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Baby Jeep will be no soft-roader

Italian-American: Jeep’s smallest vehicle will have Italian origins, sharing underpinnings with the Fiat Punto small hatch. (1998 Jeep Jeepster concept pictured)

Jeep promises to produce ‘Trail Rated’ version of Fiat-based sub-Patriot SUV

14 Aug 2012

JEEP’S promised baby SUV will be fit for the Australian Outback – if not the Rubicon Trail – when it arrives in 2015, despite sharing its underpinnings with an Italian commuter car.

The sub-Patriot B-segment Jeep will count among its rivals the Skoda Yeti, Subaru XV and Holden’s upcoming Trax, but the American SUV specialist is promising a rugged variant with class-leading off-road ability.

At a recent Fiat-Chrysler Australia media event, global Jeep brand president and CEO Mike Manley told journalists their would be at least one variant that would meet Jeep’s traditional ‘Trail Rated’ standard.

“The Jeep brand in terms of its equity around the world is too precious for us to weaken it with a product that is not a Jeep,” he said.

“There has to be one version that is Trail Rated, absolutely.

“If we can’t make it a Jeep, we won’t make it – that is the rule.” Jeep’s Trail Rated certification system is based on a vehicle’s traction, ground clearance, manoeuvrability, wheel articulation and water-fording abilities.

9 center imageFrom top: Fiat Chrysler Group's Mike Manley Jeep Compass Patriot Commander.

As an entrant to a rapidly growing segment, the new sub-compact SUV is likely to become Jeep’s biggest seller globally.

“I don’t think any of us have any clue about how big (the SUV B-segment) is going to be because I think it is going to be huge,” said Mr Manley.

To support this he said there will be front-drive and all-wheel-drive versions as well as the full-fat four-wheel-drive Trail Rated variant, plus a diesel to satisfy European tastes.

Mr Manley said the technology required for ultimate off-road ability is expensive, but that Jeep was committed to being a leader with at least model in each segment it contests.

“It’s expensive stuff, so we will offer one vehicle in each of our segments that is Trail Rated and then we will offer a range of vehicles that sit underneath that, which appeal to the rest of that segment’s demands.”

Nevertheless, the smallest Jeep will not have the rock-hopping ability of the iconic Wrangler, as Jeep applies different criteria in each vehicle segment to achieve Trail Rated status.

“Just by its very nature, you will never get a B (segment vehicle) as capable as a D,” said Mr Manley.

“There has to be a Trail Rated version and we have a very strict definition of what is Trail Rated we have numerous criteria and that has to be credible, segment-leading off-road capability.”

Mr Manley and other Jeep executives have previously been quoted saying the baby Jeep will be built on underpinnings originating from the Fiat Punto, though it remains unclear if it is the aging current car or a next-generation vehicle.

“We could probably have an hour discussing what a platform is, so let me say it’s off Fiat technology,” he said.

“The base technology comes on existing platforms within Fiat, then Fiat engineers and our Jeep engineers make all the appropriate changes to produce a Jeep, and that is very important.

“We can do that because of the way the technology has changed over the last few years in terms of how we can do the power take-off units, how we can incorporate all-wheel drive, how we can do axle disconnects, how we do all those things.”

Although Jeep has a backlog of 30,000 Wrangler orders and a similar number for the Grand Cherokee, Mr Manley is confident the Fiat-Chrysler group has enough global capacity to ensure supply of the B-segment vehicle.

Jeep’s US market share has grown from 6.9 per cent at the beginning of 2009 as Chrysler Group emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy to 16.0 per cent at the end of last month.

This success has been replicated in Australia, where consecutive years of falling sales in 2008 and 2009 was followed by a 42.5 per cent jump in 2010 and a further 44.7 per cent last year.

This year, Australian Jeep sales are 127.8 per cent up to the end of July with 9603 units sold, already around 1000 more than achieved in the whole of 2011.

“The compound growth of Jeep means its recovery curve is significant,” said Mr Manley.

“The success (and resultant waiting lists) we’ve had with Grand Cherokee (and) the success we’ve had with Wrangler is a good problem to have, but it’s a problem we need to fix.”

He attributes the recovery to the strength of the Jeep brand, combined with an improved product line-up and the promotion of Jeep to become Chrysler’s leading international brand.

“Grand Cherokee is the most awarded SUV on the planet and continues to receive huge awards (and) the interventions we’ve made in Wrangler with the new powertrain, the new transmission, new interior, new exterior hardtop, have been incredibly well-received.”

Mr Manley also cited improvements made to the compact Compass – which was reintroduced to Australia early this year following a facelift that added 2WD variants – and the closely related Patriot, which was tweaked last year and joined the Compass in offering 2WD entry-level variants in January.

“Until two years ago, there was no Trail Rating for Compass, so then we lifted the vehicle, I had the technology changed, it went through our system and we were able to Trail Rate the vehicle,” he said.

Fiat-Chrysler Australia managing director Clyde Campbell put Jeep’s local growth down to improved Grand Cherokee supply, plus the repositioned Compass and Patriot.

He said a seven-seat Jeep SUV is “in the pipeline” for Australia, to succeed the hulking Commander that was discontinued in 2010.

GoAuto understands the seven-seater will be based on the Dodge Durango and is expected to reprise the Grand Wagoneer nameplate used between 1963 and 1991 on a vehicle that laid claim to being the first luxury SUV – seven years before the first Range Rover appeared.

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