The all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler made a statement during its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. The iconic off-road SUV features new levels of technology and refinement. It also has the first hybrid, diesel and plug-in powertrain options in the vehicle’s history.
Trucks.com spoke with Mike Manley, head of both the Ram and Jeep brands, to learn more about the Wrangler and what it means for the direction of Jeep.
Here’s an edited version of the conversation:
The new Wrangler has been modernized. But at its core there’s still the iconic capability—does that set the tone for Jeep moving forward?
Yes, it does. I’m glad that came across. Today’s Wrangler launched in 2006 and even though we’ve updated it, fundamentally the chassis of the vehicle was 2006. When you think about the design of the new Wrangler you have a very clear DNA picture on top of capability and style.
But it was important that we future-proofed it. The only way to do that is to make sure that fuel economy, ride and handling and how it feels inside the cabin are all significantly updated. That includes technology—not just for infotainment and connectivity, but safety and security. We were able to be true to the capability part, but from a technology perspective it takes you to the next generation.
How important is it to maintain what’s unique about Jeep as your competitors are introducing SUV models?
One of the most important things is the Jeep brand and what it stands for. Every vehicle in our lineup to must have trace elements to the iconic Wrangler because it takes us all the way back to 1941. The level of competition in the SUV world has exploded. I remember the day when there were three entrants in any SUV category—today there are 50.
We can’t just rely on our capability to be the most important thing in absence of everything else. SUVs are now very much daily drivers. They have to have the technology and be livable in terms of feel. They also have to deliver great fuel economy. So some of the work that we’ve done on this Wrangler is to improve our powertrains and future-proof this vehicle for generations to come. We’ve got to be more than competitive on those elements. Then you overlay the Jeep aspects of what we do and that gives us our formula.
You have been hinting that electrification was coming to Jeep. Still, people may be surprised to see it on a Wrangler of all things—what would you say to that?
This is the icon of our brand. Wrangler is one of the only vehicles that’s instantly recognizable in over 150 countries all over the world. What other vehicle is so iconically American that it is absolutely recognizable in Singapore or Moscow? That is Jeep.
We have to make sure Wrangler has a long, healthy future and the only way to do that is to ensure we comply with all of the fuel economy and CO2 requirements around the world and remain very competitive. Electrification is therefore a natural part of the future lineup for Wrangler. And when you think of what electrification can bring—for example how torque is applied, which is an important application for capability—it’s a natural fit.
There’s so much differentiation in light trucks now, from small crossovers to giant luxury pickup trucks—what does that say to the strength of demand for SUVs and trucks?
Regardless of the region there is a continued increase in the percentage of utility vehicles. Every market around the world shows exactly the same trend. It's been faster in North America. But whether it’s Europe or Asia, the trend for passenger cars and sedans is dropping while the demand for utility vehicles is increasing.
Think about what’s happened in the utility vehicle world in the last 10 or 15 years. If I go back to our Liberty, there were a lot of compromises despite it being a phenomenally capable vehicle. For example, fuel economy. And interior cabin space. The use of technology has caused dramatic changes in both aspects. Ride and handling has also greatly dramatically improved. You’re not giving anything up anymore. Now there is significant space inside the vehicle, great command of the road driving position and capability—whether that’s in a storm or while off-roading.
And that updated baseline has even created the availability of a Grand Cherokee for the racetrack or a Wrangler with an electric motor.
The partnership between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Waymo is interesting—are the Jeep and Ram brands going to fit into that?
Other than the partnership itself, let’s talk about the technology. In the same way as electrification is inevitable, autonomous driving technology is also inevitable. The great thing within FCA is that we have a number of skills that people challenged back in 2009, 2010 and 2011. But as our partnerships have developed and as we have progressively shown our capability in these areas, they can understand that we are working and developing these technologies. And of course those technologies will apply to both the Ram brand and to the Jeep brand.
What’s really cool is you can imagine how these technologies enhance the brand value. In Wrangler, we’ve had for many years different levels of autonomous driving. Hill descent control, for example. For people that are staring down a significant decline for the first time and aren't quite sure what to do, hill descent control ensures they’re safe and secure. As that technology continues to be developed, adding elements suitable to the brand is where the example lies. Whether you’re talking about commercial vehicles like Ram pickup or off-road vehicles like Jeep, you’re going to see interesting ways the technology is used.
You’ve also alluded to the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer large SUVs probably coming in late 2019, early 2020—is that still on track?
Yes. You'll see that around 2020.
Does that also speak to the differentiation in people’s demand for SUVs?
It speaks to the differentiation of SUVs and the broad appeal from the small Renegade all the way up to the large SUVs. It’s a return to a place where we’ve been, which has been great. Part of the growth of Jeep has been expansion into new segments as we did with Renegade and as we will with our pickup truck.
I’m looking forward to bring back what is an iconic nameplate. As I’ve said many times, for me to be offered the opportunity to work with Jeep brand has been a fantastic experience. To get to work in the segments that really have developed, I couldn’t ask for more.
Is it true that your first job was designing wall brackets?
We’re going back a long time now. I was working in a hospital in London. When you’re a junior engineer, just graduated, you get to design brackets. So that is absolutely true. Brings back some memories.
In those moments did you picture yourself in this setting in the future?
Absolutely not. Back in those days when you were a graduate engineer it was a very “time-served” business. You couldn’t get on until you had done a certain amount of time. After about six months I decided there were other things to do in the world. I went to London and started selling cars and the rest is history.