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Published: 8/5/2013 - Updated: 8 months ago

Jeep ponders slimmer Wrangler

Fuel economy standards create need for changes

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Jeep Wrangler models produced at Toledo Assembly complex in future years will have to be de­signed with new fed­eral Cor­po­rate Aver­age Fuel Econ­omy stan­dards firmly in mind. Jeep Wrangler models produced at Toledo Assembly complex in future years will have to be de­signed with new fed­eral Cor­po­rate Aver­age Fuel Econ­omy stan­dards firmly in mind.
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The Jeep Wrangler can gobble up all sorts of terrain, but Chrysler’s engineers will likely be putting the next generation of the vehicle on a Slim Fast diet.

Though the vehicle’s edge has been softened slightly in recent years with more creature comforts, the Wrangler has always been one of the most capable off-road ready vehicles consumers could buy. That’s not likely to change, but the next version of the Toledo-built vehicle will have to contend with a different obstacle: Fuel economy standards.

Speaking last week on a conference call with analysts, Chrysler Group Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne said the next all-new Wrangler — still several years away — will have to be designed with new federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards firmly in mind.

“We do need to intervene on the Wrangler and on the minivan architecture,” Mr. Marchionne said. “For a variety of reasons these are things that will not survive in the mid to long-term, simply because of the implications on CAFE standards. So we need to roll up our sleeves and get it done.”

By 2025, the federal government will require a corporate average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon. That doesn't mean every vehicle has to deliver economy that high, but automakers will be tasked with improving mileage figures across their lineups.

The 2013 Wrangler gets up to 21 miles per gallon highway.

“There’s nothing that’s going to be immune from the wrath of CAFE as we move forward,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific Inc. “The Wrangler is a very high volume vehicle so it’s definitely going to have an affect on CAFE. They’re going to wait as long as possible before they have to make those changes, but that being said they have a whole arsenal of things they can do.”

Introduced for the 2007 model year, the current version got interior upgrades for the 2011 model year and a more powerful and fuel-efficient V-6 engine for the 2012 model year. It isn’t due for significant changes until at least 2016. An unconfirmed report out two weeks ago said Chrysler planned to push that back to 2018, but Mr. Marchionne denied that on the call.

Chrysler’s chief executive believes the company has the right technology and architecture in mind for the next Wrangler.

“We know fully well what we need to do,” he said. “That car needs to be light-weighted. I think we need to allow for the application of additional engines into the vehicle.”

The addition of a diesel engine for U.S. buyers has been a hot topic, and while top Jeep officials say it’s a possibility, no official decision has been announced.

A Jeep spokesman declined to comment Monday on future plans for the Wrangler.

Whatever changes Jeep performs with the next-generation Wrangler, it’s very unlikely they’ll be to the magnitude seen when Jeep retired the Liberty in favor of the new yet-to-be released 2014 Cherokee.

“That is the Jeep image. The Wrangler itself is the Jeep brand, recognizable anywhere in the world,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I don’t think they’re going to do anything to mess with that.”

Still, Chrysler has a lot of things they can do, whether it be using lightweight materials, more efficient transmissions, or new engines.

“There’s been no attempt at weight savings or using alternative materials,” Mr. Sullivan said. “They haven’t really scratched the surface yet of the potential of what the Wrangler can do.”

While Chrysler is thinking about how it can make the next Wrangler fit better into the world, buyers are scooping up the current version at a pace not before seen.

Through July, Chrysler has sold 92,132 Wranglers, up 11 percent from the same point in 2012. The company sold 194,142 Wranglers worldwide in 2012, an all-time record. U.S. sales of 144,669 also were a record.

Whenever Chrysler does remake the Wrangler, Mr. Marchionne doesn’t want to lose that momentum.

“I don’t ever, ever want to stop the Toledo plant from making Wranglers,” he said. “We’ve done this now on the Liberty, and we’ve paid a huge price for the interruption on that process. We need to find a way to introduce the changes without disrupting current production. It’s a tricky issue, but we’ll manage it.”

As Chrysler changed over from building the Liberty to building the Cherokee, the plant was effectively shut down for 10 months. And though sales of every current Jeep model are up year-over-year, the brand is down 4 percent overall through July because of the lack of the Liberty/​Cherokee.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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