Maintaining its rugged, go-anywhere image is a top priority for Jeep.
Or at least it is to this automaker’s relatively new leader, Tim Kuniskis, an FCA veteran who now wears two hats. He’s both the global head of Alfa Romeo and runs Jeep in North America. According to him, “The only thing that really matters at the end of the day is the brand. The strength of the brand, the positioning of the brand and how you differentiate yourself in the market.”
Whether an automaker chooses to set itself apart from rivals through autonomous technology, by offering electric vehicles, via focusing on trucks or something else entirely, Kuniskis said it all comes back to image. “[There are] 42 brands in the industry and you have 300-some-odd nameplates, if you don’t have a positioning that stands out and people understand, you got nothin’. I don’t care what technology you put in it, you’re a commodity.”
It’s a Jeep Thing…
And what vehicle is more distinctive or iconic than the Jeep Wrangler? Certainly, this nameplate’s rugged image and unrivaled capability are driving its seemingly unending popularity. “We’re going to sell 250,000 [Wranglers] in North America this year,” said Kuniskis. “It’s the best year the vehicle’s ever had.” Of course, the off-roader is hugely popular in global markets as well.
As for Jeep sales in 2018 Kuniskis noted, “In North America, we will break a million units total,” a figure bolstered by that quarter-million Wranglers they’re on track to deliver. “Every single car is going to be up at retail year-over-year,” he said before adding, “You know, if Wrangler was a brand all by itself it would beat 25 of the other brands out of the 42.”
The Gladiator Question
Likely further fueling this brand’s impressive sales, a new midsize pickup truck based on the Wrangler is set to launch for model-year 2020. The Gladiator offers all its platform-mate’s ruggedness along with the added utility of an open-air cargo box. But has the market reached peak Jeep? Will this pickup steal sales from the Wrangler?
“So, from the first day that we started looking at this we wanted to make sure that it would not cannibalize Wrangler,” explained Kuniskis. “Because you look at it and, of course, you say ‘Wrangler,’ right?”
But seeing is believing. Kuniskis said you have to look at the Gladiator in person to fully appreciate its pickup qualities. For instance, at 218 inches from end to end, it’s noticeably longer than even a four-door Wrangler Unlimited. It’s sized like a proper truck rather than an SUV.
The Gladiator is also designed specifically to do pickup things. “So, from day one… we looked at the real reasons that somebody buys a midsize truck. We did not want to say, ‘Hey, we know who a Wrangler buyer is so let’s put a bed on it and sell it,’” noted Kuniskis.
Jeep studied the reasons people buy midsize pickups to ensure they had all the necessary bases covered with Gladiator, “So that we are a credible player in that space. Then once we have that, push it aside and say, ‘OK, I’m credible now… what else can I give you?’”
This new Jeep will provide customers with off-road capability, open-air freedom, rock-crawling abilities and more, in addition to standard midsize pickup attributes. “That’s how we’re going to go after that sales,” said Kuniskis, though he declined to comment on a potential sales mix. “We’ll do the best we can,” he noted.
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And even though the Gladiator should be well behaved on the street, never forget what it’s truly capable of said Kuniskis. “It still can do the Rubicon. I mean, we didn’t just put the sticker on the hood.”
The Wrangler is a living icon and a product, one could argue, that completely defines Jeep’s place in the market. And when the Gladiator becomes available that image is likely to only grow stronger.