Might Fiat Chrysler’s long-awaited Wrangler-based pickup show up on dealer lots as a Ram in Jeep’s clothing?
There’s some evidence that it might, and if that’s the case, it could be music to the ears of fans of the Jeep Gladiator, DaimlerChrysler’s popular 2005 concept pickup. That concept, which is still shown in public on occasion, was built by putting Wrangler parts on what was then a Dodge Ram 1500 chassis.
In a recent interview with The Detroit News, Jeep brand head Mike Manley said development of the Wrangler-based pickup -- which will carry the two-letter body code JT -- has been postponed from 2018 to 2019.
The next-generation Wrangler -- code-named JL -- will go into production in November after a retooling of FCA’s Toledo North Assembly Plant from unibody to body-on-frame construction, scheduled to begin next month.
While the retooling is taking place, the current-generation JK Wranglers will continue rolling off the line of the Toledo Assembly Complex’s South plant, at least through April 2018.
But sources now say that in April 2018, the current Toledo South plant will shut down for up to a year to allow for construction of a new paint shop.
The reason, according to sources: The planned JT pickup is too long and doesn’t fit.
It’s unclear whether the Jeep pickup will ride on the current JK frame, the next-generation JL Wrangler frame, or either the current or next-generation Ram 1500 frame. FCA certainly isn’t saying. We do know that the next-generation Wrangler will be longer overall than the current version. As seen in early spy photography, the added length -- believed to be about 8 inches overall -- is necessary to accommodate the transition to an eight-speed automatic transmission.
However, a few outside factors also may have weighed into FCA’s decision, namely the way its factory was built and whether future trade agreements will allow FCA to keep building pickups in Mexico.
First, the factory. The current Toledo South plant, once known as Toledo Supplier Park, was cobbled together in the mid-2000s under a cash-strapped DaimlerChrysler. It was built by suppliers, who won contracts from Chrysler for the chassis (Hyundai Mobis), body (Kuka) and paint (Magna Steyr) for the Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited.
With limited contracts, the suppliers had few incentives to overbuild Chrysler’s new plant for added capacity, which is how it ended up with a paint shop that is less than 250,000 square feet -- or just about a third of the size of the paint shop for the Toledo North plant.
With the addition in 2006 of the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, Wrangler sales began to grow well above their traditional volume. And while the Great Recession knocked those sales down, Wrangler was a key driver in helping Chrysler regain market share lost before and during its bankruptcy. The plant’s been well over its designed capacity for years, and the work force has drawn repeated praise from both Manley and CEO Sergio Marchionne for finding new ways to build more Wranglers.
Trade policy may also factor in, given FCA’s limited North American production capacity. If the Trump administration is successful in attaching expensive border adjustment taxes to vehicles imported into the United States, Marchionne has said it may motivate FCA to look to repatriate Ram heavy-duty production to the U.S. As part of a recent decision to retool Warren Truck in metro Detroit to produce the Jeep Grand Wagoneer, FCA said that the plant would be available to also build Ram Heavy Duty pickups. FCA may be looking at Toledo South as an alternate plant for Ram heavy-duty production if it’s moved from Mexico. Having the JT Wrangler pickup share dimensions with the Ram would simplify production.
How consumers would react to a Ram-based Wrangler pickup -- or if they would even care once it’s finally here -- is unclear.
The popularity of the pickup-based Gladiator, which has driven calls for a Wrangler-based pickup for over a decade, certainly didn’t suffer because of its frame.