JEEP looks increasingly likely to offer a ute version of its next-generation Wrangler, which is set to hit the market in 2014 or 2015.
And parent company Fiat-Chrysler is also considering a separate and smaller Toyota HiLux rival based on combined know-how from van specialist Fiat Professional and US truck brand Ram.
Given the current Wrangler is priced from $32,000 (plus ORCs), a ute version would provide Australian tradies, weekend warriors and enthusiasts with a more affordable alternative to the similarly rugged and iconic Land Rover Defender (single-cab from $48,190) or Toyota 70-Series LandCruiser (cab-chassis from $58,540).
During a recent conversation about the likelihood of right-hand-drive Ram trucks reaching production, global Jeep brand president and CEO Mike Manley – on his first visit to Australia – put it to journalists that a Jeep ute was more likely.
“Everything Jeep makes comes in right-hand drive, so when I think about the future, a right-hand-drive Jeep pick-up could probably have more potential than the Ram we understand today,” he said.
Hinting at a potential HiLux competitor that would be sold under the Fiat Professional or Ram brands depending on market, Mr Manley said Fiat-Chrysler is working on “very versatile” next-generation commercial vehicle platforms.
From top: Fiat Chrysler Group's Mike Manley Original Jeep Gladiator Original Jeep Scrambler Original Jeep Comanche Jeep Mopar JK-8 Independence Kit.
“I can see an opportunity in the future for a pick-up on a platform that has enough global volume to be able to say we can have a global pick-up in this segment – left-hand drive and right-hand drive – because we’ve got a platform versatile enough to make it – and I’m not talking about a Wrangler.”While a HiLux rival could be several years away, Mr Manley said a decision on the Wrangler ute would be made in “the short- to medium-term future”.
“We are now thinking of when it would be viable to offer a pick-up (version) of the Wrangler and it would probably be next generation ... in three years, maybe four – and the reason that becomes more viable is that you can plan it into the plant.”He explained that worldwide demand for the Wrangler is such that Jeep’s factories have a backlog of 30,000 orders, with a similar waiting list for the Grand Cherokee.
A Jeep ute is not without precedent as the brand, in its several former incarnations under different ownership, has produced the Gladiator in the 1960s, followed by the Scrambler and Cherokee-based Comanche in the 1980s.
Jeep unveiled a reborn Gladiator in concept form at the 2005 Detroit motor show, complete with suicide-door space cab, and last year Chrysler Group’s official aftermarket brand Mopar released the JK-8 Independence kit, which converts a Wrangler into a ute.
Mr Manley said Mopar came up with the JK-8 Independence Kit “in response to the huge demand”.
One of the issues Jeep has to overcome will be the wheelbase extension required to provide a dual-cab with decent tray capacity, which risks a reduction in breakover angle and the subsequent impact on Jeep’s renown off-road capability.
“I know with a two-door it is no worries at all and I think you can probably get a short bed on a four-door and maybe extend on the bed,” said Mr Manley.
“But if you do it on a Wrangler, even though you could say it is a different Wrangler to the mainstream one, we’ve got to be very careful that the pick-up is a true Wrangler because it’s such an iconic vehicle and so important for Jeep.”He said a Wrangler Ute would “automatically” be possible to produce in RHD, meaning it would just be a case of evaluating the cost of homologating the model for markets that drive on the left, and did not see that as an obstacle.
“The only reason we wouldn’t do that would be if market demand was below that small investment, which I would seriously doubt.”Mr Manley said the next-generation Wrangler is highly likely continue with a body-on-frame design, but the generation after that could be forced to drop the ladder chassis.
“Vehicle capability is fundamental. It would be very difficult to create the level of capability if you departed too much from body-on-frame.
“The Wrangler has to be the extreme capable vehicle in our brand, so I think body-on-frame is the way to go with Wrangler, certainly for next generation. Afterwards, we will see where technology takes us.”In terms of where technology could take Jeep in maintaining off-road ability while moving away from a separate chassis, Mr Manley cited as an example the ageing Cherokee (sold elsewhere as Liberty), which will be replaced next year.
“There are different ways of developing capability. When we did the last Liberty, which is an incredibly capable vehicle, it is not body-on-frame but it is almost like a uni-frame body because it has a lot of strength in it.”Jeep needs to find ways of reducing fuel usage and this will become a focus during the next Wrangler’s development.
“The biggest area where we have to develop Wrangler next is, given the capability we want, how to improve its fuel efficiency,” said Mr Manley.
“It is loved for what it is today, but it has to survive a different world in the future so that will be a huge focus for us – how can we use technology, how can we save weight, how can we do those things to create more fuel economy within the vehicle.”One way of reducing consumption will be the wider introduction of diesel through the alliance with European-focussed Fiat, which provides economies of scale and the scope to invest in cleaner, more efficient engines.
Jeep will reintroduce diesel to the US in the first quarter of next year with the Grand Cherokee and Mr Manley said there is a convergence between the technology required to achieve Euro 6 emissions standards and satisfy anti-pollution criteria in the US.