With only a few months left in 2018, I think it’s time to reflect on the fact that we have completed yet another lap around the sun with no real competitor to the Jeep Wrangler. Sure, there’s the Toyota 4Runner, there are Land Rovers and Land Cruisers and there are various 4×4 pickup trucks, but none of those vehicles truly compete head-to-head with the Jeep. You can’t take the doors off and put the windshield down in any of those — and, unfortunately, there’s little hope on the horizon for a real competitor in the compact off-roader category.
The issue is that the Wrangler desperately needs a competitor to help sharpen its edge — and, more importantly, its value. The most basic Wrangler you can buy will set you back $29,444 once you factor in the $1,495 destination charge (which is highway robbery considering most European-made vehicles charge less than $1,000). For context, that’s about $2,000 more than a base-level VW GTI,and about $1,000 more than a mid-range Honda Accord EX. The GTI will give you an entertaining driving experience with a really nice interior for its price, while the Accord offers a ton of active safety features, dual-zone climate control and LED headlights.
The base Wrangler has none of that. Jeep even makes you pay an extra $1,295 for air conditioning, something that has been a common standard feature in cars for my entire lifetime. You may say, "Will, it’s full of off-road gear that is very expensive! You’re not spending money on the superfluous stuff so you can have a purebred off-road machine! It’s a GT3 RS for off-roading!" My reply is that’s a load of baloney. Jeep has been making the Wrangler and its predecessors since time began — and they figured out how to make and develop that stuff in a cost effective way a long time ago. The only reason why the most basic Jeep costs almost $30,000 instead of $20,000 is because people will line up to pay that much for it.
Clearly, it would be better for everyone if Jeep had a competitor — but who could it be?
Believe it or not, I think Kia would be very well-suited to this challenge for a couple of reasons. First, Kia has no legacy that would dog them. Kia has never built anything like the Wrangler, so the brand would be an absolute dark horse. Kia could drop a bona fide compact off-roader out of nowhere and people would probably give it an honest chance. We just saw this with the Stinger, which was built to offer the driving experience of a BMW 5 Series at a serious discount — and it’s been so well-received that even Kia themselves are surprised. The Stinger also proved that Kia is actually able to rise to the challenge of building something new and different.
Secondly, Kia is in search of an identity. Kia has finally gotten to the point where it’s a well-respected manufacturer among the general public, but now they need a hook. So far, the only experiment Kia has really done in this direction is the Stinger — so that gives Kia the ability to try out a broader, more unconventional line up. A Wrangler competitor, maybe in the form of a modern interpretation of the Suzuki Samurai, wouldn’t look weird in an overall lineup. In fact, a purpose-built compact off-roader could act as the SUV counterpart to the Stinger, in that it’s a car designed for fun in a line-up of competent but otherwise forgettable SUVs. Just like how Jeep does it, they could work the identity of that hypothetical off-roader into the rest of their SUV line up, creating an identity that pulls more eyes than their raw product would.
And then, of course, there’s the huge demand: Both the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota 4Runner are selling better than ever before, and off-road pickups are hot, too. Why not go after a portion of the market where buyers seem to be?
It may all sound crazy, but I think it would work. Kia is headed in the right direction, but the brand’s SUV line up doesn’t necessarily have anything that’s truly compelling. If Kia threw an off-roader into the mix, maybe it would take the company to the next level. Most of all, a $22,000 SUV that can do what the Wrangler can will force Jeep to innovate harder and price it more competitively. And that would be great for all of us.
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