1978 Jeep J10 'Honcho'
1978 Jeep J10 ‘Honcho’

Jeep is one of the greatest automotive brands in American history, and I am worried about it. The company has managed to survive against incredible odds, having been kicked-around between multiple owners and suffering bouts of incredible mismanagement, but they may now be on the verge of own self destruction . . . because they are losing their soul.

As the former owner of a 1978 Jeep J10 ‘Honcho’ pickup (see photo), I understand the ‘Jeep thing’ . . . and I know what would make me look at a Jeep the next time I’m in the market. But Jeep’s minders at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)—like its former minders at the U.S. federal government, Cerberus Capital Management, and Daimler-Chrysler—seem to be moving the brand squarely in the wrong direction.

The Problem

Jeeps are supposed to be rugged, reliable, go-anywhere vehicles. Their value is in their capabilities. They have carved out a loyal niche with the Wrangler (the modern version of the classic CJ’s), which is one of the only capable, compact off-roaders that you can buy anymore.

Today’s leaders at Jeep seem to want to broaden their market, and have branched out into building run-of-the-mill crossovers. This is a major strategic error. There is plenty of room for Jeep to grow, but it shouldn’t be trying to grow by fighting head-on against every other company in the automotive market. They need to grow by making compelling products and compelling arguments that nobody else will make. They need to build a niche and keep an impenetrable hold on it. It’s better to have ten-thousand dedicated, loyal customers who won’t even look at anybody else’s products than to have a hundred-thousand that are willing to consider you . . . as one option in a sea of fifty others.

I gave the Jeep Cherokee—a reasonably competitive mid-sized crossover—the dishonorable mention in my piece, The Ugliest Cars of the 2014 Model Year. This mention was not because it is especially ugly, although the front-end could use some work, but because it marks an unfortunate turn for Jeep. Sure, the Cherokee is a fine vehicle, and it is selling well. But there is more to Jeep’s long-term success than moving more cars off the lot. They need to align themselves to be able to continue moving cars off the lot for years and decades to come. As I wrote in the aforementioned piece:

Jeep’s future doesn’t hinge on reaching a mass market, but instead on playing to its strengths—toughness, simplicity, reliability, capability. Jeeps shouldn’t be pretty, and they sure as hell shouldn’t be cute. Jeep shouldn’t be selling crossovers, it should be selling the alternative to the crossover. . . .

Don’t compete with Hyundai and Toyota for the family hauler market, seize the woefully under-served market for people who want a serious SUV but can’t afford a Land Rover. Don’t fight with the crowd over some small slice of the huge market, but develop an impenetrable lock on your own little niche, and grow that niche incrementally. Bring back the pickups, drop the psuedo-Jeeps like the Compass, Patriot, and Renegade, and sell a full line of the toughest go-anywhere vehicles you can buy in the under-forty-thousand price range.

I stand by these comments, and I am still convinced that this strategy is the best way forward for the brand.

As I have thought about this and discussed the matter with some friends—some who agree with me, and some who don’t—I have developed a ‘high level’ plan for what I would do if I were [somehow] put in charge of the Jeep division of FCA. And here it is.

The Bradford Plan

Jeep still has the Wrangler niche, and it works well for them, but they have done little to grow that niche. Jeep needs to build on the Wranger’s success, not ride it out while they try to branch out into markets that don’t suit the Jeep name. The Daimler-Chrysler era Patriot and Compass models diluted and hurt the Jeep brand, and FCA’s efforts with the Cherokee, while probably not harmful, certainly aren’t going to do the brand any favors in the long run.

Worse, FCA is soon to roll out the Jeep Renegade, a cutesy lifestyle car that is more like the disastrous Compass than it is like the iconic Wrangler. And even the Wrangler is now picking up cutesy little touches . . . like a little silhouetted Wrangler icon driving up the edge of the windshield, and the Jeep grille silhouette between the driver and passenger visors. These undermine Jeep’s well-earned reputation for simple utilitarianism; nothing should be in a Jeep cabin that isn’t in some way useful to the driver or passengers.

If I were the supreme dictator of Jeep, I would go all-in with the Wrangler . . . minus the aforementioned cheese. The Wrangler (and its predecessor, the CJ) has been the basis of Jeep’s success through its entire history, and it could easily be the seed of the brand’s rebirth. I would make the Wrangler’s body-on-frame chassis the basis of every single product that Jeep sells. At other automakers, the entire crossover and SUV market seems to be going to unibody construction—including iconic former-trucks like the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder. Jeep can build its reputation as the brand for serious off-roaders and go-anywhere adventurers by going in the opposite direction, and making a full line of rock-solid, simple, flexible, body-on-frame vehicles.

Additionally, every Jeep product should be four-wheel-drive. There is no point in a two-wheel-drive Jeep. The Jeep brand shouldn’t be about looking tough and capable, it should be about being tough and capable. Subaru has found great success in offering a full-line of all-wheel-drive vehicles, which has built them a solid reputation for making vehicles that can do what many of their competitors’ vehicles can’t. Jeep should follow in their footsteps.

