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They bought a Jeep

Big American: The Jeep Grand Cherokee has been a sales winner for the brand in Australia.

Yes, Australian new-vehicle buyers have been rushing to their nearest Jeep dealer

16 Jul 2012

JEEP has had a chequered career in Australia as both a manufacturer and importer, but finally seems to have hit its straps with a strong model line-up, intelligent advertising and a motivated dealer group pushing sales to extraordinary levels in the past 18 months.

Born out of war-time, it seems that Jeep has always been fighting. A decade ago, it was fighting for survival and now it is a fight for respect and relevance in an increasing competitive global market.

But two new models – the Compass compact SUV and the new-generation Grand Cherokee flagship – have produced a succession of record-breaking months for the Jeep brand in Australia, culminating in an 83.3 per cent increase in June.

And that is just as well for parent company Chrysler Group Australia and its local dealer network because they have virtually been without product from the group’s other two brands, Chrysler (which has only just been revived with the new 300 sedan) and Dodge (which appears to be on death row).

Since the launch of the new Grand Cherokee in January 2011, though, Jeep sales have soared, rising from 5975 units in 2010 – which was itself the best result for Jeep in 13 years – to 8648 a year later (up 44.7 per cent).

Then, with the launch in January this year of the second-generation Compass – two years after the first was discontinued – sales took off.

 center imageFrom left: Jeep Cherokee Jeep Compass.

In the first six months of 2012, Jeep dealers shifted almost as many vehicles as last year’s full-year modern-day record. With 8238 sales year-to-date, Jeep is on track to rack up more than 16,000 sales for the full year, which will be about four times as many as it managed just three years ago.

While Compass sales have tallied 1510 in the first half – about the same as the similar but car-based and more boxy Patriot (1126 YTD) and the perennial classic-styled Wrangler (1423 YTD) – the bigger and more expensive Grand Cherokee has continued to be the star performer.

The Grand Cherokee – confusingly not related to the smaller and squarer Cherokee – has not only maintained sales momentum through this year, racking up 3583 sales YTD, it notched a new monthly record of 801 in June.

Jeep as a brand has had a chequered history of ownership since Willys started producing the iconic army jeep as a domestic vehicle after World War 2, and its sales have been similarly unsettled in Australia over a long period of time.

Few people would even remember that Jeeps were assembled in Australia until its troubled Renault-owned AMC parent pulled the plug in 1985 when the local dollar was floated, and plunged. But even at that time production was fewer than 1000 vehicles a year as local buyers wrestled with dubious quality against go-anywhere utility.

Chrysler bought the remnants of Jeep in 1987 and local Jeep sales increased to a peak of 7117 units in 1997 on the back of record sales of a new-generation Wrangler, but the brand immediately lost momentum after the troubled US car-maker was ‘merged’ with Daimler.

Sales suddenly halved in 1998 and stayed at around 3700 until the arrival in 2002 of the all-new Cherokee, a new style of vehicle for Jeep.

Called Liberty in the US but prevented by Subaru from using that badge in Australia, it had nothing in common with the previous-generation Cherokees and immediately made an impact, adding 1000 units to local sales.

Another new model Wrangler in 2007 provided the next boost for Jeep in Australia, but the GFC was already taking its toll by the time the next-generation Cherokee arrived in 2008 and sales plummeted for a couple of years before the turnaround began in 2010.

But that must seem like relatively ancient history for the new team at what is now the Fiat-owned Chrysler as they move into yet another new head office in Australia – its third in two years – this time in Port Melbourne.

Perhaps the days of dubious quality and dated design are now in the past and the toothy Jeep grille is finally a smile rather than a grimace.

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