We talk to the head of Jeep about its latest achievement.
The next-generation 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee dropped this week with bold looks, a new electrified powertrain option and just the right amount of space (the three-row Grand Cherokee L looks a little too stretched to us). Like the Grand Cherokee L, and the Wagoneer brothers, the interior looks miles past the last generation and millenniums past earlier models.
The Grand Cherokee was one of the first SUVs we rode in, and the one we compare all others to, even if the Ford Explorer was a little more popular in the neighborhood and a little cheaper too. The comparisons are still apt today, but just spread over a wider margin of price points. We talked to Jim Morrison, head of Jeep for Stellantis, about the new vehicle, and the market overall. He explained how constant iterations keep the Jeep feeling fresh.
"One of the things I'm most proud of, I launched the Grand Cherokee back in 2010 and we were actually listening to customers, listening to journalists as we were launching that to plan the midcycle intervention (update)," said Morrison. "We are continuing to do that, listening very close to our customers and with almost 7 million of them, they have some good ideas and help drive the brand forward.
"Back in the '90s this was the first SUV that I drove too, and thankfully we've been kind of the benchmark. That's why it's so important for us to keep our pillars of luxury, capability and technology, and keep moving them up."
The capability has always been around, but it's the luxury that's been stunning us lately. Starting with the Grand Wagoneer, then the Wagoneer and three-row Grand Cherokee, these vehicles are now full-on indulgent over-the-road cruisers.
We haven't experienced the new GC in person, but we drove the L, and we can say that the quality difference between it and a Mercedes-Benz SUV is marginal to the point of being subjective.
"What's interesting is that we keep pushing the limit with the luxury top end and in doing so attracting new customers. They keep asking us for more. When we were in Detroit, I said this is the best interior the market has, and I think our designers have done a phenomenal job, and with that, we keep attracting new customers. You can compare this to SUVs that have another whole digit on them, and win. And we win from the luxury, technology, AND the capability side. I think we're continuing to push the limits of what the market is asking for."
Back in the early days of SUVs, we just didn't have the technology to do everything well. The Grand Cherokee did a good job but the brand couldn't be everything to all people. With the additions to the lineup, that's changed.
"It's evolved because back in the '90s there was compromise for fuel economy, ride and handling, technology - the thing had a cassette deck. And now it has leading-edge Fire TV and a right-hand screen. But we're still the king of capability. And that's why we spent time at the extremes in Moab, because we need to make sure the world knew we got the best technology, the best luxury, the best safety. But we haven't lost our roots. Most importantly we're nuts when it comes to off-road and whether customers ever do that [Morrison points to his Zoom background of a Grand Cherokee angled precipitously on a rock at Moab]. They won't, I was scared to death doing it. But they will appreciate that they have the best four-wheel drive, and with the best four-wheel drive, if you have the neighbor in the back and you're off to swimming class in the snow, and you step on the gas and the Jeep goes forward, that's what they expect from us."
But the market is bigger now, not just with luxury competitors, but with light crossovers angling for a piece of the pie too. Morrison doesn't seem worried, until he sees them at Hell's Gate (the trail, not the actual gates of Hell).
"With all of those competitors coming in as pseudo-SUVs, they're starting to get flushed out a little bit. They look good in ads, and they blast through the mud and fields and stuff. But when they get stuck in an inch of snow, they get called out. I feel sorry for some of them," said Morrison. "Sometimes you're forced into two feet of water fording, you got a flash flood in Texas and you're driving through it, other people are picking themselves off."
And when Jeep introduced its fourth generation Grand Cherokee in 2010, it was timed perfectly for SUV and crossover segments' absolute annihilation of the rest of the market. That it was the company's most luxurious Jeep ever (at the time), was just a bonus.
"I think it's both [a style statement and a capability machine] because the sales grew and we continued to be market leader, in 2010 it was fifth in the market segment. It went to number one, mostly because it was a no compromise Jeep," said Morrison. "It got great fuel economy, it had a V6, or a V8 for the people looking for performance. It was really the epitome of no compromise, you could have all the capability you wanted, or all the luxury and fuel economy that you wanted as well. It was just a really solid platform. And that's where we earned back our leadership."
Sales have exploded since that generation, hitting 200K per year in the last five years. And that was after five previous years of 150K-plus. Timing is everything, and Jeep seems to have it.
"When you look at the portfolio now, we're set up to grow even more than that. And my view is that we have the core of gas customers, we now have the three-row customers, and the electrification customers with 4xe. And those are all fundamentally a little different. There is some overlap, but there are some new customers in each of those offerings," said Morrison.
Jeep Grand Cherokee sales hit 300,000 way back in 1999. We're not predicting it will hit that mark again, but if it drives as good as it looks, and sounds, we can see it cresting 2019's totals sale of 240K or so. We'll find out soon enough.