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Insight – 75 years on, Jeep looks forward

Rescued by Fiat in 2009, the oldest 4x4 brand is on the up.

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As we arrived at the Jeep 75th Anniversary event in Yorkshire, the first thing we saw was a reminder of what this brand is about – a Second World War Willys-Jeep.

There are many brands that claim to offer models that can ‘go anywhere’ – most notably that British institution Land Rover. But the very first Land Rover, launched in 1948, was an attempt to build on a 4×4 that had been launched in 1941 as the US military’s vehicle of choice, and as a result had found itself in every corner of the world as part of America’s global war effort – the Jeep.

Willys Jeep alongside a current Jeep Wrangler
The Wrangler at back is directly descended from the WW2 Willys-Jeep.

Some say that the seven bars on the grille of every Jeep, perhaps the most famous aspect of the brand apart from that go-anywhere ability, is because it was the first vehicle to drive on all seven continents – others that the bars represent the seven wonders of the natural world, the seven seas… there are many stories.

Seven years ago, however, Jeep was in danger of writing its final stories. The financial crash was bringing the US auto industry to its knees, and Jeep owner Chrysler found itself filing for bankruptcy. The proverbial ‘white knight’ was Sergio Marchionne, head of Fiat, and Chrysler, and therefore Jeep, was merged into the Italian state brand to become Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Four years later Marchionne released his five-year growth plan for FCA, and with the SUV market booming Jeep was the prime focus, set to move “into territory where it’s never been before.” From 497,000 global sales in 2008, Jeep exceeded a million for the first time in 2014, followed by an even better year in 2015.

The UK has played a big part in that success. “We’ve had tough times but we are having real fun now because we are doing really well,” say Jeep’s UK head of brand Damien Dally.

Jeep Renegade
The Renegade is by far Jeep’s most successful model.

“(In percentage terms) 2013 saw us record the biggest growth on the UK market except MG and SsangYong,” Dally tells us. “In 2015 we were the fastest growing of all.”

And the momentum is continuing. At the end of 2015 Jeep’s 10,794 vehicles registered was 176 per cent better than in 2014. By the end of September 2016, the figure was 11,762, 39 per cent up.

The one model that has transformed Jeep’s fortunes is the first we drive – the Renegade is a stylish SUV to properly compete in today’s mushrooming market, but it is still a Jeep. We are left in no doubt of that as the route directs us across the middle of a Yorkshire moor and up a ‘road’ that is nothing more than large slabs of rock at all sorts of crazy angles to each other.

The Renegade is by far Jeep’s most successful nameplate. Of the 12,500 cars the brand expects to sell in the UK in 2016, three quarters will be Renegades. It now outsells its direct rivals, the Skoda Yeti and MINI Countryman, and Dally is particularly pleased about beating the MINI on what is considered home turf.

And more is to come. Just unveiled is the Compass – it will be on sale in a year’s time, slotting between the Renegade and the larger Cherokee, and will play a major role in achieving Marchionne’s growth ambitions.

Jeep dealers are getting a new look, often shared with Alfa Romeo outlets.
Jeep dealers are getting a new look, often shared with Alfa Romeo outlets.

So the product is there, and the dealers are following. Dally is proud of the fact that just five of Jeep’s current 68 outlets were with the brand in the Chrysler Jeep years. The network has been transformed, in both profitability, attitude and look. Several are in joint showrooms with sister brand Alfa Romeo; “It’s an absolutely deliberate strategy for us to partner with Alfa Romeo, we share similarities in the passion owners have for the brand. We’re making a big focus on customer experience.”

Dally emphasises that the priority in improving awareness of the Jeep brand is on owners of the cars; “We want to make every single one of them an ambassador for the brand, based on enthusiasm, passion, having fun, living life to the full.”

Jeep showed off its prowess during the 75th anniversary event by setting up a ‘pop-up’ dealership on the cliffs above Robin Hood’s Bay, where only 4x4s could reach it.

It is not, however, about emphasising Jeep’s virtually unmatched off-road capabilities. Some believe that with Land Rover having temporarily at least abandoned its most traditional model, the Defender, and focused on its more upmarket and therefore more expensive models, that Jeep should be rushing to fill the gap with its veteran, the Wrangler – the model most closely related to the original Willys-Jeep. Dally doesn’t agree.

“We didn’t need to reinforce our 4×4 credentials. Instead we can reinforce our authenticity. It’s like wearing a TAG Heuer or Rolex watch – it might be accurate to 100/000th of a second, able to dive hundreds of metres, but very few owners will ever use those capabilities. They have the watch because ‘it can.’”

Everyone knows Jeeps can go extreme off-roading, he adds, but: “We very much distinguish the brand as about living life to the full. In our videos we always show people having fun – snowsports, surfing, mountain biking.”

And anyway sales of the Wrangler, built in the USA, are significantly production-constrained. “We’ve only ever sold 500 Wranglers a year in the UK – we sell every one we can get. I want to make the brand about passion, not fill a gap left by Land Rover.”

Such demand for the Wrangler has not stopped Jeep including it in the 75th anniversary limited edition range with bespoke liveries and upholsteries and extra equipment, along with on the two we tested a green paint finish appropriately dubbed ‘Sarge Green’.

Such special cars will celebrate Jeep’s big birthday in style but the future is about mainstream models, the Renegade, the Compass and more to come, as Jeep chases much bigger customer numbers attracted to the brand as much by the prospect of having fun as by climbing up a rocky gorge long after the road runs out…

Jeep Cherokees on a rocky incline

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.