Friday, August 17, 2012

Two Interviews with Mark Allen, Head of Jeep Design

Mark Allen posing with one of Jeep's finer creations, the Pork Chop Concept

As Head of Jeep Design, Mark Allen is one of the primary driving forces in the direction the Jeep brand goes.  As a very specifically-defined brand, any change in the core vehicles - particularly the Wrangler - is critically considered by executives and consumers alike.  Thus, two recent enlightening interviews with Mr. Allen provide both relief and concern regarding the future of the Jeep brand and its core vehicles.

A year ago, Jeep published this Executive Interview with Mark Allen which gives us an idea what he's like as an individual, and what his views are of the Jeep brand.  While informative, this was much more of a "fluff piece" than the following interview that recently turned up in one of my favorite automotive publications:

Truck Trend Magazine published this brief interview from the 2012 Jeep Experience in Colorado where they ran into Mr. Allen.  His comments are candid and therefore much less scripted; I found his words here to be much more reassuring regarding the future direction of the Jeep brand.  In particular, this quote from the article:
Unlike some newer upstart brands contrived to appeal to an idealized youthful, urban demographic with features such as loud colors and flashing synchronized speaker accents, Allen said Jeep sees itself as a much more grounded, authentic brand. "We've got these brand boards we put together in the studio. It's like a visual representation of Jeep. It's this whole idea of a competent, rugged American. It's a WWII, greatest generation guy, just there to help. It's not an obnoxious, in-your-face brand. That's kind of what's in our head. Going back to the World War II days, Jeep was really the replacement for the horse. That's what I'd consider the essence of Jeep. It's not a rowdy brand, it's a confident helper," Allen said.

I did find the following quote from the interview to be a bit discouraging, though:
The Wrangler and its predecessors have long used the same basic formula -- body-on-frame construction, and front and rear solid axles -- but Allen doesn't necessarily see those two attributes being the defining characteristics of the brand or even the Wrangler itself. "I don't know if I'd consider body-on-frame as that big a part of the Jeep identity. I consider tractive capability more of the core of what Jeep is. It really doesn't matter if it's body-on-frame or not, it's all about the capability. I wouldn't say body-on-frame is a driving factor in how we build the next Wrangler."
It's true that the XJ Cherokee and ZJ/WJ Grand Cherokees were respected unibody Jeeps with solid axles which were therefore were very capable off-road, but they are notorious for unibody weaknesses that lead to the main structure of the vehicles failing long before the drivetrain was worn out.  Aftermarket reinforcements to the unibody's structure are little more than band-aid fixes to a problem that should never have happened in the first place.

While I'm relieved to hear that "tractive capability" is still a top priority, I fear that a unibody Wrangler will result in a huge reduction in (if not outright destruction of) the Wrangler's offroad-first capability.  Look to Land Rover's Range Rover and Discovery, Nissan's Pathfinder, Suzuki's Vitara or even Jeep's own Grand Cherokee as recent examples.  Even the downgrade from a solid front axle to an independent front suspension completely neuters an SUV's capabilities; the Toyota Land Cruiser, 4Runner, and pickups, and the Chevy/GMC pickups and SUVs illustrate how a loss of focus on a 4x4's offroad abilities completely ruins the vehicle for the core offroad/heavy-duty market.

Mark Allen (and everyone else at Jeep) I hope you're listening:

Please don't ruin the Wrangler by equipping it with independent suspension or a unit body.  You have several other vehicles to experiment with, but the Wrangler's formula simply should not be messed with!

Mark Allen, Head of Jeep Design, holds the future of Jeep in his hands.

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