All You Need To Know

I have a friend who sells real estate that says everything he needs to know about his clients (meaning how to sell them a new house) can be discerned from the house or apartment they've just moved out of. It seems to me we can tell quite a bit about Ford, GM, and Jeep from what they've done with their next generation midsize SUVs as well.

It wasn't that long ago (let's say six or seven years) that the "Big Three" in the SUV world were the Chevy TrailBlazer, Ford Explorer, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. These were the three at the top, before anyone was talking about crossovers and vehicles that offered a more "car-like" ride. Most of the vehicles in this segment were born from either pickup truck foundations or heavier, sturdier underpinnings. They were designed for people who needed more than a car (meaning they had to do work) but also appreciated the idea of having a more civilized comforts interior...and you could lock your valuables inside too. Most offered a transfer case with a separate low range gear, a live rear axle, and a significant V-8 towing option. But that's all changed now.

How Ford, GM, and Jeep decided to solve the problem of what to do with the "next" Explorer, TrailBlazer, and Grand Cherokee as customer desires have changed says a great deal about how these companies understand their business and customers. In fact, we might be seeing the same thing play out as the new Mustang (evolved), Camaro (like new), and Challenger (like old) begin to age in marketplace as well. We've seen it before -- the OEs are chasing an elusive and moving target.

No Delusions Here
GM didn't waste much time once it decided to ditch the TrailBlazer (and its many derivatives) in favor of a more car-like crossover designed for hauling passengers rather than cargo or trailers. From the outset, there were no delusions that they were transforming the TrailBlazer into something else -- something else that would give customers more of what they wanted. It would even have a new name -- the Chevrolet Traverse. They were scrapping one evolutionary line in favor of one they hoped would be stronger and provide more profitability. Issues of lost heritage and core values were minimized with forecasts and trending customer changes. Any thoughts about a vehicle soul were shouted down by the accountants and market data. Now we have the Traverse, Outlook, Enclave, and Acadia.

Delusional Like a Fox
Ford has been letting the Explorer languish for years, knowing something had to be done. The redesigned Ford Taurus held the key as brief discussions of sharing the next Explorer with the Land Rover LR4 began to fade. Ford caught the crossover wave early and they were ready to make it work again, but they couldn't completely abandon the Explorer name or values. The name itself is too strong. But they needed to pitch it as a morph, a reinvention, and a completely new standard. If Alan Mulally has done one thing, it's been to get everyone on the team to think about making a segment leader with each new vehicle they've introduced of late. The new Explorer shares the name but all the metrics have changed to determine what a class leader is now, so they've completely changed the Explorer, transforming (not just evolving) it into something it was not before, with only a wisp of the original soul and core, but it does have the same name.

Sticking to the Script
The new Jeep Grand Cherokee is an interesting example in the sense that so many fingers are in this pie. Originally begun during the DaimlerChrysler days, the new underpinnings (and its Durango sibling) are plenty sturdy and rugged enough to deal with any 4x4 duties anyone could throw at it, as well as including vastly improve on-road dynamics. They knew, from the outset, "it had to be a Jeep", which meant they knew enough to keep the soul and core of the vehicle in line with its heritage. The result is great capability and prowess (where it was pretty good before), with completely new underpinnings. Thanks to a good amount of German engineering, what they got was better on and off-road capability. That's something both the new Explorer and Traverse did not -- both got better on-road handling, but gave away most of the towing and off-pavement fun factor. For Jeep this makes perfect sense, and hopefully Fiat will keep them on track.