The Jeep brand is expanding at both ends of the SUV spectrum.
The new Cherokee that will soon replace the Liberty has a modern new look already proving controversial even before its debut next month at the New York auto show. Prototypes are undergoing testing now.
Work continues on two all-new models: a top-of-the-line Grand Wagoneer and a new tiny, but capable, and Trail Rated Jeep at the small end.
Both will come to market later than initially planned, said Jeep chief Mike Manley.
Jeep dates to 1941 and has a global cachet that has made it Chrysler's most valuable asset since acquiring it from American Motors in 1987.
The brand is synonymous with off-roading and teeth-rattling rides. The Wrangler remains its traditional touchstone, but Jeep has evolved into softer, more urban and more upscale vehicles for those who never leave paved roads.
"What's cool about the brand is we can do things and it is still recognizable as a Jeep," said design chief Ralph Gilles.
But Gilles and his design team must be careful.
"Chrysler can't water the brand down," said analyst Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific in Ann Arbor. "It is their most valuable brand."
The company is paying homage to the past by restoring storied names such as Cherokee and Grand Wagoneer ,while giving Jeep a fresh and more car-like look, as illustrated by the new Cherokee's edgy seven-slot grille.
The all-new compact Jeep slated to replace the Compass and Patriot may also shake things up.
Gilles said the replacement has a "new look" he described as "Jeepish."
Manley said the next-generation compact Jeep has elements of the two models it replaces, but will be sufficiently distinct to create its own identity.
The Compass and Patriot were to be discontinued this year, but a revised product plan released last month confirmed a refreshed upgrade will allow Compass to extend its life for another couple years.
The new replacement model will still be built at the Belvidere, Ill., plant, but the design and name have not been revealed.
Jeep also is delaying the return of the Grand Wagoneer, a vehicle that was introduced in 1962 and discontinued in 1991.
A year ago, Chrysler hoped to start selling this luxury SUV as early as 2014. Now it will be 2015 at the earliest.
It is taking longer to come to market because "it's got to be good," Manley said, with a great interior worthy of Jeep's most premium offering.
In the interim, Dodge will freshen the Durango full-size SUV to have something to augment Jeep Grand Cherokee, Sullivan said.
Work also continues on the new smallest Jeep yet.
A subcompact Jeep is due next year, based on a Fiat platform and built in Italy.
The new entry may be subcompact and car-based, but must retain the spirit of Jeep.
That means there will be a Trail Rated version that meets the brand's off-road capability criteria, Manley said.
Gilles said it "has to be Jeep looking and a Jeep intrinsically," which means designing adequate bumper clearances and fascias at angles that enable the vehicle to go off-road.
"They would never blow their reputation with a less-than-adequate vehicle," Sullivan said.
Competition globally would include the Buick Encore, Ford EcoSport and Nissan Juke. Honda also is working on a crossover version of the Fit.
"It's my favorite program right now," Gilles said of the small Jeep. "You can put it anywhere in the world," he said, "and it is still recognizable as a Jeep."
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