Amid Rise of Crossovers, Jeep Wants Class-Leading Capability

By Kelsey Mays  on February 13, 2013

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In January, Chrysler-Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne outlined dozens of forthcoming models for the automaker's smorgasbord of brands — Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, SRT, Fiat and soon-to-come Alfa Romeo. The Jeep brand got quite the overhaul: an updated Compass and Grand Cherokee, which we've seen, plus a Liberty replacement this year and five more additions or redesigns and a refresh through 2016.

If Mike Manley gets his way, none of them will be a shopping-mall crossover.

"We're very clear on what makes a vehicle a Jeep, and one of the things that we've said is we'll always offer segment-leading [off-road] capability," the 48-year-old Jeep division CEO said. "I wouldn't want to create crossover vehicles."

Manley spoke with us at the 2013 Chicago Auto Show, which runs through Feb. 18. Besides heading up Jeep, he's also the chief operating officer for Chrysler's Asia-Pacific region.

Under Manley's tenure, Jeep modified the not-so-off-road Compass with a beefier four-wheel-drive version that met the automaker's Trail Rated status. Every Jeep now comes with a version that meets the grade. Shoppers like them well enough: The Jeep division sold nearly a half million SUVs in 2012, keeping roughly even with the industry's 13.4% overall sales gain.

Sales should go up with the addition of a Liberty replacement, plus other SUVs that expand the range. The additional models will move Jeep's horizons both downward and upward, Manley said. That could mean more small Jeeps — including a subcompact "soft-road" crossover, which we reported in January, that would likely replace the Compass and Patriot. A midsize replacement for the Liberty, meanwhile, could share platforms with the Dodge Dart. Finally, Reuters reported in January that a larger, seven-seat SUV could resurrect the Grand Wagoneer nameplate, which left the U.S. after 1993.

A lot of that spells crossovers, which could discomfit the Jeep faithful. But no matter their roots, every new Jeep will have a Trail Rated version, Manley said.

"Our challenge is really to make sure that we continue to stay true to what Jeep is in a world that is increasingly looking for more passengerlike vehicle attributes in a car," he said. "With the appropriate use of technology, we can create a fuel-efficient vehicle that's very much an SUV.”

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Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays likes quality, reliability, safety and practicality. But he also likes a fair price.  Email Kelsey