Once again, Jeep is using the occasion of the massive Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah, to show off a few fresh ideas to its rock-crawling faithful. The six concept trucks, several of which are just showboats for Mopar-brand aftermarket parts, aren’t likely to ever make it into production, but they say a lot about what’s on the company’s mind as it debuts a new Grand Cherokee diesel and firms up the blueprints for the redesign of the next Wrangler, due out in about two years.
With its fabric-covered body, carbon-fiber hood, and hugely lighter frame, the Jeep Wrangler Stitch is sort of an off-road Caterham 7. It’s 1100 pounds lighter than the current two-door Wrangler and is a low-mass fantasy from a brand whose engineers currently are obsessed with weight reduction.
Most of the vehicles in Jeep’s lineup are serious drags on Chrysler’s overall corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rating, so weight reduction is a major objective for the next Wrangler. When the Wrangler debuts, you won’t see holes drilled in its frame and spindles, as you do on the Stitch, but you’re likely to see a frame that has been heavily re-worked for reduced mass, says Jeep vehicle line director Ray Durham.
“We think there’s a smarter way to design the frame,” he says, adding that he’s been fascinated by the way Japanese motorcycle makers save weight and cost by using a combination of aluminum castings and simple extrusions in their frames. The next Wrangler is unlikely to have an aluminum frame, but it may have hydroformed steel sections, or full-box sections only where they are needed for strength while lesser-stressed areas are made from open C-section rails, or some combination of the three, says Durham.
Engineers are scrutinizing every single flange, cross-member, and attachment mount to see where un-needed pounds can be culled. They’re also looking at using aluminum in the doors or hood, Durham says, which also would cut mass.
Another change in the next Wrangler will be a more comfortable rear seat for four-door models. Customers have complained that the current rear seat is too vertical, but the company has decided to wait until the full redesign to fix the problem owing to the high cost of swapping in a new seat frame and then re-certifying it with crash testing, says Durham.
Aerodynamic improvements, such as those hinted by the Jeep Wrangler Slim’s faired front bumper, also are being slated for the Wrangler. And so is a diesel engine for the U.S. “It comes up in almost every conversation I have with a customer,” says Jeep brand marketing director Jim Morrison.
Wranglers equipped with a 2.8-liter turbo-diesel four-cylinder already are sold in Europe and Australia. The question is whether Americans will want a diesel Wrangler and, more important, be willing to pay a $ 3000 to $ 5000 premium for it. As Jeep launches its first Grand Cherokee diesel, it’s watching closely to see how the sales go before deciding on a compression-ignition Wrangler.
“The Grand Cherokee and Wrangler customers are different,” says Morrison, “but their incomes are often similar,” he says, so the success or failure of the Grand Cherokee diesel could hint at how a diesel Wrangler will fare.
With the Wrangler Unlimited accounting for more than 50 percent of production, the next Wrangler definitely will feature two body styles: a two-door and a four-door. A third body style has been studied, “but the question is what,” says Morrision. The long-rumored revival of the Comanche pickup is possible, or maybe “something different,” he says.
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Nobody at Jeep will give specifics, but a more uptown, urban Wrangler with a faster roofline, such as that on the Wrangler Flat Top concept shown in Moab, might be one idea. The Flat Top has a one-piece hardtop roof, elegant interior trim, and a paint job of sandstone, black, and copper colors that look expensive. No doubt, Jeep has noted how well Land Rover has been able to move the premium-priced Range Rover Evoque, a highly urbane city car from a brand known for its off-road prowess.
Then again, says Durham, with the Wrangler’s Toledo, Ohio, assembly plant currently running at full capacity, a third body style may be just a way to spend more money on product development while selling exactly the same number of vehicles.