Jeep Australia says it is feeling revitalised and raring to rip into 2018 with a new model onslaught, following a few lean years of tanking sales, restricted new product offerings and a few image hits.
The American SUV king was on top of the world in 2014, when it sold more than 30,000 new vehicles and almost knocked off Honda.
However, a dearth of new launches (one new model since 2015); widely publicised court-led controversy regarding executives’ use of finances; numerous recalls on key product fuelling reliability concerns; and an unfavourable exchange rate, all bit hard.
Sales fell to about 24,400 in 2015, halved to 12,620 last year and by year’s end in 2017 will be lucky to top 8500. Quite a fall. British equivalent Land Rover has sold about 50 per cent more vehicles this year, with a number of pricier offerings.
SUVs as a whole have done nothing but grow since 2014 - they actually now outsell conventional passenger vehicles (sedans, hatches and two-doors). This must be especially galling for Jeep’s parent company, Fiat Chrysler Australia.
However, the company insists it has not been sitting idle. Behind the scenes it has been laying the foundations for renewed growth from 2018 onwards - this time setting it up to be sustainable and manageable.
In other words, as we saw with Volkswagen in the early 2010s, Jeep grew sales faster than its network of dealers and back-end support could cope with, leveraging a friendly US exchange rate and spending a ton on advertising (remember ‘Don’t Hold Back’?).
Sales and marketing are all well-and-good, but you need to be able to support this bigger ‘car park’ with good after-sales care if you want returning customers, and to offer them exciting new products. Otherwise, your rivals will…
“I think it’s pretty obvious there were a lot of things that went into it,” Fiat Chrysler Australia CEO and managing director, Steve Zanlunghi, told us this week at a large-scale and resource-heavy media event, after a touch more than 12 months in the chair here.
“Everyone knows that product is king in this industry and when you mix into it that we haven't launched a new vehicle since 2015 [Renegade], one that arguably was priced a little bit on the expensive or less competitive side…
"But we’re not here to talk about the past… we’ve laid a lot of good foundations in 2017 and done a lot of things in our backyard to fix it.
“Everything from warehouse logistics [at 96 per cent fill rate], we’re at our highest ever scores in Australia now for after-sales, and then you look at what we did in February with the ‘There and Back’ guarantee..."
There and Back is a transferrable five-year warranty, lifetime roadside assistance and a capped-price servicing schedule offered on all Jeeps - something the company says has categorically helped lure new buyers who had doubts about the brand against its Asia- or Europe-based rivals.
“I think we’ve laid the foundations pretty well for our product onslaught over the next year. We’re still a sales-focused organisation, but we want to do it right, and we want controlled growth,” Zanlunghi added.
FCA’s regional communications boss, Lucy McLellan, added: “We had to have a cultural shift internally first”, referring to an influx of repair orders that it has now cleared.
This is something that doesn't happen overnight,” added head of Jeep Australia, Guillaume Drelon.
That aforementioned “product onslaught” includes the entirely new Compass compact SUV rival to the Hyundai Tucson, rolling into showrooms pretty much now, plus the new Grand Cherokee Trackhawk flagship, a $135k monster that’s Australia’s third most-powerful new vehicle, and dashes from 0-100km/h in 3.7sec.
Thus, every Jeep will be either new or facelifted between now and the end of next year.
“It’s going to be an awesome year for us in 2018, by definition,’ Zanlunghi said, confidently.
“Whenever an auto company goes through, I guess, a drought, when you launch new product… it comes back in a hurry. I can tell you the entire organisation is revitalised.”
Here's our take: Jeep is an important brand, and if it truly has fixed its flaws, then it'll return to somewhere near its peak. Gradually. And don't forget the 2019 Wrangler Ute...