DETROIT – An all-new B-segment Jeep scheduled to be built at Fiat’s Melfi, Italy, plant in the next two years may have some Fiat attributes, but don’t call it badge engineering, Jeep’s top executive says.
“I’m quite sensitive on that point, because people tend to think that we just put a skin on a Fiat car,” Jeep-brand President and CEO Mike Manley tells WardsAuto. “Absolutely not what we’re doing. (It’s) a Jeep with Jeep DNA.”
Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has said the small Jeep will be produced alongside the Fiat Punto, and Manley admits “there’s technology-sharing between that platform and this potential vehicle, but it will be a Jeep vehicle.”
There will be a Trail Rated version of the vehicle, he says, assuring Jeep fans of its potential for off-road capability. And while it will supplant Jeep’s C-segment offerings, the Patriot and Compass, as an entry point to the brand, it won’t necessarily target an entry-level buyer.
“I think you’re going to see (customers) at different stages in their life,” he says. “Maybe they’re empty-nesters; maybe they want to downsize. Maybe they are traditional B- or C- hatchback or sedan buyers that are looking for a small compact vehicle that provides them with something different than their current car.”
Manley is eyeing incremental growth of a small-but-capable cross/utililty vehile segment in the U.S., hoping to mirror the same growth of the vehicles as in Europe.
“It’s hard to really forecast what the volume will be,” he says. “I want to sell (the small Jeep) in big volumes everywhere. But if you look at the way the subcompact (segment) has developed in Europe, it’s much more mature than in the U.S. I think…the segment will expand (here) because of the production of this vehicle.”
Manley says a name has yet to be chosen for the Italian-built Jeep.
Jeep also has not revealed the name of its forthcoming D-segment SUV to be unveiled at the New York Auto Show in March.
“There are clearly only two options for the name of this vehicle: It’s either going to be Cherokee or it’s going to be Liberty,” Manley says. “We are going to make that decision in the very near future. Both of them are historical names, Cherokee more so than Liberty.”
“We’ll have the next debate when we replace the C-segment: Will it be Compass? Will it be Patriot?” he asks rhetorically, adding the new C-segment entry will come at the end of 2014. Chrysler’s 5-year product plan calls for one of the two current models to end production.
Fiat announced plans in December to introduce the Jeep brand to India, building on its relationship with Tata. “We have and will continue a joint manufacturing venture with Tata,” Manley says.
Fiat is implementing a dealer network for Jeep that involves transitioning several Tata-Fiat dealers, a process scheduled for completion by the end of the first-quarter. The Grand Cherokee and Wrangler will be sold in India by the end of this year, with additional plans to manufacture and sell India-exclusive B- and C-segment Jeeps.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Manley says.
At last week’s press previews at the North American International Auto Show here, Jeep introduced a diesel-powered Grand Cherokee already sold in Europe. Jeep enthusiasts long have sought that powertrain for the Wrangler, but Manley says it depends on America’s acceptance of diesels.
“If we achieve what we think we can achieve with (the diesel-powered Grand Cherokee), then that’s going to really strengthen the case to deliver diesel in other vehicles,” he says. “One of the prime targets will be Wrangler.”
Manley is hoping diesel production will account for 15% of Jeep’s total volume. “Would I consider (diesel) not a success if it were less than that? No.”