So, what do you do when everybody and his brother copies your products and wants your market share and your customers?
That's an issue Jeep is wrestling with as it creates a strategy to defend its market and possibly create a new Jeep product that's totally different from anything it has offered.
With automakers adding sport-utilities and pickups to their lines and truckmakers reinventing their pickups, it seemed surprising that Jeep would unveil a 300-hp concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month.
But a closer look at the Varsity concept could signal a new direction for Jeep and the industry, as each maker looks for ways to differentiate its four-wheel-drive products in an increasingly overcrowded sport-utility market.
After all, sport-utilities all look like, well, sport-utilities: Take a station wagon box, add four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive or merely front-wheel drive, and in the eyes of much of the public, you have a sport-utility, right? Or at least a vehicle that looks like a sport-utility.
Today, nearly every automaker has a sport-ute - or a crossover that looks like one - or will have one in the next year or two. So, Jeep's uniqueness is threatened, and the special qualities that made it stand out from the crowd could get lost. The bottom line: lower sales, lower profits.
'The sport-utility market is getting pretty crowded, so we've got to go look for other places for volume opportunities and create new markets,' said Tony Richards, vice president of passenger-car operations for the Chrysler group. 'We have to respond and fight back when other people invade what was previously more exclusive territory.'
For some automakers, the next plateau may be on the performance side: combining the advantages of 4wd with outstanding acceleration, braking and handling - and styling that stands out from every other sport-ute on the road.
Such as the Jeep Varsity concept? Maybe.
The first thing you notice is that the Varsity doesn't have a sport-utility (a la wagon) look: The Varsity is a macho-looking, four-passenger, five-door hatchback with a vertically slotted grille that is unmistakably Jeep. Under the skin is the Grand Cherokee platform, but the Varsity is about 5 inches lower, and the wheelbase is nearly 4 inches longer. After all, it's a car.
Under the hood is a 3.5-liter, 300-hp V-6 with 255 pounds-feet of torque coupled to a four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission. The shift-on-the-fly transfer case with full-time 4wd, rwd and 4wd low-range modes is just like the Grand Cherokee's. And acceleration? DaimlerChrysler estimates 0 to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds and a top speed of 130 mph! Not your typical Jeep, right?
Questioned at the Chicago Auto Show about whether the Varsity will be built, Jim Holden, president of DaimlerChrysler in North America, said he won't speculate.
Holden did say the Varsity concept is proof of two things: One, products other than just a two-box sport-utility design can be created off a capable 4wd platform.
'Second, it shows the stretch that the Jeep brand has - it is the most recognized auto brand in the world,' and the market is out there for a Varsity-like product, he said. 'I could go down market, I could go a little more carlike, I could go up market. I'm not telling you where I'm going.'
Added Holden: 'The craze that has gone through the North American market is utility, not sport-utility, but utility, functionality, flexibility.' Buyers want a vehicle that does a lot of things: 'It will treat me as well as a car, but it will do things that a normal car will not do.'
So, will we see a car marketed under the Jeep brand? Maybe.
'It's a little radical for even us to think about a Jeep car,' Richards said. 'That's not something we all are comfortable with at this point. It's somewhat of a natural extension, but it also is a pretty significant departure from what Jeep has been for a long time.'
Rick Kranz can be reached at (313) 446-0360 or [email protected]