Friday, July 25, 2014

Next Jeep Wrangler Could Target Crossovers

As expected for such an iconic vehicle, news and rumors about the upcoming redesign of the Jeep Wrangler for the 2017 model-year continue to pour in from every corner of the automotive press.  That recent batch of articles were published after the Jeep brand head Mike Manley made some comments at a press event regarding its redesign:
You're going to see continued improvements in terms of the powertrain package . . . We've got a lot of experts at this moment in time working on that project.
Since the Wrangler continues to set ever-higher sales records, one would think that the "Jeep formula" is already figured out and redesigning a new generation of the vehicle would be straightforward - evolve the current JK to be better in every way.  Unfortunately, government meddling in the free market means ever-stricter fuel economy standards must be met as legislators attempt to rewrite the laws of physics.  Jeep's engineers are forced to walk a very fine line, as their customer base demands that the Wrangler remains true to its roots while government imposes cookie-cutter regulations.  It's no exaggeration to say that the Wrangler's (and the entire Jeep brand's) hard-earned reputation are on the line.

Instead of rightly pointing his finger at government regulators, Mike Manley is using the Wrangler's popularity amongst the mallcrawler crowd as Jeep's reasoning for pursuing fuel economy and comfort with its redesign:
You can't sell 19,000-plus retail Wranglers [as the brand did in May] to people who just want to go off-roading.  Why would, for example, somebody else's SUV that's really an on-road 'soft' SUV not be for me a genuine target for Wrangler?
My feeling is that the Wrangler truly has no competition in the United States:

  • The Suzuki Jimny would be a competitor, but it's no longer sold in the United States.

I never would have bought my Wrangler Rubicon if it wasn't available with a proper pair of solid axles front and rear.  I've built and owned numerous different 4x4s over the years, and I've never been happy with traditional IFS/IRS setups.  Sure, independent suspension is okay on the road, but to date nobody has built a consumer vehicle with an independent suspension that can perform as well (or be as durable) in the variety of terrain that a solid axle can.  I've learned my lesson the hard and expensive way, so from this point forward my offroad vehicle will always be equipped with solid axles front and rear.

Other than the head-toss issue, my Wrangler rides and handles every bit as well as my lifted IFS vehicles ever did.  Even the recirculating ball steering box's notorious "mushy steering" has been eliminated by upgrading the track bar, its axle- and frame-side mounts, and adding a sector shaft reinforcing kit.  I am consistently impressed with how well my Jeep rides and drives, how flat it corners, and how precise the steering is despite a 3.5" lift, 35x12.5x17 mud tires, and long-travel solid-axle suspension.  On trails where my independent-sprung vehicles were white-knuckle tippy teeter-tottering rides that blew ball joints and CV axles and steering linkage and diff gears fairly regularly, my JK is absolutely point-and-shoot, never lifting a tire, feeling tippy, or having ever broken anything.

If Jeep decides to develop an independent suspension system for the Wrangler, I don't doubt that a properly-engineered setup could work decently off-road in stock form, as long as Jeep applies themselves as well as Ford did with the Raptor; but I have serious doubts that IFS/IRS will ever have the aftermarket capability that a solid axle does, nor the appeal to (or affordability for) the "average Joe" who wants to bolt on his own suspension upgrades at home in his own garage over a weekend.  Jeep already offers a full line of independent suspension crossovers, yet mall-crawler people continue to buy the Wrangler hand-over-fist not because of its on-road comfort but because of its offroad capabilities; wanna-be offroaders are happy to deal with the "downsides" of the Wrangler (I call them personality) in exchange for the reputation of the vehicle.  If Jeep emasculates the Wrangler with independent suspension, a fixed hardtop, and non-removable doors, they will kill the vehicle's reputation and it will no longer appeal to either the wanna-be's or the enthusiasts.

Four Wheeler Magazine published a nice wish-list of features for the 2017 Wrangler from the offroad enthusiasts' standpoint.  Most of those offroad-oriented features stand little chance of becoming production reality, but all are thought-provoking and well worth Jeep's consideration.

Jeep enthusiasts know that nothing gives the offroad capability nor the durability of a pair of solid axles.  A pair of solid axles is as critical to the Wrangler as a rear-mounted engine is to the Porsche 911.  As Jeep has made on-road sissies of every other vehicle in their lineup with independent suspension front and rear, the "halo car" of the brand - the Wrangler - has steadfastly retained its solid axles because the Wrangler's off-road reputation is what sells Cherokees and Compasses.  Car and Driver Magazine's sentiments exactly reflect mine:
We believe, however, that Fiat-Chrysler won’t ruin its very profitable icon, one that remains in high demand and which—like the Mercedes-Benz G-class—succeeds not in spite of its archaic technologies but because of them.

From the sounds of it, Mike Manley and the entire Jeep team seem to understand how important the Wrangler's capabilities are, not only to the enthusiast market but also do the wanna-be faux-wheelers:
One thing that [Jeep] will not do is dilute what Wrangler stands for.
Porsche was able to overcome the initial dismay by their fan base from the 911's loss of its iconic air-cooled engine by upgrading to a fantastic water-cooled replacement that bettered its predecessor in every way.  If Jeep can engineer a new kind of independent suspension that improves upon the performance of the iconic solid axle in every way - while still being able to be modified by the offroad aftermarket industry and allow the Wrangler to retain its appeal to its core fan base - then perhaps a move to independent suspension isn't as terrible as it sounds.

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