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Jeep wants to dominate every SUV segment, and it might do just that

Note: this interview took place before FCA was accused of applying emissions-cheating devices to its 3.0 liter Diesel engine. Mike Manley made no mention of this topic to Digital Trends.

Jeep is on the cusp of its largest expansion in years.

After a 12 percent increase in sales this past year, FCA announced a billion-dollar investment in its Warren, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio plants – where Jeep plans to build at least three new models. An all-new Compass and Wrangler will go on sale this year, plus the Hellcat-powered Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. The American automaker has become competitive in the majority of SUV segments, and looks poised to enter all remaining ones in the near future.

Digital Trends caught up with Jeep CEO Mike Manley during this month’s Detroit Auto Show to get a clearer picture of Jeep’s product and brand vision.

Digital Trends: What does FCA’s backing, specifically for Jeep’s billion-dollar investment in its Toldeo and Warren facilities, mean for the Jeep brand?

Jeep CEO Mike Manley

Mike Manley: If you look at the level of investment that Jeep has been able to secure from the organization [FCA], I think it’s really reflective of the strength of the brand here in its home market and on a global basis. I’m just pleased that we’ve made the announcement, confirmed to our customers that Wagoneer, Grand Wagoneer, and Jeep pickup will be in the market. I think it’s great for people involved with the brand and who follow the brand to have that confirmation.

Do you feel there’s a case for both the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer?

I really do. If you look at that segment, and you look at the offerings in that segment, a number of our competitors have two distinctly different vehicles – in terms of overall size and options. I think the segment is quite used to having more than one variant; I’m not talking about trims, I’m talking about a distinctly different model. When we looked at the segment, we found it was appropriate to do that. Because of our history with Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer, we could do that – that’s worth noting the credibility. And I think when people sit back and look at the segment, they’ll probably get it pretty quickly.

How would you characterize the Jeep brand now that it has branched off in new arenas: light off-road, rugged, and now luxury focuses?

In my point of view, we’ve been very true to the brand historically and how we’ve positioned it going forward. Fundamentally, we’re an SUV brand. Every vehicle we offer is an SUV. The underpinnings have to be segment-leading capability and our vehicles have that. None of the things we’ve done with Renegade or the Jeep truck we announced are not in keeping with the brand or what we’ve done in the past.

“Jeep has always been a spirit. It has been a social brand. It has been part of people’s lives.”

People talk about a brand and they want to characterize it with a product. It’s easier to do that with Jeep, because people often go to Wrangler as the icon of the brand, but for a brand to be successful, I strongly believe it has to have character and personality that do not necessarily end up being purely defined by the products that are in that brand. Jeep has always been a spirit. It has been a social brand. It has been part of people’s lives. We very much focus on that with our customers and with our products.

The products we produce help facilitate what Jeep stands for – a sense of adventure, a sense of being able to do more tomorrow than you did today. Every vehicle that we’ve launched is in keeping with and has enhanced that. I feel very comfortable that both a Wagoneer series and the truck will continue that.

Do you feel the customer who has that spirit you’ve described is going to fall in line with the Wagoneer’s more luxurious experience? Will you pull from Land Rover’s base, or will you nurture customers from within Jeep’s brand?

The answer to that question is actually both. If I take Grand Cherokee as an example: as we continued to develop Grand Cherokee and add premium or performance models, what we clearly saw was that we were attracting customers from the premium end of the market – BMW, Audi. This is not a new place for Jeep; if you go back in our history to the Grand Wagoneer, Jeep was the premium SUV.

Over a period of years, as more competitors entered the segment, there was less product development per say with Jeep – we began to lose that element. It was a very conscious decision when we launched Grand Cherokee that we would begin to regain our position. Grand Cherokee has done very well doing that.

But the real premium nameplate we had was Grand Wagoneer. The work we’ve already done on this model is extensive, and we’ll continue that process to naturally invite customers who are maybe in a Grand Cherokee and want a larger vehicle. But there’s no doubt that we will conquest customers from some of the more established players that are in that market.

Whom would you characterize as your main competitors now and by 2020?

“There’s no doubt that we will conquest customers from some of the more established players that are in that [luxury] market”

I don’t necessarily think that’s the right approach for the marketplace. As a pure SUV brand, we have numerous competitors that offer so-called SUVs and CUVs. I tend to think of it more from a segment, rather than target another brand. If you think about how many SUVs and CUVs other manufacturers have launched, for example in the premium segment, you obviously have Suburban, Navigator, Range Rover in there – all of these vehicles are viable competitors for Jeep to go after.

What we’ll be able to offer with Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer is a range of vehicles that really can attract people – whether they’re a Range Rover or Cadillac buyer. The complexity of other people’s portfolios that now include an SUV mean that it’s better for me to think about individual vehicles and segments.

Would you say your job is easier or harder now that customers are looking for a lifted vehicle?

I think that’s a very good question. Let me first detach it from my job, because I think I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world. Is it easier or harder from a competitive perspective? There’s no doubt, if you look at the number of nameplates when I first joined Jeep ten years ago to now, there’s been an explosion of nameplates worldwide. The level of competition has increased dramatically. What has been incredibly helpful has been this structural shift into SUVs, because the number of potential customers has dramatically increased. What helps us is our heritage, and how every product invention that we’ve done over the last ten years has been really targeted to ensure that we’ve been true to the DNA of Jeep.

That level of consistency helps; it acts as an anchor in a very crowded, complex segment. But there’s no doubt competition has increased. Depending on which region I’m in, it seems like every day there seems like someone who says they’ve got an idea for a crossover.

There’s certainly much on the horizon for Jeep, but what are you most excited about this year?

I’m going to be greedy and have three things. If you think about the work we’ve done on our portfolio, the last vehicles that are ready to go through a generational upgrade is our Compass and Patriot. That segment is five million plus worldwide and something like 800,000 here. We’ve been reasonably successful here in the U.S., so for me, bringing a new Compass to the market at the end of the first quarter is something I’m very excited about. The segment has gotten much more competitive, but the quality of the vehicle and the significant generational upgrade from the previous models is going to put us in a very good position.

Then there are two things that will cap the year off if we do them well. The first is the launch of the Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. It’s a vehicle that I finally confirmed a year ago, but it’s something we’ve worked on for some time and I always love those specialist vehicles that take longer to work on just because of their nature. Finally, we’ll end the year with the next generation Wrangler – the icon of the brand; the underpinning of everything Jeep has stood for many years. The amount of work that has gone into that vehicle is enormous and the amount of interest from our customers is going to culminate into an exciting time. So we’ve actually got a very big year ahead of us.