Benjamin, 44, spoke with Staff Reporter Vince Bond Jr. during a media drive last week for the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer about how designers made the most out of the third row and how Jeep put a modern touch on classic nameplates. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: You mentioned that you didn't want the Wagoneer to feel big and that you wanted everything to feel tailored. Why was that important?
A: Because size is a perception of status, if you will. A lot of people like the vehicle to have this presence on the outside, but on the inside, it's about precision and quality. For me, precision and quality means it has to be right-sized, and right-sized for me is not scaled up with the size of the outside of the vehicle.
You see in some other vehicles that are in this size class, you've got these big knobs and big giant buttons, and to me it just looks cheap. We go through a lot of internal user testing, and we tried to push the envelope because we have more haptic controls in here than we usually do. There aren't a lot of physical buttons, and that was part of creating something that was more modern with a smooth finish that sort of blends into the screen.
Why did you want the Wagoneer to be a modern statement instead of a retro design?
I don't know if it's just a personal thing, [but] I don't like to do retro stuff really. I don't want to say it's hitting the easy button, but certainly, you have to put more thought into it when you're trying to show respect to your past and your history but doing it in a completely new way. You have to get into the psychological side of how that gets translated, how customers will make that connection on their own, maybe without you even saying it. It's kind of more fun to create something that's fresh and new and different, but you can still feel that it has that history behind it.
Do you think some people might complain that they don't see enough retro in there?
Sure. Everyone's welcome to their opinion and it's fun. You see the debate sometimes in forums online: 'The Wagoneer should've been just like the old one.' A lot of people feel that way and you see a lot of cool resto mods, which I find exciting and cool.
I think part of me feels like just doing a new version of the car from 30 years ago would be lazy. It's nice to be inventive and create something new — surprise and delight the public with something they didn't expect.
When you change the color of the interior, it really alters the personality of the car. Is that something you were aiming for?
Light and color is so important. It changes the perception you can have of something. You can take a house and have two houses that are identical and paint them completely differently, and one can have a modern appearance and the other one can have an old appearance. Same thing with the interior, the combination of colors.
We can use it to create a feeling of sportiness, a feeling of luxury classic modernism and that's fun to do because at every price class you want something to be interesting for every customer.
Was the third row a source of a lot of debate on how to get it just right?
We talked about it a lot. It was hugely important to make sure no matter what row you were in that you felt comfortable.
I went for a cruise in one a few weeks ago. My wife has two brothers, so we all got in and I let her brother drive, and so he and his wife were in the front, and her other brother and his wife were in the second row, and my wife and I were in the third row, and they looked back there and they were like, 'Wow, you fit?' They're all pretty short, and they were amazed that at 6-4 I fit back there, my knees not even touching the seat, my head not touching the headliner.
We studied that package a lot and really compressed every millimeter that we could out of the headliner, out of all the pillars. That's why we don't have any vents in the roof.
All of the vents are below the belt line. We did that so that you didn't have empty space going up to the roof, which means we could compress the pillars even more and get better visibility.
Even in the back, with the third-row panoramic roof, just making sure it felt open and airy — it didn't feel like you're in a cave back there. And the materials, too — not having the armrests just be a hard piece of plastic. We really went above and beyond to make sure comfort happened in all three rows.