Jeep Wrangler enthusiasts should prepare to blaze rugged trails styled in aluminum. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), announced the company’s plan to swap the iconic sports utility vehicle’s steel body for an aluminum unibody. Wrangler enthusiasts were promised that the off-road prowess of the Jeep will not be compromised in January’s announcement of the new aluminum direction. The latest announcement was made at the Paris Auto Show.
Of the top-selling Chrysler model, which gets 18 mpg, Marchionne said smaller engines intended for the Jeep Wrangler would improve the sports utility vehicle’s fuel economy. He believes downsizing the engine increases its capabilities. Turbo is one of the many modifications expected to be made to the engines.
Chrysler may be following Ford’s direction. Ford’s F-150 uses aluminum body panels on a steel frame. Last year’s Jeep concept vehicle, “Wrangler Stitch,” featured a chrome moly roll cage, an aluminum floorpan, translucent body comprised of architectural fiber, and a carbon fiber hood. Its weight was 800 pounds less than the latest steel Wrangler.
According to Jeep CEO Mike Manley, the Wrangler’s capability will remain intact by removing its weight appropriately. He adds that designers and engineers will preserve the types of modifications owners desire when Jeep decides on which materials should be used to build them.
Year 2017 is the target release date for the new Wrangler. This allows Chrysler Jeep to develop its concept for the redesigned vehicle. The iconic Wrangler originated from Jeeps of WWII. The next generation’s use of aluminum for the Jeep Wrangler deviates from the trails forged by the vehicle that “won WWII.”
Marchionne, dropping another bomb, announced that switching to aluminum may alter the geography of the vehicle’s production. Accommodating modifications to the Jeep Wrangler brand, originally produced in Toledo, Ohio, requires complete reconfiguration of assets which means costly updates to the plant. In the event that the Wrangler’s spiritual home is uprooted, production of another vehicle is promised to replace it at Chrysler’s Toledo Assembly Complex. Marchionne wants “zero impact on head count and employment levels” in the Toledo plant currently producing Wrangler and Jeep Cherokee vehicles.
Bruce Baumhower, the president of United Auto Workers Local 12, feels “extremely betrayed” by the news of Chrysler moving Wrangler’s production. The union represents Toledo’s Jeep workers, and Baumhower, who describes Wrangler as Toledo Jeep workers’ bread and butter, sees no reason to relocate Wrangler. He believes Chrysler could produce the aluminum SUV there and intends to apply union efforts to ensure the next generation of Wrangler is built in Toledo.
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken is also a believer in Toledo’s capabilities. Gerken is a former Jeep worker, union leader and veteran of prior efforts to retain Wrangler manufacturing in Toledo. He says he was surprised by the news but that he has heard it before. He recalls how, in 1997, they were told the old plant could not be converted for a new car to be built, but a new plant was constructed there in Toledo as well as a new campus. He believes Toledo is the place to launch any new technology associated with Jeep Wrangler and other Chrysler-Jeep vehicles.
Marchionne said he would honor his commitment never to move Wrangler production outside the United States. Even so, FCA has already begun producing the Renegade, a small Jeep model, in Italy. Localizing production of Jeeps in Brazil and China are in the plans for next year.
Jeep Wrangler, along with the Grand Cherokee, is one of the two best-selling models for the brand. The company is on track to sell one million Jeeps this year, a 37 percent leap from last year. FCA expects to boost Jeep sales to 1.9 million vehicles by 2018.
Executives intend to preserve both the best of the iconic Wrangler and other productions of the brand in Toledo as Jeep trails ahead with the vehicle’s aluminum modifications. The only question is how consumers and Jeep Wrangler enthusiasts will respond to the new SUV.
By Charice Long