Larry P. Vellequette

Replacing the Wrangler is a puzzler

COMMENTARY
Larry P. Vellequette is a reporter for Automotive News.
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I pity Mark Allen.

The soft-spoken, self-effacing Jeep design boss has successfully tackled a series of product interventions and designs that have put Chrysler Group's top-selling brand where it is today.

The Grand Cherokee, Wrangler, Compass, Patriot and Cherokee all share Allen's brush strokes.

But to appropriate an old "Sesame Street" song, "One of these Jeeps is not like the others," and it must keep Mark Allen up at night.

The Wrangler -- Jeep's own mud-encrusted halo -- is being redesigned for 2017, when it must comply with more stringent fuel economy requirements.

Allen's task is simply stated but hard to do: Turn a heavy, purpose-built rolling brick into a much more efficient vehicle while not losing any of its capabilities.

Oh, and whatever Allen and his team come up with has to sell at least as well, if not better, than the record-smashing current Wrangler.

Some things we can safely assume are already in the 2017 design: lots of aluminum replacing steel, a more aerodynamic windscreen, an eight-speed transmission to replace the current five-speed auto. But it wouldn't surprise me to see Allen and his Jeep team employ the strategy they used on the 2014 Cherokee on the next-generation Wrangler.

For the Cherokee, they essentially designed two vehicles, a Cherokee Trailhawk for off-roading and the regular Cherokee for the 90 percent of customers who rarely, if ever, hit a trail.

Wrangler is already bifurcated to a degree. Stock Wrangler Rubicons are more capable off-road than other Wranglers. Could Jeep's design team take that even further by designing essentially two Wranglers to serve both off-roaders and mostly on-roaders?

The Jeep faithful might scream and wail, as they have each time over the past decades that the Wrangler has changed in any way. But the old faithful now sells better than ever.

Only Mark Allen and his team have a clue what the next Wrangler -- or Wranglers -- will look like.

The pressure not to screw it up must be insane.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.


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