The 2017 Jeep Wrangler is a strong chance to receive an aluminium bodyshell to go with a range of more efficient, downsized turbo engines.
While priority number one appears to make sure the iconic off-roader stays as capable off the beaten path as at present, regulations dictate substantial modernisation.
Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne told media including CarAdvice this week in Paris that heated internal debates were taking place over precisely how to do this.
Making the next Wrangler lighter through the use of alloy would help it meet increasingly stringent environmental concerns, along with more modern powertrains than those offered at present, notably the 3.6-litre petrol V6.
“We need to preserve two things,” he said. “All of its capabilities, and certainly we need to modernise it because of the fact that we think, collectively believe that we need to bring significant improvements to both the make up of the car, its interiors, the performance and the amenities that are associated with driving the vehicle itself.
“One of the things that we're debating and we continue to have heated debates about is whether this thing requires to go to a material other than steel. And so the Ford discussions that have gone in the past about the F-150 going to steel, going to aluminium are going on inside our house now.”
The Ford reference applies to the new-generation F-Series that was controversially shifted over to military-grade aluminium earlier this year. The material is light, but can be more expensive and difficult to repair when dented.
The Wrangler’s conceptual rival, the Land Rover Defender, has contained aluminium for decades. The material is more corrosion resistant, making it fit-for-purpose.
Jeep is on record as committing to launching a new Wrangler in 2017, meaning it has some time — but not a lot — to commit to the configuration of its next model.
“How we actually unpeel this onion is, still remains to be, the development work is going off from an engineering standpoint, so we haven't lost any time vis-a-vis the work that needs to be done,” Marchionne said.
“But we also think, we firmly believe that we need to downsize the engines that are going to the Wrangler just in terms of displacement and then increase the capabilities by putting turbos in and doing other things to that engine. This requires a complete rethink of the architecture.”
Jeep president and CEO Mike Manley told CarAdvice that a decision is still a while off.
"The final decision certainly isn’t made. But obviously we’ve got a very clear idea of the things that we need to do, and I’m talking about the way the vehicle performs rather than the materials we use," he said.
"There’s a clear idea of what we need to do with Wrangler, and that is going to involve, really, all of the levers that you pull to continue to drive fuel economy whilst maintaining its capability," Manley asserted, before suggesting that styling changes won't be dramatic for the iconic off-roader.
"Obviously Wrangler, from a shape perspective, is not going to change a huge amount. So you’re ability to use aerodynamics is there for sure, but you have to look at every single lever, and that includes, clearly, weight, different powertrain options. And that drives you to look at them all, including aluminium," he said. "Aluminium has a number of benefits as well, because for a vehicle like Wrangler that would lower the centre of gravity, improve its capability and other things. There are other considerations … not just about taking weight off."
One thing that appears certain is that all Wranglers will continue to be built in North America — Marchionne again guaranteed this — though potentially not the Toledo plant that makes the vehicle at present.
“If the solution is aluminium then I think unfortunately Toledo is the wrong set up to try and build a Wrangler because it requires a complete, a reconfiguring of the assets which would be cost-prohibitive. I mean it would be just be so outrageously expensive for us to try and work out that facility,” Marchionne said.
Jeep has previously pledged to sell 1.8 million cars annually by 2018, up from a projected record-beating 1 million this year. By this time it will sell globally all-new models such as a new sub-Cherokee compact SUV to replace to Patriot/Compass, plus the Renegade micro SUV and the seven-seat Grand Wagoneer.