U.S. Markets closed

New Jeep SUVs, including a military Gladiator, come at crucial time for FCA

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah – While much of the auto industry ponders what to make of Fiat Chrysler’s proposed merger with the Peugeot owner, PSA Group, Jeep engineers and executives have bigger fish to fry.

Their work over the next couple of years will go a long way toward determining what the future holds for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and whomever it joins forces with.

On Jeep’s horizon: a new version and expanded product line for the Grand Cherokee, the SUV that’s printed money like the U.S. Treasury for more than two decades; reviving the venerated Grand Wagoneer nameplate for a new luxury SUV; possibly returning Jeep to service with the U.S. military, the partnership upon which the brand built its legend; and adding diesel versions of the Wrangler SUV and Gladiator pickup.

“We listen to our customers,” Jeep North America boss Jim Morrison said minutes before we drove a yellow 2020 Wrangler diesel – the first diesel Wrangler – into the canyons and plateaus of Zion National Park.

The 2020 Jeep Wrangler Ecodiesel takes on rocks in Utah.

You can read about driving the 2020 Wrangler Ecodiesel at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday on Freep.com or in that day’s hard copy of the Free Press.

A hint: It’s got the same 3.0L diesel V6 that powers the bigger and heavier Ram 1500 pickup. The engine sends 442 pound-feet of torque through a two-speed transfer case and eight-speed automatic transmission. You can imagine how it performs on steep rocky slopes and deep sand.

Morrison’s been busy in the four months since he returned to Jeep after a stint running FCA’s other money machine: Ram trucks’ North American operations. Morrison spent six years at Jeep before taking over Ram in 2016. He knows the brand inside and out, reveling at the wave Wrangler owners share on the road and the questions other travelers ask when they see his Jeep jacket in the airport.

Still a boys club: Despite GM CEO Mary Barra's success, auto industry dominated by men

Top rides: Toyota Sequoia is one of the cars Americans drive the most

Jeep volunteers for the Army

Jeep and AM General built the Gladiator Extreme Military Truck (XMT) for U.S. military evaluation.

A week ago, Morrison pitched a sand-colored Jeep Gladiator pickup to the U.S. Army. Developed with veteran military contractor AM General, the Gladiator Extreme Military Truck, or XMT, is Jeep’s first venture back to the military in decades.

AM General upfitted the Gladiator with custom-made and off-the-shelf military-grade parts to create the XMT. The company would fit FCA-made Gladiators with mission-specific equipment to serve as personnel carriers, command and control vehicles and more.

Production could begin as early as the second half of 2020.   

In the pipeline

  • A new version of the Jeep Cherokee, likely to be based on the Giorgio architecture Fiat Chrysler uses for the Alfa Romeo Stelvio SUV and Giulia sport sedan. The Grand Cherokee is a long-running hit, one of the few good things to come from Chrysler’s merger with Mercedes. Expect the new Grand Cherokee to be bigger and far more capable off-road than the Stelvio but still to benefit from the Alfa’s luxury ride and handling. The new model will seat five and should go on sale in 2021.
  • A second vehicle, its name not public yet, that will offer a third row of seats to carry six or seven. Based on the new Grand Cherokee, it’s likely to be built in the Mack Avenue plant FCA’s building near the Grand Cherokee plant on North Jefferson  on Detroit’s east side. Sales are likely in 2021. It’s not clear whether the two- or three-row SUV will go into production first.
  • The Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer, bigger SUVs engineered and equipped to compete with luxury icons such as the Lincoln Navigator, Cadillac Escalade and Mercedes GLS. Details are scant, but the Grand Wagoneer will be more luxurious, if not bigger. The SUVs are likely to be based on a pickup-type body-on-frame chassis, like the Escalade and Navigator. Production is likely to begin in late 2020 at FCA’s sprawling Warren plant just north of Detroit.

Expect the sky to be the limit on size, interior luxury, features and price for the Grand Wagoneer. The Wagoneer will probably target less ritzy and possibly slightly smaller vehicles such as the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon/Yukon XL.

Barring a dramatic economic downturn or increase in fuel prices, those four new SUVs will print money For Fiat Chrysler ... as long Jeep gets them right.

That’s why Morrison and his team don’t have time to worry about trivia such as multibillion dollar global alliances. They’ve got Jeeps to build.

Contact Mark Phelan at 313-222-6731 or  mmphelan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan. Read more on autos and sign up for our autos newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: New Grand Wagoneer, Army Gladiator loom as Jeep enters crucial time