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Owner Feedback at 12,000 Ft.

Telluride, CO Kevin Metz talks of not goofing up, as he drives a Jeep up a narrow and jagged 4X4 mountain trail, one side ending in a sheer drop. He's not referring to erring and plunging the $40,000 Commander into the white aspens far below. Rather, Metz is talking about his job, about doing right as the brand manager for Chrysler LCC's Jeep Div. I see myself as the protector of the brand, he says.

Telluride, CO — Kevin Metz talks of not goofing up, as he drives a Jeep up a narrow and jagged 4X4 mountain trail, one side ending in a sheer drop.

He's not referring to erring and plunging the $40,000 Commander into the white aspens far below. Rather, Metz is talking about his job, about doing right as the brand manager for Chrysler LCC's Jeep Div.

“I see myself as the protector of the brand,” he says. It's an uncomplicated assignment in some ways, in that Jeep owners are brand loyalists who don't need a lot of convincing.

“It's an easy job, because of the strength of the brand,” Metz adds, bouncing — or in Jeep-speak, articulating — along an old mule trail en route to an abandoned mining camp, elevation 12,000 ft. (3,657 m).

“On the other hand, it's a challenging job, because you don't want to mess up what you've got. Jeep has a proud 68-year heritage as a go-anywhere vehicle. That's important to preserve.”

An avid off-roader and owner of two Jeeps (including an '85 CJ7), Metz is here participating in a Jeep Jamboree, an off-roading event that brings together vehicle owners for what's billed as “the ultimate Jeep weekend” in picture-postcard spots around the country.

Market studies show such auto maker-sanctioned “experience” events — from off-roading in SUVs to road-rallying in Ferraris — enhance customer loyalty. The Jeep Jamboree, vintage 1953, claims to be the first of its kind.

This one follows rough trails high in the San Juan Mountains above this southwest Colorado town that's now an upscale ski-resort but in earlier days drew a coarser crowd. One Telluride claim to fame: Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank here.

Although Chrysler faces various problems these days, Jeep customer loyalty isn't one of them. Jeep attracts a level of customer advocacy that many competitors covet.

The Jamborees attract different types, from families to singles, oldsters to youths. They're united in their love of Jeeps.

“I was at the Rubicon Jeep Jamboree in California last week and met two sisters in their twenties, as well as two women in their seventies,” Metz says. “I can't think of a demographic we're not in.”

Among participants of the Colorado climb are Joan Seif, of upstate New York, and her sister, Sara Basloe, now living in Costa Rica, who describes their attendance as “a family-reunion thing.”

It's the 20th Jamboree for Seif, the Jeep owner of the family.

“I bought my first Jeep, a Cherokee, in 1998 because I have a bad back, and it was the only vehicle I could be in comfortably,” she says. “Then I figured, ‘I've got this 4-wheel drive vehicle, why not give off-roading a try?’ I've been doing it ever since.”

Also in the group are Darren and Marty Englehart. The couple, with their Boston terrier, drove up from Fort Worth, TX.

“We did our first Jamboree here in 2000 and were hooked,” he says during a lunch break in the mountains, the ground covered with fresh snow from an overnight storm. “I love seeing our Jeep do its work.”

The day before, the Engleharts off-roaded on nearby Black Bear Pass, considered too treacherous for the Jeep Jamboree.

“It will stop your heart,” Englehart says. “It took us four hours to travel a mile and a half. Afterwards, I bought a T-shirt that says, ‘You don't have to be crazy to drive the Black Bear Pass, but it helps.’”

The Jamborees stress bringing participants back in one piece. “Safety is No.1,” event coordinator Chris Timmes says at an orientation meeting. “And if you are nervous about going up in the snow, just flat-out tell us.”

He introduces the guides, including two trained as emergency medical technicians, as well as “the legend,” Bob Arnett, from Parachute, CO, one of the region's great off-roaders.

“I've been off-roading since I was 23,” says Arnett, 73, standing next to his modified '63 Jeep Willys pickup. A window decal says: “Get in, sit down, shut up and hang on.”

“This vehicle is set up for rough rock climbing,” he says. “The rougher, the better.” He off-roads with his wife, Helen. His sons are avid about it, too. “We've always loved Jeeping,” Arnett says.

Chrysler executives often attend Jeep Jamborees to mix with the owners and ask what's on their minds. Spending quality time with them at this outing are Metz, the marketer and Tony Brenders, an engineer and senior manager-vehicle synthesis/program management for Jeep's most iconic model, the Wrangler.

“I'm, No.1, the voice of the customer and, No.2, the project manager,” says Brenders. “That makes for some interesting conversations with myself.”

It can also lead to avid discussions with colleagues when plotting the product development of a vehicle.

“Something like spending $20 per unit for a rear-differential lock on a Wrangler Rubicon is a no-brainer,” Brenders says.

“But something like where to put the sway-bar switch can lead to heated conversations. People argue their cases, because they feel passionate about the part of the vehicle they're working on. That's good; I want them to feel passionate.”

Then there's the feedback from customers. Getting it, analyzing it and drawing conclusions is tricky, because, as Metz notes, there's a wide demographic to work with.

“How do you know what the customer wants?” Brenders says. “Getting good data to answer that completely can be hard. Jeep customers are special. A lot of people shopping Jeep won't consider some of our competitors. That's precious to us. That's image. That's hard-won by delivering product.”

Camp Jeep, another owner-oriented event, is a good place to tap into the mind of the customer, he says.

One of the most popular parts of Camp Jeep is an engineering roundtable. Under big tents, owners ask questions and tell engineers what they think. “Our owners can be very vocal,” Brenders says.

For instance, some customers complain the Wrangler's front footwell is cramped. That's because under the floor is a large transfer case that delivers 4X4 power to both axles.

“We've talk to customers who say, ‘I'll do the trade-off,’” Brenders says. “To have both — more foot room and strong 4-wheel drive capability — you'd need a step ladder to get into the vehicle.”

With a vehicle such as the Wrangler, the toughest entrant in the 6-vehicle lineup, “we start with capability and then look at creature comforts — not that those aren't important,” he says. “It can be a struggle. You want comfort and capability.”

Brenders also lends an ear to dealers, who, in expressing their opinions, can be as vocal as customers.

“We absolutely listen to dealers. They often spec out the vehicles, which will sit on their lots if they don't know what they're doing,” he says. “They're screwed into their markets, so we listen to them and pay attention to their ordering.”

It's amazing how a World War II military vehicle that became a post-war work vehicle (especially in farming) ultimately has made its way into the hearts of adventure-seeking consumers. Jeep sold more than 475,000 units last year, according to Ward's data.

“Jeeps aren't for everyone,” Metz says. “Some buyers won't consider a Jeep, just as some won't consider a Toyota Prius. But people who buy Jeeps are special. They're looking for adventure and memories, not basic transportation.”

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