The Wrangler is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the Jeep brand, tracing its lineage all the way back to the Willys MB in 1941. Although it has gotten larger, more powerful, and more capable over the years, the Jeep Wrangler and its predecessor CJ models have always been valued and treasured by enthusiasts by taking to accessorization and customization like a fish to water. The body-on-frame steel construction and front and rear live axles have always been rugged, simple, and easy to upgrade, thanks to an abundance of aftermarket support.
Earlier this month, in an Automotive News report, Jeep brand CEO Mike Manley made some comments on the future of the Wrangler that inferred that its traditional construction and layout was not sacrosanct in the greater context of the SUV market. “Why would, for example, somebody else’s SUV that’s really an on-road ‘soft’ SUV not be for me a genuine target for the Wrangler?” he told Automotive News.
Just a Big Renegade?
For the traditionalists, this could be interpreted as the next model being an oversized Renegade, full of Fiat econobox parts, and a transverse drivetrain. In all likelihood, the changes will probably not be quite that apocalyptic, but several options are on the table, including an aluminum body as alluded to by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne and possibly even an independent suspension. But lest you be horrified by that prospect, Jeep was experimenting with independent suspensions as far back as the ’60s and ultimately abandoned the design for cost reasons. But at that time, fuel economy was a non-issue.
We talked to three leading aftermarket companies that have built their businesses on building parts and accessories for the Wrangler and Jeeps. Surprisingly, almost all of them had a very positive, progressive attitude about the future of the Jeep brand and the Wrangler in particular. The companies said they were ready for whatever might come and will rise to the challenge but hoped that changes would continue to be evolutionary improvements in functionality and design, rather than a wholesale re-think of the Wrangler concept.
Chris Wood, director of global parts sales for American Expedition Vehicles, a leading customizer and accessory manufacturer for the Wrangler, said he hoped Jeep won’t completely scrap the Wrangler’s full-frame, solid-axle template. “Jeep should be focusing on subtle refinement to the formula, like a more robust front axle housing, a flat rear deck when the rear seats are folded down, and more abundant tie-down points in the cargo area. If Jeep is listening, I hope they will heed my call to leave the Wrangler’s full-frame, live-axle configuration alone. I’m confident my sentiments are shared throughout our industry,” Wood said.
Opportunity in Change
Brian Shepard, marketing director for Currie Enterpries, sees potential opportunity if the next Wrangler adopts an independent suspension for enthusiasts that want to retain a live axle. “Whichever direction Jeep goes with the next Wrangler, we’ll be ready for it. If it does go full-independent, we see a potential market for straight-axle conversion kits, as well as beefier components for independent suspension. You can’t be looking backwards. You’ve got to be looking forward, and be adaptable to the market,” he said.
The possibility that the next Wrangler could have an aluminum body was taken in stride by most of the companies we talked to, saying it would require changes to the attachment hardware and methods but nothing that would prevent the same level of accessorization as today. “I imagine the bulk of our accessories would still be made out of steel. Where there is any concern about galvanic corrosion due to dissimilar metals, AEV will naturally take appropriate steps to prevent the problem,” said Wood.
Chad Schroll, engineering technician for Warn Industries, said “Warn will adapt to make the best product we can to work with the new Jeep design. The new design could change the way we design and build products, and it could change the materials we use as well.”
The Next Game Changer?
Each evolution of the Wrangler and its forebears, from CJ-7 to YJ, TJ and JK, has been seen as a positive by the industry, particularly with the transition from the YJ to the TJ and going from leaf to coil springs. But from a marketing and popularity standpoint, Wood said he feels the JK was the biggest game changer for the Wrangler’s perception with the availability of a four-door model for the first time. “I think the JK was a game-changer over and above the TJ, the biggest reason being that it adopted a four-door configuration. This has attracted a much larger number of customers and made real off-road enthusiasts out of people who might not have gotten into the sport for lack of a four-door configuration for their families. For aftermarket accessory manufacturers, the positive by-product of this has been unprecedented sales potential for JK accessories. We’re thankful the JK came along when it did. Its popularity helped sustain us during the bleakest periods of the U.S. recession,” he said.
Warn’s Schroll had a similarly positive outlook for the next Wrangler, saying, “Each change to the [Wrangler] over time has been a positive move overall. There are new challenges with each change, but the Warn team has worked through each one to develop and produce a great product.”
What We’re Hoping For
If we had our wishes, we’d say keep the body-on-frame, live-axle design but utilize aluminum and high-strength steel strategically to lighten weight, adopt the eight-speed automatic for greater fuel economy, and offer a diesel option to raise both fuel economy and low-end torque, something that’s still somewhat lacking with the Pentastar. Although many are nostalgic for the Wrangler’s folding front windshield, in all honesty, it’s just a vestigial appendix that requires a lot more hassle than it’s worth to fold forward anymore. We wouldn’t be that heartbroken if it were abandoned in the name of simplicity, manufacturing efficiency, and aerodynamics. After having experienced the new KL Cherokee off-road, we’re confident that Jeep has the engineering experience and resources to make just about any configuration off-road worthy, but there’s no question that straight axles lend themselves much easier to serious off-road upgrades. The new Wrangler may become more expensive to upgrade and accessorize, but we’re confident that it will remain supremely capable right out of the box and with help from the always-innovative aftermarket, as much of an off-road legend as it’s ever been.