By SCOTT WASSER
It took less than 10 seconds and a single statement for Jim Morrison to get my attention. Morrison, Jeep Brand – North America Vice President, was introducing several dozen NEMPA members to Jeep’s newest vehicles. He began his presentation stating, “After 80 years, we’re really dialed into adventure, and the Jeep brand has really been true to that.”
“Whoa,” I thought. “Eighty years? It couldn’t be that long!”
So, using the fingers on both hands, I started counting by the decades since Willys-Overland delivered the first vehicle that would come to be known as a Jeep and, ultimately, spawn the brand that virtually defines off-road capability and adventure.
My fingers told me Morrison was, of course, correct. According to Jeep’s online heritage site (https://www.jeep.com/history.html), this Veterans’ Day marked exactly 81 years since Willys-Overland delivered one of two prototype vehicles it had built in a bid to secure a U.S. Army contract to produce a “light reconnaissance vehicle.”
Morrison and Jeep say the brand’s heritage dates back 80 years because production of one of the world’s most iconic vehicle didn’t begin until 1941. I could quibble by pointing out that, technically, the Jeep name didn’t officially exist until Willys-Overland made it a registered trademark in 1950. But it’s equally true that the go-anywhere, do-anything WWII vehicle earned the nickname “Jeep” almost as soon as it was introduced.
The name’s origin has never been established definitively, but there have been dozens – perhaps hundreds – of accounts and theories. One thing virtually everyone knows for certain is that there’s no denying Morrison’s contention that the Jeep name is synonymous with off-road adventure.
NEMPA members, who have rolled up tens of thousands of miles test-driving Jeeps, can attest that the brand name is also synonymous with luxury when it’s found on some vehicles. During his presentation, Morrison showed off three of the company’s newest models that earn that distinction.
One was the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L, the company’s first and only seven-passenger vehicle since the Commander, which was sold from the 2006 through 2010. Available since June, the Grand Cherokee L is offered in four trim levels with starting prices ranging from $38,365 to $55,635.
“This is the fifth-generation Grand Cherokee,” Morrison said, “and it takes four-wheel drive to the next level with go-anywhere, do-anything capability unmatched in the marketplace. It offers active driving assist and night vision, which is really cool…. Especially when I encounter deer in my neighborhood.
“Grand Cherokees have always been known for great interiors, and we’ve taken that to the next level, too. It shines with real wood, real metal and real leather that all (blend) beautifully.”
Perhaps because Jeep believes there is tremendous pent-up demand for a seven-passenger Grand Cherokee, the L-model debuted before its two-row variant. Morrison said he expects the new L to capture buyers – including previous owners — who really wanted a Grand Cherokee but bought something else because they needed extra room for their growing families.
Both the three-row and two-row model, which is expected to go on sale before the end of this year as a 2022 model, up the ante on Grand Cherokee’s luxury. In addition to the items Morrison mentioned above, self-driving capability is also on the horizon.
If the Grand Cherokee L is at least partially aimed at retaining the Jeep faithful, the all-new 2022 Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer that Morrison also showed off to NEMPA members are taking aim at luring owners of large, premium luxury SUVs from the likes of Cadillac, Lincoln, Lexus and Land Rover.
“All of them … and more,” Morrison replied, when asked which of those brands were benchmarked by the Wagoneer development team. “It’s a premium American design. A lot of our potential customers are driving premium, non-American vehicles and can’t wait to get an American vehicle.”
The original Jeep Wagoneer, which roamed America’s highways for nearly three decades, was arguably the world’s first luxury SUV. It also was the first 4×4 with an independent front suspension and the first with an automatic transmission, but most of the changes during the original Wagoneer’s 28-year model run (1963 through 1991) were cosmetic.
The Grand Wagoneer name reappeared in 1993, but on a vehicle that was little more than a Grand Cherokee decked out with the faux woodgrain trim that had characterized many real Wagoneers. The Wagoneer name wasn’t used again until the 2022 model was introduced earlier this year.
There are two versions of the new model differentiated primarily by their engines and luxury features. Both feature seven- or eight-passenger seating, are nearly 218 inches long, and ride on 123-inch wheelbases. The Wagoneer, which starts at around $60,000, is powered by a 392-horsepower, 5.7-liter V8. The Grand Wagoneer starts at around $80,000 has a 6.4-liter, 471 horsepower engine.
“It’s nice to have the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer back in our portfolio,” Morrison said. “We tried to embed a little of the past in every one of them, but we really have not had anything like this in our lineup before. It was a `white space’ for us. It’s all about (delighting) our customers and delivering a great ownership experience for them.”
The luxury SUV space is filled with a surprisingly large number of sumptuous vehicles. Virtually every major manufacturer – and some smaller ones – offer a land yacht. Yet Morrison was able to reel off several features that suggest Jeep’s Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer are raising the luxury bar.
These include up to 75 inches of high-def screens in the cabin. Those screens can simultaneously display up to three different program sources, including built-in Amazon Fire TV. Meanwhile, the driver can be listening to a stunning, 1,600-watt McIntosh surround sound system that should delight audiophiles.
“The Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer both have lots of technology,” Morrison said in what has to be a gross understatement based on what NEMPA journalists saw in the demo vehicles. Then Morrison made his point by describing one feature that, “…even tells you when it’s time to stop for coffee by detecting (drowsiness in) your eyes.”
Of course, the new Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer promise to be more than just pretty faces slathered in luxury features. In addition to being off-road capable, they feature things like best-in-class passenger room and performance, andare also rated to tow up to 10,000 and 9,500 pounds, respectively.
Morrison closed his presentation by noting that the demand for three-row, luxury SUVs continues to grow in America, and said that the new Jeeps are the result of extensive studies of the market.
“We examined the (luxury SUV) segment, which is 70 percent three-row, and talked to our customers,” he said. “We talked to families who had outgrown their Grand Cherokees, and we handled it two ways: with the Grand Cherokee L and with the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer.”
Morrison said sales of the new Jeep models are expected to be split around 50/50 between two- and three-row vehicles, but he won’t be surprised if it skews more toward the latter.
“It’s going to be fun to watch (what develops),” he said. But he added he’s certain of one thing: “We’re going to bring new customers to our brand and hold onto customers who want more room.”