After testing the latest Jeep Wrangler, Consumer Reports dinged the iconic off-roader for excessive wind noise on the highway, stiffness and an overall lack of "reflexes and agility" for a contemporary vehicle.
But Jake Fisher, the magazine's director of auto testing, said he had a blast driving it. He said it was fun bringing it home, getting waves from fellow Jeep motorists and taking off the doors and roof. It's definitely not a serene ride, and the steering isn't the smoothest, but he said it was an enjoyable experience.
That conflicted reaction might help explain why the Wrangler set an annual sales record in 2018 with 240,032 deliveries, powering the Jeep brand to a 17 percent U.S. sales gain in 2018. The story was the same for the Compass and Cherokee, which had their best years ever despite blunt assessments from Consumer Reports. The Compass had the lowest reliability rating in its segment because of its rough ride and noisiness, and the Cherokee was knocked for its "uncooperative transmission."
Indeed, reliability and quality reports over the years haven't been kind to Jeep. But consumers have, keeping the juggernaut brand charging ahead in a slow-growing but truck-friendly market. With a record 973,227 units sold last year, the onetime niche brand is now on the verge of 1 million in annual sales, a benchmark that only a handful of mainstream brands have attained. And unlike the others, Jeep doesn't have a three-row vehicle, a pickup (yet) or a single car.
So what's the secret? Credit the power of the brand, which has carved out a place as a free-spirited, All-American symbol of fun and adventure, said Patrick Foster, an automotive historian who has written several books chronicling Jeep's history. Foster said the seeds for Jeep's transition from niche to mass-market player were sown when American Motors released the Cherokee in 1974, a vehicle that purportedly put the sport in "sport-utility vehicle."
Dealers say there’s more to the story than that: the versatility of the vehicles, shrewd marketing, style, competitive pricing and incentives (except for the Wrangler), and a wealth of trim levels. The Grand Cherokee, for instance, is offered in seven trims, from the basic Laredo to the nearly $90,000 Trackhawk.