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Jeep's Dirty Job: Attract new buyers without

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JEEP HAS A DIRTY JOB: Brand's challenge is to attract new buyers without offending mud-loving loyalists

March 9, 2006



Chris Rodgers pauses briefly before barreling his blue 1999 Jeep Cherokee down an off-road trail in rural Genesee County.

"Roll up the windows," says Rodgers, a 39-year-old Canton auto technician. "Or the mud will spray you."

For about two dozen Jeep drivers joining Rodgers for this weekend romp, Jeep is a sacred brand. It's more than a vehicle; it's a culture. They have a special Jeep wave, they gather for Jeep camping trips and dress in Jeep shirts, hats and jackets.

This year, DaimlerChrysler AG is hoping this core Jeep image can be extended to new customers as it expands the line to six vehicles. Last fall, the Jeep Commander, a seven-passenger SUV, joined the Wrangler, Grand Cherokee and Liberty.

By the end of the year, the Compass and Patriot, smaller SUVs, are expected to hit the market. A four-door Wrangler could follow.

The expansion is a test of whether Jeep can attract both the "mud-in-their-veins" loyalists and customers whose vehicles will never touch a dirt road.

Jeep is coming off a strong year, increasing sales 11.5% last year, reports Autodata Corp. But sales of the Grand Cherokee and Liberty have slipped in the first two months of 2006 from the year before and DaimlerChrysler has offered a 0% financing incentive to help move all Jeep vehicles, including the Commander.

The new Jeep offerings should help the brand keep the loyal buyers while broadening the customer base, said John Plecha, vice president of Jeep marketing and product planning.

The Compass, based on a small-car platform, appeals to younger and first-time buyers who want the Jeep image but aren't as concerned about extreme off-road driving, Plecha said.

Due out this summer, the Compass will come in a four-wheel-drive version but won't have the off-road capabilities of the existing Jeep lineup. Pricing hasn't been announced but will be less than the Liberty, which starts at $21,850.

At the same time, Jeep is targeting its core base with a bigger, more powerful Wrangler, Plecha said. The 2007 Wrangler should be available in the fall.

"Clearly, we're on the offense," Plecha said. "I think we've acknowledged that in our opinion the brand has been underleveraged. By solidifying that foundation, we think that gives us the right to stretch in the direction like Compass."

The vehicles already are stirring discussion in the Jeep community. The extension of the brand's lineup received mixed reviews from the public at the North American International Auto Show in January.

Most people liked the new Wrangler. It's kept the same basic boxy style while getting wider and longer, adding interior space. But the Compass was the source of some puzzled looks.

Michael and Carla Lacy, a couple from Columbus, Ohio, weren't impressed. Michael, 32, drives a 2000 Ford Focus. Carla, 28, drives a Chrysler Sebring and is shopping for a new car.

"It's just OK," Carla said about the Compass.

Michael didn't think it fit with the Jeep brand. "Jeep's off-road," he said. "That's not an off-road vehicle."

But Chris McMillan, 32, and Sara Curry, 24, of London, Ontario, were thrilled about the Compass. McMillan drives a 1990 Jeep Wrangler.

Curry traded in her 1999 Jeep Cherokee last year for a Hyundai Elantra hatchback. She wished the Compass, also a hatchback, had been available. The couple liked the idea of getting a Jeep, such as the Compass, that's smaller, more affordable and has a smoother ride.

"It's upsetting because we got rid of our Cherokee last summer to save on a little gas," Curry said. "It's one year too late coming out or we would have downgraded to one of these."

The hard-core Jeep drivers at the weekend excursion in Genesee County also embraced the changes at Jeep. They spent most of their day winding through the muddy trails of the Mounds Off-Road Vehicle Area, a designated course for four-wheel-drive fun just north of Flint.

In between runs, these Jeep drivers talked about the brand and the new products. Jeep was clearly part of their personal identity.

"It's good clean fun," said Joe Beyrle, standing next to his white 1991 Jeep Wrangler, splattered with mud.

Like many loyal Jeep drivers, Beyrle, a 25-year-old Head Start teacher from Howell, said he owns a Jeep because it takes him places few vehicles can go.

"You really get to see God's country," said Beyrle, who often takes trips up north in his Jeep.

Beyrle had reservations about some of the changes at Jeep. He liked that Jeep had stepped up the off-road capabilities of the Wrangler, but he didn't think it needed additional convenience features. The new Wrangler will offer comfort-options like power windows and doors.

Change, though, is inevitable, Beyrle said. The brand has to hit a wider audience to stay strong.

"You look at the auto market and you've got to do something to stay profitable," Beyrle said. "I think what they're doing is a good thing."

Stacie Bartman, a 30-year-old medical assistant from Rochester Hills, said she was waiting to see the new vehicles up close but she liked the direction the brand was going.

"I'll always own a Jeep," said Bartman, who drives a bright yellow 2000 Wrangler with the license plate "LOVEMUD."

Bartman liked the possibility of a four-door version of the Wrangler, which hasn't officially been announced for production. It could provide more room for passengers. She also liked the Compass. "They're probably trying to target more women," she said.

In some ways, Jeep drivers have seen these days coming. The Grand Cherokee, while capable of traversing rough terrain, is more refined in both its interior and highway ride. The Liberty, introduced in 2001, doesn't have the rugged image of the Cherokee it replaced.

Steve Mann, who drives a 1998 Jeep Wrangler and 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee, said new vehicles such as the Compass are needed. Just don't mess with the Wrangler, said Mann, 28 of Waterford.

"It's not my style," Mann said about the Compass. "It's a crossover. It's not something I would probably buy, but it's good to see them expanding the line. As long as they have things like that, they won't screw up the Wrangler."

Link: http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article.../603090504/1014

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