An Open Letter to Jeep: MAN UP!

Jeep Scrambler

The Jeep Scrambler, with modifications, as photographed in Great Falls, VA.

In the July issue of Jp Magazine (All Jeeps!), a Jeep-specific mag published by The Enthusiast Network, its Dispatch section quotes Business Insider : “Jeep is the most relevant brand in the auto industry.” While knowing what ‘relevant’ means, the blurb doesn’t supply any context beyond the quote itself. And while ‘relevant’ is obviously better than ‘irrelevant’, an engaged observer has to wonder which Jeep the Insider is discussing. Is it the Wrangler/Grand Cherokee Jeep, or the Renegade/Cherokee Jeep? For in the schizoid behavior that is Jeep Edition 2015 the former is increasingly irrelevant to the market, while representing Jeep as we love it; the crossover-centric latter (regrettably) is completely relevant, populated by vehicles the readers of Jp wouldn’t own if their mud-splattered lives depended on it.

2014 Jeep Cherokee Limited

Jeep’s Cherokee, shown in Limited trim, is limited.

For the readers of Jp, the Wrangler remains relevant, old Cherokees are of interest, and the Grand Cherokee might be considered for purchase only if old enough to require revitalization and the requisite modification. If it’s a new or CPO Jeep it probably isn’t on any Jp reader short list. Of course, this isn’t the first time Jeep’s product team has deviated from its roots; no sooner had the CJ been given to American consumers than 2WD Jeepsters made their appearance, having as much off-road capability as Clark Gable’s contemporary Jag. More recently, the Patriot and Compass have been a fixture on Jeep showrooms; some iterations even sport Jeep’s ‘trail rated’ moniker. For me, the Big Disconnect is the number of new Cherokees hitting the streets with front-wheel drive, tires that have all the off-road cred of the mini spare, and a stance that plants the suspension down on the pavement as if the shocks are toast. To channel – albeit awkwardly – Shakespeare: Where 4 Art There, 4WD?

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk 2014

A more credible Jeep is the Trailhawk Cherokee.

Of course, Jeep isn’t the only carmaker whose brand managers have seemingly lost their way. In this young century the benchmark for a scattered sense of direction is Porsche, whose launch of the Cayenne SUV was met with hoots and hollers from virtually all corners of the Porsche community – even, we’ll guess, the transgender corners. Of course, while 911 enthusiasts were derisive the Cayenne was gobbled up by the thousands, going to both casual Porsche enthusiasts and those that wanted to look like Porsche enthusiasts. And while the 911 and Boxster dribbled out of showrooms on automotive life support, the Cayenne raced out, lapping the established sports cars in both sales and profit. Today Porsche showrooms have added both the Panamera – for which, I think, the jury is still out – and the smaller Macan CUV. While the Macan probably cannibalizes Cayenne sales at the lower end, it also looks like a homerun in both sales volume and profit potential.

Notably, with any of Porsche’s many platforms, the on-road dynamic – what makes a Porsche a Porsche – is still paramount. And in my argument, any Jeep should still possess an off-road dynamic, even in its most basic, price point spec. The Cherokee and, later, the Grand Cherokee demonstrated to Americans that practicality and capability – along with affordability – needn’t be mutually exclusive. As the owner of both an ’87 Cherokee (regrettably 2WD, but it did have a manual connected to its inline six…) and a ’98 Grand Cherokee, my wife and I took neither off-road, but knew that even with the 2WD Cherokee we could navigate logging trails or the occasional fire road. And both had the essence of what makes a Jeep a Jeep, where function and form meld into one simplistic, tool-like mechanism.

Today, I think the Trailhawk variant of the Cherokee is the only thing saving the Cherokee from its Chrysler 200 5-door self. And while purely subjective, the Renegade platform – in any guise – only looks good when clothed as a Fiat; which, if the Jeep execs are still reading, is what it is.