CHELSEA, Mich. -- Jeep brand head Mike Manley says the next-generation Wrangler must compete with rivals' "soft SUVs" while maintaining its off-road capabilities.
So Chrysler Group engineers are striving to improve the Wrangler's fuel economy with lightweight materials, more gears and perhaps a smaller engine.
"You're going to see continued improvements in terms of the powertrain package," Manley said at a press event here. "We've got a lot of experts at this moment in time working on that project."
The Wrangler is due to be redesigned in 2017 when the heavy body-on-frame SUV must meet more stringent fuel economy standards.
The 2014 Wrangler two-door and Wrangler Unlimited four-door are rated at 18 mpg combined city and highway with either five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission, according to fueleconomy.gov.
The Wrangler would achieve better fuel economy with Chrysler's eight-speed automatic transmission instead of its current five-speed automatic if other factors remained equal. The eight-speed, which Chrysler uses in its other rwd-based vehicles, doesn't fit in the current Wrangler.
If the Wrangler loses enough weight, a smaller gasoline engine than the current 3.6-liter V-6 or a diesel would also improve fuel economy. Ram last year started offering a diesel in light-duty pickups.
Chrysler Group CEO Sergio Marchionne suggested in May that the Wrangler is the vehicle in the automaker's lineup that would most benefit from an aluminum body.
But Manley said it would be wrong to think that all Wranglers must be designed only for the toughest terrain.
"You can't sell 19,000-plus retail Wranglers [as the brand did in May] to people who just want to go off-roading," Manley said. "Why would, for example, somebody else's SUV that's really an on-road 'soft' SUV not be for me a genuine target for Wrangler?"
Manley declined to say whether the next-generation Wrangler will keep its solid front and rear axles.
The Wrangler's solid axles are key to its off-road prowess, but the setup can add weight and give the vehicle a rougher ride on paved roads.
"One thing that we will not do is dilute what Wrangler stands for," Manley said. "I killed the two-wheel-drive Wrangler when I took over the brand, and I'm not bringing the two-wheel-drive Wrangler back."