NEW YORK--Earlier today I posted an article detailing my chat with Ram President and CEO Fred Diaz. A few minutes after our chat at Chrysler's display at the New York Auto Show, I spoke with Mike Manley, who is the president and CEO of Jeep, as well as the lead executive for international operations for Chrysler.
Jeep is an interesting place right now. The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee will be the first new or redesigned model to be launched since the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2009 and merged with Italian automaker Fiat. That means the world will be watching closely, and Manley is acutely aware of this.
"We have plenty of pressure on us," Manley said. "It's hugely important. We will make sure that the vehicle and the launch will be flawless."
Chrysler is banking on a combination of fuel-economy and off-road performance to help gain sales for the next Grand Cherokee. Shifts in the SUV marketplace have dictated that automakers concentrate more on fuel-economy concerns, and Chrysler is counting on the alliance with Fiat to help address those concerns. Fiat has been known for small cars in Europe, and Chrysler is hoping that can translate into better mpg on its larger vehicles.
Fiat's influence is already being felt in other ways, even if it's not yet noticeable to outsiders. Manley says that Fiat brings three main influences to the brand: Technology, fuel economy, and small-platform expertise. But he made it clear that Fiat has already affected Chrysler in another significant way--manufacturing. Manley said Chrysler is already learning new manufacturing processes, thanks to Fiat.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee was already in the development pipeline before the alliance, but Manley says that Fiat has had an influence on the last 25 percent of the process. Fiat will also be heavily involved in future product plans for the brand. According to Manley, Jeep will have a Fiat-based B-segment crossover in its lineup in the next few years.
The future vision for the brand, according to Manley, is to be able to reach into all available niches while doing well in the niches that Jeep is already present in. This doesn't mean Jeep will start making cars or pickup trucks soon, but it does mean that the Liberty and Patriot will probably get significant refreshes soon, perhaps in conjunction with the brand's upcoming 70th anniversary. As for the Commander, that model's future is being studied.
What about the iconic Wrangler? Manley said that the body-on-frame Wrangler will remain so, in order to keep its off-road ability (that noise you just heard was enthusiasts breathing a sigh of relief). Beyond that, Wrangler is due for changes this summer, but Manley didn't elaborate on details. Still, the special editions that have been teased in advance of the Moab Easter Jeep Safari--which is going on now--probably provide some pretty good hints.
In the meantime, Manley has this to say about the best-known Jeep: "What we do with Wrangler is bring some great special editions to market."
Manley says that no matter what happens, one thing will remain constant: The brand's identity.
"Jeep will remain Jeep," he said.