Friday, March 22, 2013

Jeep Wrangler: The last two-door 4x4. Will other automakers ever try to wrangle Wrangler sales?

Me driving a Jeep Wrangler TJ Unlimited in Moab, Utah
When it comes to off-road adventure, few vehicles resonate as much as the Jeep Wrangler. With solid front and rear axles and an aftermarket as noteworthy as Jeep's heritage is long, Jeep has a following that is enormous and extremely dedicated. Whether here in Oregon or out in Moab, Utah, I've gone places and done things behind the wheel of a Jeep Wrangler that were extremely impressive. They are truly remarkable, capable vehicles, even right out of the box. And in two-door guise, they're not really that large. For comparison's sake, a two-door Wrangler has an overall length of 163.8"—that's 11" shorter than a 2013 Nissan Versa. It's wheelbase is 95.4"—that's about 3" shorter than a Honda Fit. Interesting, eh?


What else is remarkable to me is that no other automaker these days seems to want a piece of Wrangler's truly capable off-road pie. I mean, sure there's the Toyota FJ Cruiser and 4Runner; the Nissan Xterra, and a the pickups out there, but it's just not the same. They're all bigger and not as basic. Kudos to Jeep for keeping things relatively small and extremely off-road capable. But it makes me think: Will we ever see another compact, capable 4x4 on the market that offers the appeal and charisma as well as the true off-road prowess of the Wrangler?

Red Suzuki Samurai
Suzuki Samurai
SUZUKI
It wasn't that long ago that the U.S. had several small two-door SUVs that were capable off the pavement. There was the tiny Suzuki Samurai, which at one time, may have been the Wrangler's "biggest" competition (pun intended). It had solid axles, was very inexpensive, and was great on the trail. It was super simple and quite popular. But the whole Consumer Reports smear campaign about the small SUV's rollover factor ended the Samurai's popularity seemingly overnight. (Do keep in mind that Suzuki sued CR and won, but the damage had been done.) 

In 1989 the two-door Suzuki Sidekick and Geo Tracker were introduced, and they had an impressive run of 14 years in production. The Sidekick/Vitara/Tracker models were pretty low on power (as was the Samurai), and they also had the independent front suspension, which isn't generally thought to be as good off road as the robust, simple solid front axle. But still, they were more capable than the "cute utes" they were often associated with. In the mid-to-late 1990s, they were compared to the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V, which were more powerful, more comliant on the highway, but not nearly as good on bona-fide off-road trails.

The Suzukis were probably the Wranger's biggest competition in the 1980s-2000s. However, they weren't the only game in town.

Orange Isuzu Amigo
Isuzu Amigo
THE OTHER TWO DOOR 4X4s
The other players were fairly minor. There was the mid-to-late 1980s Mitsubishi Montero/Dodge Rider, but they weren't offered in two-door variants for very long.

Isuzu's Trooper was available in a two door, but it was substantially bigger then the Suzukis or the Wrangler. Isuzu later released the Amigo, which was a neat little rig, and the wild VehiCROSS, but neither had the popularity of the Jeep.

Two other players were barely players at all: The Daihatsu Rocky and Kia Sportage Convertible. More akin to the Suzuki Sidekick/Geo Tracker, these little 4x4 runabouts didn't have much of an aftermarket, and didn't sell many units (especially the Daihatsu). Every now and then I see them on craigslist and think it might make a neat project. Then I slap myself in the face.

Not to be forgotten, were the Ford Bronco II and Chevrolet S-10 Blazer. They were on the smaller side, and they sold quite a bit. However, over time they grew up, sprouted two more doors, and eventually turned into road-going crossovers.

IT'S A JEEP THING
All of the above-mentioned two-door 4x4s are extinct on the U.S. market except for the Wrangler. Why is that? Is it because of Jeep's amazing branding? Is it because Jeep stuck with its recipe of solid front axles and simplicity? Is it Jeep's long heritage? The answer is probably yes to all.

