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Mini-Jeep: modern CJ or upgraded Panda?

by David Zatz on

A new Jeep slotted beneath the Renegade and Compass has been on public product plans even before the Renegade’s name was known. It’s meant mainly for emerging markets and Europe, but what exactly should we expect?


This is what we thought it would look like, some years back.

If we take the China-only Jeep Grand Commander (loosely speaking, a three-row Cherokee) as an example, we can safely say that FCA isn’t too worried about rock-climbing credentials in China. The Grand Commander’s length-to-ground-clearance ratio makes it impossible to meet the standards for USA-based Jeeps; but, if a new vehicle won’t be sold in the US anyway, those standards aren’t applicable. That means a modified, toughened Panda could make the cut.

Jeep Grand Commander profile

If you don’t know what a Panda is, that may be because it’s not sold in the United States or Canada, despite extensive discussion time on certain Allpar forums. The Panda is a cleverly made, agile subcompact Fiat with FWD or AWD, with nearly eight million sold since its launch in 1980. It’s been in its third generation since 2011; the early versions looked vaguely like a Plymouth Horizon, while newer ones resemble an Eagle Summit (Mitsubishi Colt Vista) — that is, a hatchback or a modern wagon.

The Panda doesn’t have much ground clearance, but it’s fairly agile, thanks to a cleverly designed drive system and suspension. The Panda 4×4 has a full-time all wheel drive system using front and rear open differentials, with an electronically controlled rear coupling, so it can vary torque between the axles; and it has a semi-independent torsion-beam suspension. Rather than using a real locking differential, it uses the antilock brake system to slow wheels with excess slip.  The “Trail Rated” equivalent of the Panda is the Panda Cross, which has skid plates and higher ground clearance.

What would a Jeep based on this look like? Well, for one, it would use the company’s brand-new small engines, to provide more power than the TwinAir or Multijet II diesel. Buyers can’t get more than 84 horsepower now; a Jeep would likely have triple-digit horsepower. One reason for this, an educated guess, is the thought that any Jeep would still need a tough, durable body, and that means added weight — especially for the Jeep version of the Panda Cross, which would likely have heavier-duty steel skid plates than the Cross itself. The new Jeep might not be able to cross the Rubicon, but it should be able to take any trail without being wrecked.

The other option for Fiat Chrysler would be to create a completely new Jeep to take over old markets, steal African and remote-South-American sales from Land Rover, and directly challenge Mahindra. That is, to do a new take on the old CJ series.

People tend to forget that the Jeep CJ and Wrangler have been steadily growing larger over the decades, since 1945. That growth has come because every time Jeeps grew, they gained more sales, and eventually the smaller version was dropped. The same happened to minivans, resulting in high demand for crossovers such as the Cherokee.

Creating a brand new vehicle based on the old CJ’s core characteristics would be more expensive than adapting the Panda, but it would also put Jeep onto much more solid ground, in terms of image and uniqueness. That market isn’t really being served except by Mahindra at the moment, and Mahindra has quality issues which hopefully would not be as bad for Jeep. Selling a premium, tough, go-anywhere, adaptable, small, and economical SUV would likely result in a great deal of incidental TV coverage. In the places where, today, you see Toyota pickups and Land Rovers, tomorrow you could be seeing small Jeeps.


Mahindra Thar is an evolution of the Jeep CJ series — closer to the original, arguably, than the Wrangler.

Whether this vehicle could be engineered in such a way as to be sellable in the United States or European Union, given the incompatibility of safety requirements with light weight, is an open question, and it would certainly be a challenge to design it. (The other question is, where could it be built? Could it share a line with anything else?)

If you ask which one we think is coming, it’s definitely something based on existing product lines, looking like a smaller Compass or Renegade — but a miniature Wrangler, hearkening back to the CJ, would be welcomed by many people.

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