DETROIT -- Seven months after the launch of the Commander SUV, Jeep is spending heavily to subsidize sales.
In February, Jeep shelled out an average $5,461 per unit in Commander incentives, according to the Power Information Network.
Jeep's spending on the Commander outpaced by $1,803 per unit the average for the mid-sized SUV category, PIN says. In February, the midsized-SUV segment averaged $3,658, the data say.
"It is definitely a warning signal," says Tom Libby, PIN analyst.
"They are trying to keep inventory turning by lowering the price through incentives," Libby says. "But obviously the vehicle is under pressure already."
The Chrysler group had a 101-day supply of the Commander with 29,900 units on March 1. Commander incentives increased $2,203 from January to February, PIN says. In January, the average per-unit outlay was $3,258, the data say.
Dealer Steven Schmelz, owner of Sea View Chrysler-Jeep in Asbury Park, N.J., applauds the spending on the Commander.
"They didn't launch it real aggressively," Schmelz says. "They lost the focus on the Jeep brand in the fourth quarter. Now, they are back."
Schmelz is in a lease-hungry market. The Commander is leasing for $299 a month for 27 months with $1,999 due at signing, he says. Sales are "starting to do well," Schmelz says.
Incentives are 'on par'
Michael Berube, senior manager of Jeep marketing, defends the Commander's launch and incentive spending.
"We don't see we are spending more than the competitors," he says. "We feel we are on par in the segment."
Dealer transaction information underlying the PIN data may not fully capture subsidized leases and discounted sales to fleets, Berube says.
The PIN data does not include fleet sales, Libby says. The retail transaction data is generated from over 10,000 reporting franchises, he says.
"The incentive data include 13 different types of incentives and includes lease incentives. It is very comprehensive," Libby says.
Commander sales totaled 7,091 units in February and 4,209 in January. Since the Commander's introduction in September, sales total 28,348 units. Chrysler will not disclose a sales target.
The Commander is delivering incremental sales to Jeep, Berube says.
At introduction, Jeep tightly controlled the flow of vehicles to showrooms to monitor quality although some dealers sought more product, he says.
Face-off with Aspen
The Commander soon will face more competition in Chrysler-Jeep showrooms.
The Chrysler Aspen, an SUV based on the Dodge Durango, arrives in the fall. That may give Chrysler-Jeep stores three SUVs in the same general category and price range.
For example, the sticker price of the base Commander 4x4 is $30,235, including shipping. The sticker of the Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x4 is $30,080, including shipping.
Chrysler has not priced the Aspen. The base price of the platform-mate Durango SXT 4x4 is $31,825, including shipping .
Jeep has tried to separate the Commander from the Grand Cherokee by stressing the Commander's seven-passenger seating. But Aspen, too, seats seven.
"It is not a Grand Cherokee and Commander issue," says Steven Lee, general manager of Ed Voyles Chrysler-Jeep in Marietta, Ga. "I thought it was going to be, but it's not.
"Aspen? That we are worried about."
Sales of the Commander are rising on the strength of the spring selling season and incentives, Lee says. The store sold seven units in January and nine units in February, and it expects to do "20-plus" in March, he says.
Dealer Jim Corwin, owner of Corwin Chrysler-Jeep in Hickory, Pa., says, "Our experience so far is that they are pretty divergent markets. It is two really different looks.
"People love one and don't love the other," he says.
"They are so different in looks. The Grand Cherokee is more modern. The Commander skews toward the old Cherokee buyers."
The Commander's cannibalization of Grand Cherokee sales is "significantly less" than Jeep anticipated, Jeep's Berube says.
The Aspen buyer will seek people-carrying or cargo-hauling capability, not off-road prowess, he says. In contrast, 75 percent of the Commanders sold are 4x4 units, Berube says.
Also, he says, the Aspen looks like a Chrysler, not a Jeep, and will appeal to a separate buyer.
You may e-mail Mary Connelly at [email protected]