles that could belong to that family with the home on the beach or the families of the plumbers and electricians who fixed those homes. They were truly classless, and as a result they were kind of classy because they didn’t attempt to send any particular Veblen message.

In the years that followed, the Wagoneer (later Grand Wagoneer) went out of production, and the Suburban became both oversized and overtly menacing in appearance. The Escalade and Yukon Denali appeared in the marketplace, both of them aimed at people who wanted to spend more money on a Suburban, and the sheer number of these monster trucks on the American road significantly diminished the appeal to the smart set of a full-sized SUV. Suburbans of all badges were much cooler when every soccer mom in Joliet, Illinois didn’t have one, dontcha know.

So what vehicle has assumed the title of America’s Classy Yet Classless Chariot? You know the answer without even thinking hard. It’s the Grand Cherokee. Not only is it a great SUV, it’s arguably the finest American car on sale today. Competent in all aspects, available as a vinyl-seat workhorse or a chrome-lined Overland or a racetrack-munching SRT-8, the Grand Cherokee has something for everyone. At the low end, it doesn’t cost much more than a six-cylinder Camry, while at the high end it rips twelve-second quarter-miles and features exotic interior appointments. While it’s generally obvious where each model sits in the overall hierarchy of Cherokee-dom, there’s nothing obviously poverty-stricken about the Laredo and there’s none of the “Autobiography” crassness to the Overland.

Few vehicles on sale today are as satisfying as the Grand Cherokee, and few of those can point to what is basically an unblemished record of being a good value and a decent ownership proposition since the Nineties. You can find them at Moab and in a country-club parking lot, on the beach at Venice and on the manicured lawns north of New York City. Owning a Grand Cherokee says almost nothing about you. You could be wealthy, or you could be someone in a small house with a decent-ish job. You could be single, or a parent, or a retiree. The appeal of this particular Jeep has virtually no boundaries.

Critical to the Grand Cherokee’s market positioning is the fact that it sits atop the Jeep hierarchy, even though you can spend less on a Laredo 4×2 than you’d pay for a loaded Cherokee or Wrangler. The reason the short-lived Commander was short-lived was twofold: it was a terrible vehicle to operate, and it was tough for people to understand that it was “better” than the GC. Everybody knows that you can spend a fair amount of money on an Overland, but everybody also knows that the prices of the Overland don’t reach into Range Rover ridiculousness. So buying an Overland is acceptable to wealthy Americans who follow the Protestant ethic because it has no superior in the lineup yet it doesn’t bespeak nouveau extravagance.

Adding a “Range Rover” to the Jeep range would alienate the customers for high-end Grand Cherokees, many of whom would be loath to purchase something that, like the RR Autobiography, is described as “very expensive” by its own manufacturers but at the same time would not want to be seen in a vehicle that was “junior” to it in the lineup. It would court the fickle tastes of Russian oligarchs and Arab oil money at the expense of Jeep’s loyal and dependable American customer base. But most of all, it would be an unforgivable slight against the very idea of Jeep.

“Jeep” is a contraction of “General Purpose”, or “GP”. The Jeep idea is that of a vehicle that earns its keep, that is valued for its capabilities, that shares the same work ethic as its customers. To take that name and plaster it on some despicable Lexus LX470 competitor would be a travesty. Such a vehicle wouldn’t be a GP. It would be an SP: a vehicle with the single purpose of demonstrating its owner’s wealth. We should leave stupidity like that to the Indians who own Range Rover, not the Italians who own Jeep. Classless, satisfying, tasteful, capable; the current Grand Cherokee is all of these things. Shouldn’t that be enough?

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4 of 180 comments
  • Pete Zaitcev Pete Zaitcev on May 15, 2015

    I have no quarrel with Jack's analysis of the past, but his analysis of the future is highly problematic. As liberals continue to make America more like Europe, the tastes of the general population change. For a union leader, a Unified District director, a federal regulator, or a university diversity administrator, a crass pimpmobile like Rover is a status vehicle, not something from which to avert eyes. The old, worked-for wealth gone, the new tax-supported wealth in vogue. Keep that in mind and consider Sergio merely being foresightful.

    • GeneralMalaise GeneralMalaise on May 15, 2015

      +1... welcome to the Lowest Common Denominator Culture... Yay, Moonbats!

  • Kevnsd Kevnsd on May 15, 2015

    Jack you've hit the nail squarely on the head. Sergio should send you a 6 figure check, a Viper SRT TA and a bucket of options for this analysis. To your question "Shouldn’t that be enough?" here's my answer... kill the Durango and add a long wheel base / 3 row option to every one of the current Grand Cherokee models. I've heard that this might be coming. I just bought a 2015 Highlander Limited but would have rather bought a LWB Grand Cherokee Citadel. Had no interest in the Durango... even though I know that other than the badges and trim details these are the same vehicle.

    • Formula m Formula m on May 17, 2015

      Highlander is solid for daily duties, super reliable, amazing resale and the interior/exterior can still look nice after years if the owners kids don't trash it to hard.

  • SCE to AUX How long until that $90k yields a profit for my grandchildren?
  • Ajla I do wonder what the legacy of the Alpha Camaro will be. It was higher performing than the Zeta but lacks the pop culture imprinting of that gen or the earlier F-body. And somehow it managed to be less comfortable than the Zeta. I guess it depends if this is really the last traditional Camaro.
  • SCE to AUX I'd admire it at the car cruise, but $20k gets you halfway to a new truck.
  • Lou_BC Panther black? Borrowed from Dodge panther pink? One could argue that any Camaro is a limited run.
  • SCE to AUX I much prefer the looks of the Tucson version, but either is a great value.How was the driveability, namely the electric/gas transition? I had H/K's first attempt in a 13 Optima Hybrid (now in my son's garage), and it was gruff and abrupt in that phase of driving.