The mystique of the Jeep brand name could suffer if DaimlerChrysler AG goes ahead with a plan to produce a full-size sport utility vehicles that is not off-road capable, analysts said.
The world's No. 5 automaker has long lacked a larger SUV to compete with such vehicles as Ford Motor Co.'s Excursion or General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Suburban. Such large SUVs, with a third row of seating, generate more than $10,000 per vehicle in profits.
DaimlerChrysler suppliers have been asked to provide price quotes for a large Jeep SUV program, analysts said. The vehicle is expected to go on sale in 2002 or 2003.
A large SUV, built off the next-generation Dodge Ram full-size pickup truck platform, would move DaimlerChrysler's U.S. brands into a lucrative segment, but at a cost if it is sold as a Jeep, analysts said. The pickup platform is not off-road capable, a requirement for all Jeep vehicles.
``It makes sense as a Dodge,'' AutoPacific analyst Jim Hall said. ``It's suicidal as a Jeep because it does diminish the whole concept of Jeep being seriously off-road capable.''
At the same time, Hall acknowledged that an SUV sporting the Jeep name would carry a higher sticker price. He believes German executives badly want the profits those vehicles generate.
``The Jeep Grand Cherokee costs them less to build than a Dodge Dakota (pickup) and they charge more for it,'' he said. ``As a Jeep, they could warrant a higher price for it. It would be a license to print money, there's no doubt.''
One possible name for a large Jeep SUV would be Grand Wagoneer, which Jeep dropped as a top-of-the-line model on its Grand Cherokee line in 1993. The current Jeep lineup includes the top-selling Grand Cherokee, as well as the less expensive Cherokee and small Wrangler.
It's not the first time, DaimlerChrysler's U.S. operations have toyed with a larger SUV. It considered but scrapped plans to build a four-door SUV, dubbed Adventurer, off the Ram platform in 1993, Hall said.
Company officials never discuss future product plans, but spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell said the automaker's vow to make all Jeeps capable of driving the mountainous Rubicon trail in northern California is more a guide than a requirement.
``There is no policy at all about that,'' she said. ``It's just kind of a mantra, if you will.''
But Hall said Chrysler executives have always been careful to protect Jeep's rugged image. They scrapped plans for a Jeep version of the Chrysler PT Cruiser hybrid vehicle available next year because its car platform was not tough enough.
``If they're serious about their brand bible, it won't be a Jeep, period, end of discussion,'' Hall said of the planned large SUV.
The automaker created a 60-page document, dubbed the brand bible, detailing its strategy for managing its vehicle brands in the future. Jeep, one of the world's most recognized brands, has long emphasized its off-road image.
Dealers are wary of a Jeep that would not be off-road capable, but would welcome a larger product to help them compete against GM and Ford dealers.
``A third-seat Jeep would be nice because we lose quite a bit of business, quite frankly, to the vehicles that have got those third seats,'' said John Yark, general manager of Toledo, Ohio, Jeep dealer, Yark Automotive Group.