Jeep Remains Only 'American Brand' Japan Seems Willing to Tolerate

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

While I don’t particularly agree with all the criticisms Lee Iacocca has thrown at Japan, his most polarizing claim (published in Playboy, no less) — that its citizens certainly know Jeep because “they saw enough of them in World War II” — has bizarrely continued to ring true. As far as American automotive brands go, Jeep has been Japan’s favorite for a while. And it only needed to tamp down its relationship to “The Big One” slightly to get there.

However, the sales game is always relative.

Despite being one of the fastest-growing brands on the market, Jeep only netted itself 13,360 deliveries in Japan for 2019. But consistent growth since 2013 has to account for something, especially when the overall market is performing so poorly. At the very least, it shows American brands can make some amount of headway on a nut Iacocca believed uncrackable.

Japan’s dislike of U.S. (yes, we know Fiat Chrysler is about as American as spaghetti and French toast) cars stems from the occasionally correct presumption that they’re a bunch of oversized, overpriced, and inefficient garbage — we’ve covered it before. However, FCA Japan CEO Pontus Haggstrom believes Jeep has managed to find a niche by framing itself as the company that invented the sport utility vehicle. The claim is difficult to qualify, especially considering there’s no global definition for what distinguishes SUV from crossover.

The United States has some pretty strict ideas involving body-on-frame construction (though that’s dwindling due to marketing efforts), while other parts of the world simply need something to be all-wheel drive, have a hatchback, and/or possess better ground clearance than your average car to be considered SUV-worthy. But Jeep certainly has its thumb planted in enough pages of automotive history to receive several well-earned mentions.

“I don’t know if we have redefined the notion of American cars in Japan. I hope we have,” Haggstrom said to Automotive News last week. “The cars are not overpriced gas guzzlers with no quality — you know the perception. But we also, to be honest, don’t really push the American heritage that much.”

Haggstrom helped illustrate this by adding that the Jeep brand accounted for 54 percent of the manufacturer’s sales in the region. “The main reason for our growth has been the sales movement of the Jeep brand,” he said, noting that Jeep’s sales growth rate was twice that of Japan’s overall crossover/SUV segment. For 2019, Jeep saw a 16-percent improvement in annual sales, even as the Japanese passenger vehicle market dropped 1.5 percent. Meanwhile, import brands sales slipped by 3.2 percent as FCA moved up by 9 percent.

For the sake of comparison, Chevrolet only sold 585 vehicles to the Japanese people in 2019 (down 33 percent from 2018) and it’s the second-best selling American brand on the market.

The Wrangler is currently doing the heavy lifting in Japan, with the larger Grand Cherokee and the smaller Renegade quickly picking up steam. Haggstrom estimates the trio will help push Jeep past 14,000 annual deliveries in 2020 and praised FCA’s continued investments to make Jeep a global brand.

It’s been paying off. Whist making inroads in Japan, Jeep has managed to bolster volume in other markets. In Europe, Jeep managed to deliver on its claimed “currency of capability” by undercutting higher-end rivals with similar off-road appeal. In 2018, it sold 166,500 units in Europe and bested Land Rover for the first time in history. Market share has also been growing in South Korea, where Jeep is making sure the Wrangler is getting as much attention in as many different settings (off-road, rural, urban, suburban) as humanly possible — similar to how it’s handling Japan.

China has proven more difficult for practically every foreign manufacturer to manage, but Jeep has made some progress — and has constructed a plan to electrify its lineup in the hopes of improving both Chinese and European volumes further down the line. That’s probably a necessary gamble if you want to tackle the global landscape. As a byproduct, North America will see a couple of new hybrid models and maybe a pure EV over the next few years.

[Image: FCA]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 38 comments
  • Noble713 Noble713 on Jan 21, 2020

    Jeep Wranglers are one of the "cult following" vehicles you see on the roads here, like low-rider Impalas and Cadillacs. Wranglers are popular with the small community of off-roaders, and the rare Japanese who wanna be quirky and buck the trend of conformity. The Suzuki Jimny is the popular JDM faux-Jeep offering. Compared to a Jimny, a Wrangler comes across as an oversized "conspicuous consumption" purchasing decision, which somehow still fits the American stereotype even if the vehicle itself isn't a particularly egregious example of gas-guzzling inefficiency. The sales push does help explain why I've been seeing a growing number of new-looking 4-door Wranglers though.

  • White Shadow White Shadow on Jan 22, 2020

    I am confident because I've owned both. You obviously know nothing about Jeeps. Why? Well, you'd know that a Trailhawk Grand Cherokee has more ground clearance than a 4Runner. Air suspension is a wonderful thing. Educate yourself and then maybe we can debate further. Until then, don't talk's not a good look for you.

  • Calrson Fan Jeff - Agree with what you said. I think currently an EV pick-up could work in a commercial/fleet application. As someone on this site stated, w/current tech. battery vehicles just do not scale well. EBFlex - No one wanted to hate the Cyber Truck more than me but I can't ignore all the new technology and innovative thinking that went into it. There is a lot I like about it. GM, Ford & Ram should incorporate some it's design cues into their ICE trucks.
  • Michael S6 Very confusing if the move is permanent or temporary.
  • Jrhurren Worked in Detroit 18 years, live 20 minutes away. Ren Cen is a gem, but a very terrible design inside. I’m surprised GM stuck it out as long as they did there.
  • Carson D I thought that this was going to be a comparison of BFGoodrich's different truck tires.
  • Tassos Jong-iL North Korea is saving pokemon cards and amibos to buy GM in 10 years, we hope.