Ralph Gilles, the global design boss for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, said the automaker wanted to honor the Grand Wagoneer's heritage but deliver a fresh design.
One big change: The concept version unveiled last week features a plug-in hybrid powertrain.
"One decision we made right from the beginning is let's make this thing modern," Gilles told Automotive News. "Let's make it timeless; let's make sure that it looks great, for many, many years. That was one thing, but at the same time, how can we make something American, something undeniably from our roots as a country?"
The idea of exploration, Gilles said, was a key component of the concept, which boasts panoramic views that make occupants feel they are "on top of the world" during their excursions.
Production of the Grand Wagoneer and its mainstream sibling, the Wagoneer, will start in the second quarter of 2021 at FCA's Warren, Mich., truck plant in suburban Detroit.
"We really had a white space," said Jim Morrison, the North American head of Jeep. "We had Grand Cherokee and even some top-end Wranglers that were in the $60,000 to $70,000 range, but nothing that was really giving our customers the ultimate premium vehicle and also the ability to have three rows. So those two combinations really set up the Wagoneer and the Grand Wagoneer as incremental growth for our dealers and for the Jeep brand."
Christian Meunier, Jeep's global president, said pricing for the Wagoneer will start at around $60,000, signaling that FCA anticipates generous profits with the resurrected nameplate. A fully loaded Grand Wagoneer will surpass $100,000.
The decision to create a modern Grand Wagoneer rather than a throwback design was a smart one, said Pat Foster, a Jeep historian who has written several books about the brand. He said the original 1963 Wagoneer — the first four-wheel-drive vehicle with an automatic transmission — was memorable because of its ingenuity and audacity.
Older Wagoneers are considered historic, game-changing vehicles, and Foster believes the next generation could have a similar impact.
"The vehicle itself, the look, the feel, the styling, the interior," Foster said. "All the other companies are going to have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something to match it."
Foster was afraid the SUV would look like it was held from the market too long but said Jeep got it right, making it "as fresh as tomorrow." He knows designers faced pressure on the high-profile project because when working on a Jeep, "the weight of history" is looking over their shoulders.
Gilles said it was "a bit daunting" to "think about redesigning an icon that people love and people associate with Americana." When debating the idea as far back as 2013, Gilles said FCA's product planning team spoke with people who run flourishing restoration businesses keeping vintage Wagoneers alive.
Although the Wagoneer has been off the market for nearly three decades, Meunier said the name is still widely recognized and holds a nostalgic place for many consumers. But he knows the brand can't just leverage its past and will need to tell the new Wagoneer's story.
"We got some work to do to re-explain what the brand is about, to explain as well that the product has evolved to a position which is not where it was 30 or 40 years ago," Meunier said. "Premium in 2020 is not premium in 1970, in terms of technology, in terms of craftsmanship [and] attention to detail. We've taken the Wagoneer brand two levels above where it was."
Meunier said the Grand Wagoneer will compete with the likes of the Range Rover, and Jeep is devising a plan for dealers to cater to more luxury shoppers. This could include home delivery and pickup for sales and service.
Doug Wilson, who owns Collierville Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in Tennessee, thinks the Grand Wagoneer will be a home run for Jeep.
"We needed a seven-passenger SUV," Wilson said, "and the market is just absolutely gung-ho for those things right now."