All Jeeps should be based on four variants of the same underlying chassis: short, medium, long, x-long. Jeep already has the appropriate short (Wrangler 2-door) and medium (Wrangler Unlimited 4-door) chassis; the only new development here would be two extended versions to underpin the larger vehicles in the lineup. Using variants of the same chassis and a small selection of engines and transmissions across the entire line would have cost benefits, thanks to economies of scale, and would also make it easy to swap parts and customize (e.g., a toughened part for the Wrangler could be installed easily on almost any other Jeep). This strategy has also been used to great effect by Subaru, which uses only two platforms (Impreza and Legacy) to underpin almost everything in its product line. Many performance parts designed for the Subaru WRX STI, for example, can be installed on any other Impreza-based vehicle, including the Impreza itself, the WRX, the Forester, and the XV Crosstrek.

An important part of my strategy for Jeep is that everything would be as ‘hackable’ as possible. Every stereo should be in the standard DIN or double-DIN sizes with standard mounts. Even most of the little ‘stuff’ cubbies around the cabin should be DIN sized so they can accept aftermarket accessories . . . the backs of these cubbies would have pop-out doors to allow owners to run wires as-needed. Anything on the vehicle that can be made removable or adjustable without serious safety concerns should be made removable or adjustable.

I would offer two ‘normal’ trim levels on every product: ‘standard’ (sane defaults and a competitive array of features) and ‘premium’ (sane defaults and a ‘high-end’ feature set). But I would also offer a third trim, priced well below each of these: the ‘hacker’ trim. Hacker vehicles would come with just the bare-bones of a car—body, engine, transmission, wheels, required safety equipment, and a no-frills interior. There would be no stereo, no trip computers, no seat heaters, no nothin’. Instead, there would be a bunch of empty DIN and double-DIN slots, empty speaker mounts, pre-drilled NMO antenna mounts [with body-colored plugs in case you don't need them], and wiring already in-place for whatever you need or want. As the owner, you could either keep it as-is (if you like the rugged, utilitarian type of vehicle), or you could install—with minimal hassle—whatever you like. Jeep itself would offer install kits for all of the components that come pre-installed in the standard and premium trims, and maybe a bunch of upgrade options. Any aftermarket stereo equipment, two-way radio equipment, and so-on could also be obtained and installed easily.

Today, there is an incredibly active ‘builder’ community—people who like to create their own products, add-ons, and accessories—but there are no cars built with them in mind. There is no easy way for an amateur radio enthusiast, stereo/audio enthusiast, builder, or hacker to ‘roll their own’ new car without first having to tear-out things that are already there, buy or build adapter kits, run their own wiring, and tear their hair out trying to get everything back together again looking halfway acceptable. Jeeps should come from the factory ready-to-hack . . . especially in these bare-bones trim levels, but even in the higher trims everything should be easy to modify and customize.

Today, these folks cross-shop in the broad auto market because they know they will have an equally hard time customizing any vehicle they purchase. Jeep should make it easy for them: give them exactly what they want. Buyers who don’t want to hack can buy the standard or premium trims, and then they’ll never have to. These trim levels should deliver a functional, competitive vehicle that works great ‘out of the box’ . . . but even so, it shouldn’t get in their way if they decide to add something new or swap something out a decade later. But those who buy a car knowing they’re going to tear it up and change it around will, for the first time in decades, have options . . . and those options will all have Jeep badges.

Jeep also needs to bring back their trucks and drop the vehicles that don’t fit with the above vision of hackable, rugged, capable vehicles. Anybody who wants a vehicle that can go off the beaten path, navigate through a blizzard, and yet function just as well as a day-to-day ride should be able to go to a Jeep dealer, buy anything off the lot, and know they have bought something that will do the job and do it well.

The Lineup

So that’s the vision. Finally, I leave you with my thoughts of what a Jeep product lineup ought to look like, complete with the names I think they ought to use (all of which come from current or previous Jeep products). I have also included price targets that I think they ought to aim for:

Name Type Size Chassis Doors Hacker Standard Premium
Wrangler Soft-top SUV Compact Short 2d $18k $21k $24k
Renegade SUV Compact Short 4d $20k $23k $26k
Commanche Pickup Mid-size Medium 2d $22k $25k $28k
Wrangler 4-Door Soft-top SUV Mid-size Medium 4d $23k $26k $29k
Cherokee SUV Mid-size Medium 4d $24k $27k $30k
Honcho Pickup [ext. cab] Full-size Long 2.5d $25k $28k $31k
Grand Cherokee SUV [7-seat] Full-size Long 4d $27k $30k $33k
Honcho 4-Door Pickup [crew cab] Large X-Long 4d $29k $32k $35k
Wagoneer SUV [8-seat] Large X-Long 4d $32k $35k $38k

As for me, well, sign me up for one of those Honcho pickups in another few years when I’m in the market again. Or just leave my money on the table, FCA . . . I’m sure Ford will take it.