For Jeep dealer Stephen Kaiser, 2011 has been a banner sales year, up 86 percent. What surprises Kaiser most is that the once-scorned Jeep Compass compact SUV has tripled sales over the past year at Fairfield Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram in the rugged hills of central Pennsylvania.
Before its redesign for the 2011 model year, Kaiser's die-hard Jeep loyalist customers dismissed the Compass as a "toy imposter Jeep," he says. But after the redesign, it "looks a lot like a mini Grand Cherokee," he says. Jeep also offered a capable off-road system for the vehicle.
The Compass' rise from scorned stepchild to a respected ride has made it an unlikely co-star in Jeep's resurgence. Jeep's comeback is the story of an Italian company that took over a legendary American brand and put an Englishman in charge.
With product tweaks, quality upgrades and focused marketing, the Europeans moved Jeep upscale.
"What we tried to do was bring it up to where it was in the past -- the No. 1 SUV brand in the world," says Michael Manley, the Englishman who is CEO of the Jeep brand.
Through the first 10 months of 2011, Jeep is the fastest-growing domestic brand, with sales up 44 percent. At its current rate, Jeep will sell 413,000 units this year, the most since Chrysler's 2009 bankruptcy. But that's still well shy of 1999, when Jeep set its sales record of 554,466.
Jeep was also the fastest-growing brand through the first three quarters in import-dominated California, according to the trade association that represents the state's car dealers.
And Jeep was the top-ranked domestic brand in the Consumer Reports 2011 reliability survey. That's a long way from 2008, when three of the magazine's 11 worst-rated cars were Jeeps.