Thanks to Larry Vellequette of Automotive News, we now have more evidence that Jeep could bring back a pickup truck to its lineup and it very likely would be built at the Wrangler production plant in Toledo, Ohio. The Toledo plant is interesting because there are two separate buildings on the manufacturing site. One houses production for two versions of the body-on-frame Wrangler, while the other produces the unibody Jeep Cherokee crossover. Interestingly, both vehicles are on pace to sell around 200,000 units by year end and are the top-selling Jeep products. With the exception of the Ram lineup, those two Jeeps are the best-selling vehicles in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles lineup.
But now, according to Automotive News, FCA will soon announce it's moving the production of the Cherokee from Toledo to Sterling Heights Assembly in Michigan or Belvidere Assembly in Illinois.That means the second plant in Toledo will be available to produce another vehicle. Likewise, producing a vehicle with the body-on-frame architecture of the Wrangler could mean some cost savings — always important when bringing a new vehicle to market.
Automotive News suggests that some suppliers are planning for an eventual combined production run between the two plants of 350,000 units, which means that the Jeep pickup plant would likely be able build 50,000 vehicles annually per shift, assuming a maximum of three shifts. That could make it interesting for competitors like the new Toyota Tacoma and Chevrolet Colorado, which are not inexpensive vehicles when configured the way most people purchase midsize pickups (V-6 engine, 4×4 drivetrain, crew cab, short bed). This could mean that Jeep could have a lower-volume, higher-priced competitor in a highly competitive field.
That kind of situation could be good for product separation but would put the vehicle at a significant price disadvantage like GMC Canyon All Terrain (with an average transaction of more than $40,000, putting it in half-ton territory), which does offer quite a bit of luxury. This would be an interesting choice for Jeep, offering a premium-priced smaller pickup, because it doesn't have any history in this arena. Think of the J10, J20 and even the Gladiator or Comanche. Not one of those pickup trucks offered anything other than practical capability and function — fairly clear Jeep core values.
There's no question half-ton buyers love premium amenities: A good number of buyers — sometimes more than 10 percent — will drop more than $50,000 for a loaded pickup. But we hope this isn't a case of Jeep thinking too highly of itself and paying too much attention to a vocal minority. A top-of-the-line fully loaded Grand Cherokee SUV is a very different animal than a premium-priced Jeep pickup, not to mention that those vehicles attract very different buyers.
Building a Jeep pickup could be one of those ideas that sounds great on paper, but doesn't quite work in reality. It wasn't that long ago that DaimlerChrysler announced it could not make money on a small pickup truck like the M80 (we still love that concept) unless it sold between 100,000 and 120,000 units per year.
Even with the most optimistic projections, Jeep isn't likely to sell more than half the number of Colorados in a given year, and likely a lot less. It also seems unrealistic to think Jeep could sell an off-road-biased four-wheel pickup on coil springs (we assume it would have some kind of advance heavy-duty rear end and powertrain technology). Look at what GM did with two new trucks: It has a new plant and a platform it doesn't use for any other vehicle, and it will be lucky to hit the 100,000-unit mark with both midsize pickups (the Colorado and Canyon) by the end of the year.
The only thing we can imagine that could save a Jeep pickup from collapsing on itself after just a few short years is if Jeep taps some of the pickup truck expertise at Ram. In fact, we predict that if Ram doesn't help Jeep become a better payload hauler and tow-technology user, than there's no hope. The only caveat we'd offer is that if FCA doubled down the exercise by allowing both Jeep and Ram to offer different and unique versions of a new midsize pickup at the same time. That might work.
In that scenario, these two new products could suck all of the midsize pickup truck air out of their competitors. Maybe Jeep could do a type of leap-frogging model debut, introducing a new trim or piece of technology on either the new Jeep or Ram midsize every three or four months for the first 16 to 18 months. First you could have the Jeep debut, then comes the Ram debut, then comes the Spartan Gladiator, then the Outdoor Rebel, then a Moab Special, then the Prospector Flatbed, then the Long Distance Backpacker and so on. That could get a lot of people excited and attract a new, younger crowd to both brands. But that will happen only if FCA priced both vehicles properly and emphasized their tremendous personality differences.
Yes, a new Jeep for this segment has some historical resonance and no doubt there will be some old-school buyers who will pay whatever it costs, but if this new Jeep pickup is just a Wrangler Limited with a bed and is simply priced above the rest of the players in the segment, it's doomed to be a low-volume, subsidized outlier. If FCA only had the problems Ford has deciding when and how to bring the global Ranger to the U.S., the decision to bring a Jeep pickup to market would be a no-brainer.
Manufacturer image of various Jeep concept trucks; Cars.com photos by Mark Williams