Things have never looked better for Jeep. After decades of turmoil, the company is fast becoming one of the most important and popular brands in the world. It had a record-setting year in 2014, selling 1.02 million vehicles worldwide, and the company is projected to double that number within the next five years. Thanks in part to the Italian-built Jeep Renegade, the company is expanding into markets and segments that it had never competed in before, and parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has an ambitious five-year expansion plan to help Jeep reach its goals.
Part of this plan involves moving the storied off-roading brand way up-market –and into dangerous waters. There are always a number of risks an automaker takes when it moves up and out of its comfort zone. Will it be able to build a car as good as its competitors? More importantly, can it convince buyers to spend the extra money on a nameplate that’s unproven in the luxury segment?
But Jeep is raising the stakes even higher, and will christen its new high-end SUV with one of the most important names in the company’s history: the Grand Wagoneer. By 2018, the iconic Jeep best remembered for its 28-year production run under four different manufacturers, acres of faux wood paneling, and ample chrome will be officially back. According to Bloomberg Business, the company is building the range-topping Jeep to compete in the emerging full-size luxury SUV segment against blue-chip names like Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz.
With his usual aplomb, FCA chief Sergio Marchionne’s announcement of the ultra-luxe Jeep sounded more like a declaration of war than a product announcement. “When I see a Range Rover on the street, my blood boils, because we should be able to do a thing like that,” he said. “And we will.”
Historically, the Grand Wagoneer’s place in the upper-echelon of luxury SUVs makes sense. In fact, it spent so long as the only luxury SUV on the market that 1980s print ads went so far as to ask: “Jeep Grand Wagoneer has no rival … why do you suppose it’s the solitary entry in the full-size, 4-wheel drive luxury wagon class?”
By the time production ended in 1991, the Grand Wagoneer had the same level of prestige that Range Rover has today. In a 1990 customer survey, Chrysler established that Grand Wagoneer buyers had a median income of $98,200 (or around $175,000 today), and that 58% were college-educated professionals. After a quarter-century out of this segment, Fiat Chrysler wants to bring these customers back to Jeep.
The original Grand Wagoneer still enjoys a unique cult status among the wealthy. Despite being out of production for nearly 25 years, clean examples still fetch well over $40,000 on the used market – more than a new Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited. The old Jeep also pops up in TV shows and advertising campaigns more than almost any other car of its era. Recently, it was featured prominently in a series of Tommy Hilfiger ads as an ultimate symbol of American preppy culture.
But the popularity of vintage iron is one thing, it’s another to jump into a highly competitive market that’s on the verge of being flooded with new models. The full-size luxury SUV market that was once dominated by Range Rover is beginning to take off. In the $100,000-plus segment (the market Marchionne is aiming for) dominated by Europeans, the Grand Wagoneer will need to woo buyers away from not only the legendary Brit, but also from the Porsche Cayenne, a possible Mercedes-Maybach SUV, and the upcoming Bentley Bentayga, Jaguar F-Pace, and Maserati Levante.
The last time the Grand Wagoneer name appeared on a Jeep was as a one-year-only trim level for the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee. But buyers weren’t convinced by the rebadging then, and they won’t be convinced of it now. In order for Jeep to return to the segment it helped create, it needs to offer a unique SUV that recalls the all-American luxury of the original model, while being tasteful and refined enough to compete with some of the most exclusive automakers in the world. Jeep may be well-known for its toughness, but a return to the the top of the luxury SUV market could prove to be its hardest road yet.
Check out Autos Cheat Sheet on Facebook
Follow Derek on Twitter @CS_DerekS