LOS ANGELES — Fiat Chrysler Automobiles dropped one of the biggest surprises of the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, announcing the next-generation Jeep Wrangler will, in the not-so-distant future, be available as a plug-in hybrid.
“One of the things we really wanted to do was future-proof this vehicle,” said Mike Manley, who leads the Jeep brand for Fiat Chrysler. “It’s the icon of the brand.”
The Wrangler was one of the most highly anticipated debuts at the show. Journalists, analysts, and auto executives queued up for several hundred feet to get into the tent where Fiat Chrysler was to debut the new vehicle.
Most of the details about the next-gen Wrangler, which will be built exclusively in Toledo, had already been released Wednesday morning. But a buzz shot through the crowd when Mr. Manley revealed that a plug-in hybrid has been given the green light.
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Mike Manley, president and CEO of Jeep, introduces the 2019 Jeep Wrangler during the Los Angeles Auto Show, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in Los Angeles.
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Officials didn’t announce any specifics about the upcoming plug-in hybrid beyond the fact that it’s coming in 2020 and will be built in Toledo. But the mere idea of a full-on hybrid powertrain in a Jeep — and in the Wrangler at that — represents a major step forward for what has been one of the slowest evolving vehicles on the market.
“It’s what FCA has to do to keep the Wrangler relevant in a world where regulations are looking more bleak for vehicles such as the Wrangler,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific. “There just aren’t vehicles like the Wrangler anymore that are sold in such high volume.”
Fiat Chrysler sold more than 210,000 Wranglers in North America last year, including nearly 192,000 in the United States. That has undoubtedly helped FCA’s bottom line — the Wrangler is one of the company’s most profitable vehicles — but it’s also dragged on their corporate average fuel economy.
With federal standards only getting tougher, the company has a challenge.
Some of that is being addressed the conventional way. FCA officials said the company’s engineers were able to cut 200 pounds from the new Wrangler compared to the current version, in part through the use of an aluminum hood, doors, and front quarter-panels.
1945 Jeep CJ-2A and all-new 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
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A new-to-the-Wrangler eight-speed automatic also helps, as did a 9 percent improvement in aerodynamic drag.
That all helps get the carryover 3.6-liter V-6 engine an increase of 2 miles per gallon in the city to 18 mpg, and 3 miles per gallon on the highway to 23 mpg.
A diesel engine is also coming. Mr. Manley said that power plant, due in 2019, should deliver fuel economy in the range of 30 mpg. The company hasn’t provided fuel economy estimates for the new torquey 2.0-liter turbo. That engine gets a very mild hybrid system that helps with fuel economy and launch performance.
But experts say there’s only so much the company can do to improve economy without sacrificing capability that doesn’t require a deeper dive into electrification.
Though Fiat Chrysler isn’t known for making hybrids, Mr. Sullivan said the company impressed with the plug-in version of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan.
“They proved their engineering capability with the hybrid Pacifica, and that’s a fantastic hybrid. I’m pretty sure that the way they’re going to design [the Wrangler’s system] is going to leave many people impressed,” he said.
Officials, though, say a hybrid Wrangler isn’t just about fuel economy. Electric vehicles have the advantage of instantaneous torque, something that happens to be very useful out on the trail.
“To me it makes a lot of sense for us to have it in our vehicles to enhance our capability and get the added benefit of the fuel economy,” Mr. Manley said.
Beyond the new powertrain options, the Wrangler’s interior, exterior, and platform have all been completely made over.
The vehicle gets a number of first-time features, including a power-retractable roof that the company says can be operated at speeds up to 60 mph, a heated steering wheel, a full-time four-wheel-drive system, and a standard backup camera.
All told, the company says the Wrangler now has 75 available passive and active safety features, including new blind spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection.
The front of the 2019 Jeep Wrangler, introduced during the Los Angeles Auto Show.
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Ralph Gilles, the head of design at Fiat Chrysler, said engineers and designers sought to improve the Wrangler’s manners and livability.
“We tried to tackle all of the problems that a lot of people put up with the Wrangler,” Mr. Gilles said. “They don’t realize they’re putting up with it, but they do. Every single touch point of the vehicle we tried to improve — how easy it is to remove the soft top, the doors are easier to remove now, the windshield is a lot easier to put down.”
Analysts say all those improvements should help broaden the vehicle’s demand.
“The styling has always been iconic, that’s not an issue. People love that. So let’s fix the other issues that people have problems with and then I think you can probably have a bigger base,” said Jessica Caldwell, an analyst with Edmunds.com.
A broader customer base, both here and abroad, is certainly the hope of the company brass.
Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne said last month the revamped Toledo North Assembly Plant should easily be able to build 300,000 Wranglers a year. Add in extra capacity on the upcoming Jeep pickup line in the Toledo South Assembly Plant, and the full complex would approach a total Wrangler capacity of about 400,000 units.
According to figures compiled by industry trade publication Automotive News, Toledo Assembly Complex built about 245,000 Wranglers last year.
Jeep is FCA’s best-positioned brand for global growth, and there are hopes the new Wrangler sells better overseas than the old one.
Here at home, the brand is also critical to FCA’s success.
“What’s good for Jeep is good for FCA,” Ms. Caldwell said. “Dodge has been struggling a bit this year and Chrysler doesn’t have a very robust product line at this point and with the 200 leaving it’s even less. It does seem like Jeep’s importance has been elevated to a certain extent.”
Pricing for the new Jeep Wrangler has not yet been announced, and costs likely won't be revealed until the vehicle goes on sale later this year.
Jeep Wranglers already on the market sell for anywhere between $23,900 to $40,000.
Through October, Fiat Chrysler has sold 689,316 Jeeps. That’s down 11 percent from the same period in 2016, though FCA has said some of that was planned as they cut down on fleet sales to focus more on retail.
Wrangler sales have been strong, though. FCA said it sold 163,533 Wranglers through October, putting the vehicle on pace with last year.
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