STUTTGART, Germany - They share portions of an assembly line, but when they leave the factory, the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Mercedes-Benz ML320 sport-utilities are pitched to different customers.
'On one side, the Jeep is the off-road vehicle,' said Dieter Zetsche, a member of the DaimlerChrysler AG board of management in charge of the Mercedes-Benz brand. 'That's why people are buying it. The M-class position is just the opposite. We are saying it is the most comfortable and the most carlike SUV on the road.'
Before the merger of Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG, Chrysler last year was preparing to defend the Grand Cherokee's off-road prowess.
For example, during a press preview last spring, Chrysler pitted its Grand Cherokee against the M class on a muddy track laden with seemingly impassable troughs. The Grand Cherokee made it. The M class did not. The point was, according to Chrysler, the Grand Cherokee had a four-wheel-drive system superior to that of the M class.
But the merger put a sudden end to any possible marketing skirmish between the two vehicles.
Sales so far indicate that the two sport-utilities are indeed attracting different customers.
The substitution rate, or the percentage of M-class buyers coming out of a Grand Cherokee, is about 5 percent in the United States and about 5.7 percent in Europe, Zetsche said.
'So it's really very low,' he said.
Zetsche acknowledged that there may be some potential M-class customers who are skittish about both sport-utilities being assembled under the same roof, and often on the same conveyor line, in Graz, Austria.
Customers of all six DaimlerChrysler light-vehicle brands - Chrysler, Plymouth, Jeep, Dodge, Mercedes-Benz and Smart - want their vehicles to live up to their perceptions of the brands, he said.
'It's a question of being different,' Zetsche said. 'Jeep is a fantastic brand. Jeep claims, and I think with good reason, to offer the best SUV in off-road conditions. This is a historic claim, I think it has been confirmed again and again with new products coming out. So it's very important that this claim stays confirmed every time a customer buys a Jeep Grand Cherokee. It's really making sure that all of the brands keep their identity and their character in all directions.'
Said Zetsche: 'We are exploiting what is possible without any compromise on the standards and demands we put in place on the M class.'