Classically in Australia our off-road automotive has consisted of two vehicles. One is the Toyota Land Cruiser GXL (also known affectionately here as the Troopy) and the other is the Land Rover Defender. Both have been workhorses for many decades and have been a core driver in Australia's infrastructure changes. The Snowy Hydro Dam for example had both the Troopy and Defender as fleet and work vehicles. In fact if workers had any chance making it up the mountain to build that project the only vehicles they could possibly consider were either the Troopy or the Defender.
America, much the same as Australia, has it's own classic off-roader. Except it's not either of the two listed above. It was the Willy's Jeep, the predecessor to the Jeep Wrangler we know today. That Jeep saw year after year of service as well. They were used in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. They were also classically the vehicle you'd buy if you needed to go somewhere with rocks and water and you needed to tackle that terrain quick. The Wrangler was similarly known as a tough customer.
But then at the dawn of the 2010s something happened. Well a range of things happened actually. The knock on effects of the Global Financial Crisis were being felt across retail and manufacturing, technology was changing rapidly, a bunch of mergers occurred across automotive and the tides of the small car revolution in purchase habits changed. People started buying SUVs in a big way. In a huge way in fact.
The result was Jeep's priorities changed. Their marketing budget multiplied multiple times. They brought back cheaper products to range such as the Compass and removed their attempt at tapping into the absolute hardcore off-road segment with the Commander (a car that still haunts them to this day). And cars such as the Grand Cherokee and the Wrangler suffered. They suffered in a big way.
The Wrangler especially suffered from both model update anxiety and from pricing anxiety. ANCAP and EUROCAP then changed their standards on crash testing and it again effected the Wrangler offering. The Jeep Wrangler was awarded a 2 star safety rating (in fact here I believe the car at one point actually received just 1 star).
The American dollar then soared with the election of Donald Trump and parts for Jeep vehicles became both scarce and expensive. They became some of the most expensive cars to service on the market in both Australia and Europe and because FCA had directed the brand to sell cheaper vehicles in an effort to capture a higher volume market segment. The cars weren't all that reliable either.
And that brings me to 2020. The dawn of yet another new decade. The previous one was a turbulent one for Jeep, huge ups and even bigger downs. So reading between the lines, what does the 2020s hold for Jeep?
Well there are a couple of pieces of news that have been floating around which instill confidence in learning for the Jeep brand. The first is instead of cheapening manufacturing processes the reports out of the US are that they're actually expanding it. That means more men for more cars, which is normally a good thing if executed directly. Jeep have also said that as a result of this extra manufacturing capacity they'll be aiming to add 2 new models to the Jeep range over the coming years. At least one will most likely replace current models on range but the other are additions.
Then there's the current range. After the Grand Cherokee's ridiculous 10 years the sales results in that model specifically seem to have stabilised globally with minimal loss of growth over the past year and a half. This in part is probably to do with the re-pricing of the SRT and the introduction of the Trackhawk which for a second held the fastest ICE SUV in the world. I mean they're both gas gusslers but they seem to attract a consistent niche and they most definitely compete with their European counter parts.
In addition Jeep seem to be working through reliability as well. They're introduced a limited capped price servicing program which looks to be a reasonable expense compared to the previous cost of servicing and repairing a Jeep and they've strengthened their warranty with a 5 year transferable warranty (meaning second and third owners still have the benefit of that warranty). The other thing I found surprising is that Jeep are advertising a lifetime roadside assistance package, presuming the vehicle is serviced genuine. Considering the maximum most brands offer is 5 years, it feels an awful lot like Jeep are doing work around instilling confidence in their vehicles.
What should really excite FCA, though, is Jeep's next model release, the Jeep Gladiator. While Fiat Chrysler aren't marketing it this way, the Jeep Gladiator is Jeeps first true foray into the fleet and commercial segment. And it looks as if FCA aren't leaning into the idea of a commercial vehicle as a result of the Mercedes X-class learnings. That's smart. It's smart because the Gladiator sits at over the $60,000AUD mark which means it competes at the high end with the Amarok V6, the Ranger Wildtrak and the Raptor. And let's be honest, considering those cars all sit in Australia's best selling cars of 2019 you don't want to be competing there.
Instead FCA are trying to compete in a niche segment which will only have two competitors in it as of mid-2020. The Land Rover Defender and the Toyota Land Cruiser GXL. And where both of those products are extremely basic at the $60,000-$70,000AUD price point. The Gladiator is near fully specified. Little features such as large off-road tyres, sturdy suspension and their proprietary all-wheel drive systems are paired with much more attractive features such as heated seats, heated steering wheel, keyless entry, Apple Carplay, adaptive cruise control, queue assist and blind sport monitoring. It's worth noting that we don't know for sure that the car in Australia will be available with all of those options at base but looking at the current Jeep Wrangler we can take a good guess.
That paired with a 3.6L V6 petrol engine and a 3.1 tonne towing capacity makes it an attractive proposition when compared to the Ranger Wildtrak and the Amarok V6 Highline. It also makes it an even more attractive proposition when compared to that base GXL and Defender. One thing that puts a smile on my face though is that Jeep still want to lean into the sense of fun those cars create. I mean, remove the doors and roof on a Wrangler or Gladiator and they look far more like classic Land Rovers or Ford Broncos. And that's really really cool. That's beach bashing in 30+ degree Celsius heat.
In fact the only thing that's ever kept me away from the Jeep brand was the notorious reputation for terrible post-sales service and pricing on parts and repairs. But in the presumption those issues are in Jeep's past, maybe it's time I give one of these cars a drive and have some fun for myself. Prior to affording a fully restored Bronco or original Land Rover they seem to be a good stepping soon. And so that leaves me with the age old question. What could possibly go wrong?