A replacement is waiting in the wings, but Jeep’s tough old codger refuses to die.
by Nick Twork
Last Wednesday, DaimlerChrysler announced that it would continue production of the current Jeep Cherokee at its Toledo, Ohio, assembly location for an unspecified period of time. Originally, production of the present Cherokee was scheduled to end in November of this year. The company is nearing completion of a second assembly facility in Toledo, a new factory that until recently had been scheduled to produce a new generation of the venerable Cherokee. The plant is scheduled to go online in the spring of 2001.
"We have a unique opportunity to continue production of the current Cherokee while we ready a new plant for production of a future Jeep model," said Martin Levine, Vice President of the Chrysler/Plymouth & Jeep Division, in a news release last week.
But it seems Jeep may keep the current Cherokee, and call what was supposed to be the new Cherokee something else. Another scenario would be to rename the current product Cherokee Classic and call the new one Cherokee.
For the Cherokee, it’s a case of déjà vu. Back in 1991, what is now the Grand Cherokee was scheduled to be the replacement for the Cherokee. Since the Cherokee was selling so well, Jeep decided to keep the old model in production and rename the new one Grand Cherokee. The gambit has paid off - the Cherokee remains in production today, and last year sales were up 13 percent over 1998 levels.
The current Cherokee first entered production in 1984. While it has since been updated extensively, the basic sheetmetal remains the same. Consequently, DaimlerChrysler makes a handsome profit on each Cherokee it sells.
The profitability of the strong-selling Cherokee may be causing DaimlerChrysler second thoughts about canceling the current sport-ute in favor of the newly developed vehicle pictured here. The new model, codenamed KJ, derives its underpinnings from the current Cherokee. Power will be supplied by a new 3.7-liter overhead cam V-6 derived from the Grand Cherokee’s 4.7-liter V-8, and a 2.4-liter DOHC four derived from the Dodge Neon engine. The Jeep Varsity concept unveiled at the Detroit auto show foreshadows the styling cues of the new vehicle. Underneath, the KJ is said to employ an updated platform with an independent rear suspension. A diesel engine is slated for select markets.
As these spy photos show, the KJ has a profile reminiscent of the Jeep Wrangler Dakar concept shown at the Detroit auto show a few years ago. While the KJ has a similar greenhouse, those who have seen an uncamouflaged KJ say the front is more akin to a Grand Cherokee than a Wrangler. Inside, we saw an instrument panel with a pronounced brow over the gauge cluster and white gauge faces on the prototype visible in these photographs. Leather seats, a manual transmission and power window switches mounted on the center console were also visible. The rear hatch has a separately hinged glass rear section and the spare tire mounted to it. The high roofline and steeply raked tall windshield should give the vehicle abundant headroom.
With independent suspension and good interior room, questions have been raised within DaimlerChrysler as to whether the new KJ is an acceptable substitute for the rugged Cherokee. The new KJ was described to us as having more refined road manners, which usually equals diminished off-road prowess. That may work fine for Lexus, but Jeep’s stated brand characteristics include strong off-road capability. A lack of off-road mettle kept the Jeep JJ (Junior Jeep) from the market back in the ‘80s.
So far, DC spokespeople aren’t saying exactly how long the Cherokee may live, or if it will instead gain a sibling. “The decision has not yet been made,” said DaimlerChrysler spokesperson Jodi Armstrong. “The Jeep brand can accommodate both vehicles.” But for how long? At this point no one is willing to say.
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