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Can (will) Jeep bring back the XJ Cherokee?

News analysis

Or, more to the point, can and will Jeep bring out a new vehicle using a new version of the 1984-2011 Cherokee’s famed coil-link suspension?

The Jeep Cherokee was a stunning vehicle. Despite a large interior, it was light (around 3,000 pounds for a four-door 4×4 that could tow 5,000 pounds) but sturdy, with car-like manners, advanced 4×4 systems, class-leading ground clearance, and a load floor that was lower than those of its competitors, so loading and entry were easier.

The XJ Jeep Cherokee was the work of genius. When the time came to replace it, Chrysler looked at the new version and the old version, then created the first Grand Cherokee out of the new version. The XJ continued from 1984 to 2001, a seventeen year run with relatively few changes — stunning for a mass-market car.

It’s hard to say whether Liberty got an independent front suspension for “buzzword compliance” or because most XJs were not used in conditions that demanded serious capabilities, but with the new setup, Cherokee’s feat of riding lower yet having higher ground clearance was gone — especially because Cherokee’s suspension, unlike Liberty’s, could go up and down without much change in the ground clearance.

The new Cherokee has an independent front suspension precisely because Liberty was not selling. Wrangler still has a  magic combination of a street cred, convertible fun, and a strong image; Liberty had cost and weight. Now let’s go to 2008…

Sergio Marchionne is looking over Chrysler’s product line. Liberty and Nitro are barely selling, in a segment that Jeep should dominate. Like the missing compact sedan, it’s an emergency. So he does the same thing for both: tells engineers to adapt Fiat’s brand-new designs to Dodge and Jeep, so they can get production rolling and then work together on the ideal products.

Despite the need for speed, Sergio allowed engineers to make major changes, so the new Cherokee is reportedly fairly credible. We’ve heard that it has a 4×4 complete with low gear, and we have patent drawings to show how that’s done. It’s not an XJ Cherokee, but it’s also not a RAV4.

Still, Jeepers want a true XJ replacement — something with superlative approach, departure, and breakover angles, high ground clearance that doesn’t disappear when you hit a bump, and good traction under any conditions, yet wtih a reasonable price — starting at under $30,000 (which largely rules out an independent front suspension) — but which is also moderately thrifty on fuel and a good daily driver. Just updating the old XJ plans with a new powertrain won’t work because of:

  • Safety standards for side impact, rollover, roof strength, partial offset impact, full offset impact, frontal impact, and, in Europe, pedestrian impact
  • Competitive standards for interior quietness (heavy glass, insulation, aerodynamics)
  • Rules and expectations for gas mileage (aerodynamics again)
  • Far higher standards for ride, handling, acceleration, braking, gizmos, etc
  • Customer and government demands for sophisticated electronics

One engineer estimated that a new XJ would have to be 10% larger outside to match the same interior space, and would weigh around 4,200 pounds. It’s a weight gain consistent with the change from LH to LX cars, from 1991 minivans to 2013 minivans, and from 1997 Cherokee to 2011 Liberty.

Now, let’s look at what would be needed. First, we’d need around $3 – $4 billion for creating the new vehicle. We’d need lots of engineers, places for them to work, and time in the testing areas; and a few hundred million dollars for tooling up a plant. That’s assuming it could be made in the Toledo North plant alongside the KL Cherokee.

Quadra-Link

The target sales price would probably end up being similar to the Cherokee, when all is said and done, but less gadgety, luxurious versions could be sold cheaper in India, Russia, and other parts of the world where a “true Cherokee” would be very handy indeed.

You can probably see now Sergio would feel about this project. Perhaps it was proposed to him when he first showed up. “And when will this be ready? And how many engineers do you need? Where do you plan to get them? How do you plan to pay them?”

Thus, the current Cherokee — a place-holder.

The question then becomes, if they can build a new XJ. What would it look like and when would we get it?

It would need a new body designed for modern safety, noise reduction, telematics, and ride standards, a new engine and automatic, and perhaps  a pickup version, Comanche, to fill that rather small niche market.  The link/coil suspension would be smoothed out with variable-rate shocks and other tricks that are easier today.

The next question is, would this be called the Cherokee, coming in at the end of the current Cherokee’s natural life (around six to twelve years from now), or would it be launched as a new car, alongside Cherokee?

The replacement plan

Assuming that there has been no work at all on a “real XJ replacement,” and I think that’s a safe assumption, starting the project now would result in a replacement in around five years. In short, it could be started now as the 2014 Cherokee’s replacement, which would surprise and delight Jeepers around the world — rather than what I believe the current plan is (something like the 2014, but based on a modified platform and architecture which owe more to the Fiat-Chrysler combination and less to the “Fiat stuff tossed to Chrysler for modification” setup.)

The simultaneous plan

On the other hand, it could be started now on a faster paced schedule, since many key decisions have been made. We know the powertrain (3.2 V6 and 3.0 Fiat diesel with eight-speed automatic), we know the suspension (modified link-coil), we know the steering (or at least the modifications needed to make the Cherokee without the “pulling” that the original had).

The Toledo North plant has around a 325,000 vehicle per year capacity, according to Toledo Blade back issues, and Cherokee will probably only reach 200,000 per year in sales; that leaves plenty of room for the XJ2, without putting all of Jeep’s eggs into one basket.  If the XJ2 fails to attract over 150,000 sales per year, it can be left as a niche vehicle designed to maintain Jeep’s reputation.  If it’s a true success, it could replace Cherokee, or the two could be continued as soft-roader and rough-roader. Either way, having both together would reduce pressure on either one to perform — and that Could mean an end to rebates and price cuts.

The old AMC plan, revived and modernized

Here’s an alternative theory, though. In 2016, the current long-term plan shows a new Ram and a new Fiat truck, imported from Chrysler. These are almost certainly the same thing – a compact or midsized pickup that is far more economical than Ram 1500, essentially filling in the Tacoma or original-Dakota/Colorado spot.

Now we start to see an interesting possibility: a spot for an XJ2 Cherokee and a Comanche 2. Comanche, you may recall, was the pickup made in a very similar way as Cherokee, on the same line.  That would mean a dedicated factory, most likely, but it would also make both projects much more likely to pay off. Instead of a single platform for Jeepers, there would be a single platform for Jeepers and worldwide pickup production, neatly filling in an empty spot in Chrysler’s and Fiat’s commercial vehicle lineup and restoring a Jeep capable of, in effect, selling less capable Jeeps through reputation diffusion.

Our theoretical XJ2, to be named Renegade or Cherokee Classic or whatever, would be much more suited to Jeep name and  Jeep reputation. You can get away with a Mercedes 190 or Cadillac Cimarron or Mac PowerPC 601 for only so long before buyers realize what you’ve done to the brand, and move on to the newer, hotter thing.

An independent front suspension can work in an off-road vehicle, but at a pretty high cost – at least $2,500, we’re told. It would have to be in a body that could provide good enough approach and departure angles and serious ground clearance. Link/coil can do that more cheaply than any other system. The system was usually loved by critics, who also enjoyed whining about how outdated it was, just after praising the ride, handling, and off-road capability of the cars that used it.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee is a fine Dodge, but it is not a full-blooded Jeep. The world has changed, but having a meaningful brand has not. When brands “leverage” their name too much, their good name tends to disappear. Returning to and modernizing link/coil would help provide more of a credibility base for the Compass and B-SUV to feed on.

So… to Mike Manley and the other guys at Jeep… get cracking. If you can’t match the Cherokee’s VCI numbers, you’re not walking down the right path. But we have a real opportunity here.

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