Jeep planning less-rugged models; 2004 4x4s to be badged 'Trail Rated' By MARY CONNELLY and RICK KRANZ | Automotive News (08:31 Oct. 27, 2003) The Chrysler group plans to expand the Jeep line with SUVs that move away from Jeep's historic roots and won't be serious off-road vehicles. "We have to extend our lineup" and offer Jeeps that will be used "99 percent of the time on-road," COO Wolfgang Bernhard said last week at a press event in Austin, Texas. The decision comes as the Chrysler group is spending heavily to position Jeep as the "real 4x4" in a world in which the definition of an SUV is expanding. Jeep has been wrestling with whether to offer smoother-riding, more carlike SUVs. The division now will try to straddle both worlds. It will keep its 4x4 models as "authentic" SUVs and will add a generation of less-rugged vehicles to compete against softer-riding sport wagons. The Chrysler group needs to re-energize Jeep because the brand has slipped badly in recent years. Jeep held 19.0 percent of the U.S. SUV market in 1999 but only 11.2 percent in 2002. Jeep sales peaked at 554,466 units in 1999, the year after Daimler-Benz's acquisition of Chrysler Corp. Sales fell to 459,796 last year and are down 6.4 percent so far this year. But changing the product strategy risks undermining the brand's heritage and turning off buyers. For example, one of four Jeep owners drives off-road compared with one in 10 SUV owners, said Jeff Bell, Jeep marketing vice president, at a press event in Detroit last week. Bell also said the number of people who go off-road is growing. The Chrysler group will try to minimize the risk by requiring that all Jeep vehicles be "the most capable" in their segment, the company said. Bernhard did not say when the new-style Jeep will be in showrooms or how many will be offered. "We will give the customer what he or she expects from a Jeep, and that means (best in class) off-road capabilities," Bernhard said at the Texas press event. "But not all vehicles are going to have the same degree of off-road capabilities. Does every Jeep have to go down the Rubicon Trail? I don't think so." The Rubicon Trail is a rugged off-road course in California. Bernhard's comments came in the same week that Jeep spelled out a massive new advertising and marketing campaign that touts Jeep's off-road prowess. The company said that all 2004 Jeep 4x4 vehicles - the Grand Cherokee, Liberty and Wrangler - will wear a trademarked "Trail Rated" badge on exterior sheet metal. Jeep advertising will tout five areas of off-road vehicle performance tested by an independent third party and designated Trail Rated. The areas of performance are: traction, articulation (climbing), ground clearance, maneuverability and water fording. Bell said that the areas are central to Jeep product development of off-road-capable 4x4s. In presenting the campaign, Bell said Jeep is casting itself as the "authentic" 4x4. The Trail Rated message will be used in advertising, on the sales floor, on the brand's Web site and in events such as auto shows. Ads will carry a tag line that says: "If it's not Trail Rated, it's not a Jeep 4x4." The Chrysler group is preparing to expand the Jeep line to at least six vehicles within the next three years. Scheduled to join the Jeep line are: The Scrambler: A pickup derivative of the Wrangler due next summer. A premium SUV: A four-door SUV based on the next-generation Grand Cherokee platform. An entry-level SUV: Likely to be a Liberty derivative; expected in 2005 or 2006. Bernhard did not say whether the premium SUV and entry-level SUV will be aimed at buyers who use their vehicle for trips to the mall, not off-roading. "We do recognize what a treasure we have in the Jeep brand, and rather than leaving this nugget unearthed and without use, we will unearth it," Bernhard said. "We will maximize the value of the brand. We will expand the Jeep line and include vehicles that we haven't offered." In July, the Chrysler group's new marketing boss, Joe Eberhardt, said he was willing to consider extending the Jeep brand, noting that Land Rover had moved successfully from its rugged roots. "Jeep is the strongest of our brands in terms of what it stands for and the recognition," Eberhardt said. "You can't shift the whole brand. You still need core products, halo products that can go up and down the Rubicon Trail."