What's amazing is not only is the Jeep still around in both two- and now four-door variants, they can't build them fast enough. Just recently, Jeep said it was adding more people to the Jeep plant in Ohio, and Jeep sales in Europe grew 60% in 2012. Yet no automaker has stepped up to try and challenge the venerable 4x4 for a slice of the off-road market here. (I foolishly thought Suzuki might have pull a wildcard and bring over one of my favorite 4x4s—the solid-axle-equipped Jimny—before they went bankrupt, but alas, I was dreaming.)

I own a '95 Suzuki Sidekick. I love it's compact size and it's thrifty engine—95 horsepower and all. But I have massive respect for the Jeep Wrangler as it's persevered year after year as the most steadfast off-road vehicle offered on American soil. Plus, since the Wrangler is one of a handful of off-road capable vehicles being offered new these days, it begs the question: What will people be taking off road in 20 years? Probably 2013 Jeep Wranglers, a smattering of Toyota FJ Cruisers and 4Runners, maybe a Nissan Xterra, and some pickups ... and some really old Suzuki, Isuzu, and Mitsubishi 4x4s.

As I sit in front of my computer at my day job (on my lunch break, of course) preparing for my annual departure the 2013 Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, I got to thinking: Will anyone ever try to challenge Jeep again for king of the trail? Will the Wrangler always have solid axles? Will you always be able to hose one out after it gets dirty? It's a formula that's worked for Jeep since the 1940s, so I'd think they'd stick with it. The question is, will anyone else try to wrangle Wrangler sales?

3 comments:

rubicon4wheeler said...

You've echoed my sentiments exactly. I've always had an appreciation for small, nimble, "underbuilt" a.k.a. "underdog" 4x4s, since my very first vehicle purchase was a 1987 Suzuki Samurai. I always loved the fact that I could get 28mpg on-road, and go off-road on 31" tires that a bigger Wrangler would struggle with 35" tires. Whereas a Wrangler would use 10+ gallons driving straight through the Rubicon Trail, my Samurai would only use 5 gallons.

Over the course of 18 years I built for myself 3 different Samurais, a 2-door Tracker, and a 4-door Sidekick. I also helped numerous friends build their own Suzuki 4x4s. I've worked in the 4WD aftermarket industry for the majority of those years, and I always found the Wrangler to be inferior. Although they make great power and have huge aftermarket support, it wasn't until Jeep introduced the 2007 Wrangler JK that the suspension and steering issues were finally resolved, and big enough axles were included right from the factory.

So as life changes dictated a bigger and more comfortable vehicle, I've sold all my Suzukis and purchased a 2010 Rubicon Unlimited. Yes, it weighs double what my Samurai did. Yes, it consumes 50% more fuel. But I now have plenty of room, a ridiculous amount of comfort, and I have a vehicle that was engineered for 35" tires so all I had to do was add a simple suspension lift kit and I still have unfaltering reliability. For anyone who's interested, I've been blogging the buildup of my Jeep at rubicon4wheeler.blogspot.com

Do I miss Suzukis? Yes, absolutely! But will I ever replace my Jeep? Not unless someone comes out with something better.

And that's my whole point - right now, the Jeep Wrangler (in both 2-door and 4-door lengths) is so far beyond the capabilities and aftermarket support of any other 4WD in the world, it's going to take quite an effort for any other 4x4 manufacturer to unseat the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon as the King of 4x4s.

Andy Lilienthal said...

Well said, sir! And do check out his blog--good stuff.

Anonymous said...

I wish there was something small & offroad capable like the older Samurai & Sidekick utes.

The only 2 I would consider right now would be the 4-door Jeep Wrangler with a 6-speed manual or a Toyota FJ Cruiser with a 6-speed manual. Problem is that they're a bit too large for me & they suck a lot of gas.

On a side note, we need more manuals! I'd also consider a "Trail Rated" Jeep Patriot, but no manual option is available for the "Trail Rated" version, therefore do no want!