Jeep's Grand Cherokee has won more than 30 industry and media awards in the past year, including being named "Winter Car of the Year" by the New England Motor Press Association.
That award was meaningful for many reasons, but chiefly because New England represents 22 percent of Jeep sales, the most of any region in the United States.
"New England is where Jeep lives. It's all about the weather, and Jeep is ready for all weather," said Brad Pinter, head of Jeep product marketing, last Tuesday evening at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline.
Jeep had brought an assortment of Grand Cherokees, Wranglers, and Compasses for both an introduction and as a result of internal desire to be considered for this year's Car of the Year Award.
The auto industry as a whole is emerging from the deep economic downturn of the past three years, but Chrysler, which was hurt as badly as any brand, is making the biggest rebound. In November of 2009, Jeep CEO Michael Manley mandated major changes to restore Jeep's quality, styling and marketing.
The results have been astounding. Compared to last year, Jeep sales for the first 10 months of 2011 are up an industry-leading 44 percent. And the brand has moved decidedly up-market, seeing more upscale buyers for both the top-of-the-line Grand Cherokee Overland and also the Wrangler Unlimited. Another indication of Chrysler's rebound-one that indicates it won't be for the short haul-is that Consumer Reports ranked it as the most reliable domestic brand for 2011.
Most notable is the Grand Cherokee's success, but right behind that is the formerly scorned (as a Jeep wannabe) Compass. The Manley-mandated changes included an all new front end, making the entry-level SUV look like a slightly smaller version of the Grand Cherokee.
In addition, the interior was refreshed and upgraded with better ergonomics and a high-quality steering wheel (only the part of the vehicle you touch most), projector headlamps. But most important was its new "Trail Rated" designation-Jeep's in-house designation for vehicles that can "do it" off road-which came with the addition of an optional transmission with a "crawl gear" that allows it to go where normal all-wheel-drive vehicles can't make it.
Other major changes in the Jeep lineup:
Wrangler. The little vehicle that remains the corporate soul at Jeep. Last year it got a more refined interior; this year it gets Chrysler's new Pentastar V-6 engine, the same one that's the base engine in the Grand Cherokee. "It gets 21 miles per gallon and has a 40 percent increase in horsepower," said Pinter. We found it as much fun as ever to drive and more refined-relatively speaking-on paved surfaces.
Wrangler Unlimited. Introduced in 2007, the Unlimited now accounts for 60 percent of Wrangler sales. "A lot of people who had Wranglers before they had families are coming back to the brand and using the Unlimited as a family vehicle," said Pinter. Thanks to its longer wheelbase, the Unlimited is more comfortable on the road and more powerful and fuel efficient with the new V-6.
Grand Cherokee. Sales are up 59 percent this year. "It's enabled us to reclaim the premium SUV market," said Pinter. "That's a segment we owned in the late '90s and early 2000s." However, the Jeep folks made one easily-remedied miscalculation: They underestimated the demand for the top-of-the-line Overland edition, and then rectified that by producing a fully loaded Overland Summit model. "We're competing successfully for folks who've been buying the BMW X5, Acura MDX, or Lexus RX 350," he says. "It's got true Jeep DNA but it's truly refined on the road with the new V-6." A 5.7-liter V-8 is available.
Bill Griffith can be reached at WGriffith@globe.com.
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee