Is there room in Chrysler's garage for Jeep Lite?
Executives at DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. unit are locked in debate over whether a Jeep less suited for off-road travel and minus its trademark rugged styling would boost sales without hurting brand image.
While cost-cutting efforts have thrown Chrysler's future product plans into flux, company insiders say there are no current plans to make a Jeep that can't conquer the Rubicon, an old Indian footpath in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains considered the most demanding 22 miles of off-road driving in America.
But some automotive analysts say concept vehicles like the car-like Jeep Varsity -- unveiled last January at the Detroit auto show -- signal that Chrysler officials are wrestling with just such an idea.
``There's a huge internal debate because Jeep is their strongest brand,'' CSM Worldwide analyst Michael Robinet said. ''Jeep is going to have to not necessarily escape its Rubicon roots, but bend toward the competition if they want to maintain high-volume entrants.''
While analysts said a Varsity-like Jeep is unlikely before 2004, talk of a watered-down model is heresy to Jeep purists.
``They need to keep their animal instincts with Jeep,'' said Lancaster, Pa.'s Richard McCracken, 52, who has owned eight Jeeps in his lifetime. ``If they want to head for a fad, they're going to bite it financially.''
Ruggedness Will Remain
While Chrysler President and Chief Executive Officer James Holden said the automaker would explore all options depending on consumer demand, Jeep won't lose any ruggedness on his watch.
``There's room to stretch the Jeep brand over time, but we wouldn't walk away from the (Rubicon-) capable thing,'' he told Reuters in September.
Introduced as a design concept to show where Jeep could push the brand, Varsity offered a car-like ride and softer, more rounded looks to compete against Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus RX 300 or Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Acura MDX, both car-like luxury SUVs.
Some Jeep dealers love the idea of a product that would appeal to a wider range of buyers. ``I'll let whoever wants sell that 1 percent that goes over the Rubicon and I'll take all the rest,'' Denver dealer John Schenden said.
Some analysts also question whether Chrysler should stick to the Rubicon-ready rule when only 10 percent of owners drive their SUVs off road.
``The realities of the market say you have to bend that rule,'' PaineWebber analyst Joseph Phillippi said. ``There's a way to serve both masters. Something like the Varsity works.''
Other industry observers said that, regardless of the product, messing with Jeep's strong brand image as the most rugged and capable SUV on the road is a big mistake.
``Varsity in my mind is not a Jeep,'' said one analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``It's a classic example of prostituting the Jeep name.''
They argue Chrysler should keep Jeep true to its essence and use its Chrysler and Dodge brands for less rugged SUVs and car-truck combination vehicles.
``As soon as you start walking away from your (brand) equity, you have the opportunity, the potential to increase your sales,'' AutoPacific analyst James Hall said. ``You also have the potential to split the difference, lose your old buyers and not get the new ones.''