AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Among the six vehicles Jeep will take to a major Easter weekend off-road rally is a heavily modified Cherokee that company officials say pushes the limits of what Jeep’s newest model can do off the pavement.
Chrysler Group engineers chopped away 2 inches of sheet metal around the wheels, bolted on wide fender flares, and used a prototype lift kit to fit 33-inch rubber tires underneath the Cherokee. The Jeep also has custom front and rear bumpers, protective skid plates, and custom gray paint.
“The idea with this one was to really showcase the Cherokee in a way that hasn’t been done yet, and Moab is a perfect place to do that,” said Mark Trostle, head of Mopar design.
For Jeep enthusiasts, Moab, Utah, may well be the happiest place on earth for nine days every April. Thousands flock to the area to test their vehicles on Moab’s famous red rock trails.
Since 2002, Jeep and Mopar, Chrysler’s in-house parts brand, have collaborated to design more than 40 concept vehicles for the event. Jeep provided the first look for the 2014 vehicles Thursday at company headquarters in Auburn Hills.
“For us, it’s a great time during that week to get absolute direct feedback from our customers, both in terms of what we could do better and what they need for their vehicles to continue their adventures off-road,” Jeep CEO Mike Manley said.
This year, Jeep is taking three modified Wranglers, two modified Cherokees, and a custom Grand Cherokee.
In many ways, Moab is both a testing ground and a reconnaissance mission for Jeep. Officials want to try out prototype parts and concept packages, but they also seek out opinions from enthusiasts on how they really use their Jeeps.
And more often than not, the parts unveiled on the concept vehicles eventually find their way into U.S. garages.
“In most of the cases, the products and the parts we put on these vehicles make production either as accessories or performance parts, or even in production with the vehicles. So I think as usual, Moab is the perfect proving ground for our parts,” said Pietro Gorlier, president and CEO of Mopar.
The Wrangler, which like the Cherokee is built in Toledo, is the quintessential modifiable Jeep. Of the 1,000-plus Jeep accessories in the Mopar catalog, between 30 and 40 percent are Wrangler parts. But officials say they are seeing a steady increase in sales of Cherokee accessories.
With the Cherokee launched late last year, this will be the first time Jeep takes Cherokee to the Moab gathering.
Hard-core Jeepers may view it suspiciously, but officials say the gathering gives the Cherokee a chance to gain credibility.
“There’s so much exposure it gets by just driving up the trails in Moab. It’s a great way for us as a brand to demonstrate the pure capability in its natural environment, surrounded with Wranglers that are lifted,” said Jim Morrison, Jeep’s director of product marketing. “When they see these vehicles doing the same thing that a lifted Wrangler can do, it does a lot for the credibility.”
The majority of Cherokee buyers won’t stray far from the highways and supermarket parking lots. Still, it’s important to brand identity that those people know they could if they wanted to. And officials say the Trailhawk version of the Cherokee — Jeep’s factory-ready off-roader — is selling well, making up 15 to 20 percent of all Cherokee orders.
Mr. Manley said buyers seem to be receiving Cherokee well and that he’s pleased with Jeep’s overall first-quarter performance in the United States, where sales were up 44 percent over last year. March also marked the best single month in the brand’s 73-year history, with global sales of 85,000 vehicles.
He reaffirmed his push for global sales of 1 million vehicles this year.
“Through the first quarter, we’re on track for that number. Clearly there is a long way to go, but I think that the team has done a great job for Jeep in not just the U.S. marketplace but around the world.”