Jeep: 'A lot of companies are going into the crossover world, but we'll remain boxy'
Jeep’s European design boss tells TG he’s happy to sacrifice range to give you proper headroom and boot space
The designer of the new Jeep Avenger - Daniele Calonaci - is a proper brand ambassador. This is a man who owns a Wrangler Rubicon JKU (“completely modified” with a foldable bed, drawers, fridge and roof tent) in which he’s ticked off drives to Iran, Iceland, Sweden, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, the Balkans, the Pyrenees, Portugal…
And that’s starting out from Turin, by the way; no freighting the car over to the end point, just tens of thousands of kilometres of gritty, epic adventuring.
So it should come as no surprise whatsoever that Calonaci wants the cars he designs to be as useful as possible. “There's a lot of companies around the world that are going into the crossover world, but Jeep will remain more… boxy world. Right now, people ask to have high ground clearance, or a commanding position. A lot of people require electrification.”
The resulting cars, he says, leave “no space for real headroom”. He continues: “So when you are on the highway during the summer, you have a lot of crossovers with a roof box because they don't have space in the trunk. Jeep will remain boxy. Maybe we will lose two kilometres in the range, but in the end we will make our customer happy.”
This is a bigger challenge than it might first appear. UK managing director Julian Tilstone talks about needing to “re-establish” the brand here, and back in April global boss Christian Meunier told TopGear.com that its image had become “irrelevant”. Ouch. He said: “It hasn’t evolved. It’s about big engines, and the Willys.”
And now everything’s going electric, including Jeep by 2030. How does Calonaci deal with that? “We had a huge [heritage] story about those capabilities and huge engines, but in the end we understood that we had to change gear. Electrification should be nicer for the future. When you go through what you need - torque and torque on demand - which is the best engine you can have? The electric one.
“So we think electrification should be perfect for the Jeep brand for the future. I think we have a huge [background] that talks about powerful, big engines, but this power can be replaced by electrification. And maybe also enhanced.”
That’s why the Avenger is such a vital car for the company. Expected to take up half of UK sales going forward (a 4x4 version, possibly with a plug-in hybrid powertrain, is on its way), it’s been well received since launch and scooped up European Car of the Year in January before being crowned City Car of the Year by… well, us.
“To be considered such a strong electric product,” explains Tisdale, “will change people's perception of the brand. When we look at our brand metrics, if you say to someone about Jeep, they know Jeep. But if you ask them to give you the name of a model, they won't necessarily be able to tell you anything other than Wrangler. So a lot of what we need to do is to become more relevant in the UK market, so that when people are thinking about their next car purchase, Jeep is in the basket.”
Is part of the problem that Jeep is seen as an off-road brand, when the vast majority of people will only encounter gravel if it’s on their driveway? “One of the biggest challenges in the UK market is to be a standout brand,” says Tilsdale. “Our product capabilities still set us apart from the mainstream. Important for me is that's what customers see as well. They don't take their cars off the road, but the fact that they have those capabilities gives reassurance. That is where our USP still lies versus the mainstream.
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“Particularly with Avenger. The style doesn't scream ‘You've gotta go off road in this car.’ The styling is fantastic: it's a funky, beautifully styled car that just happens to be a Jeep.”
Jeep reckons its customers will evolve as a result. It’s making a big push to attract younger buyers (previously the average buyer was 50 years old and male) and wants at least 40 per cent of Avenger buyers to be female; double the figure of the current Renegade. In a similar gameplan to that of Volvo and its new EX30, Calonaci hopes Jeep can “conquer” a younger audience that will end up in bigger Jeeps in the brand's (here comes that word again) electrified future.
“People right now are a little bit scared of electrification, but people were scared about the first train. I remember the history of the Parisian metro station: the architect was asked to make something really nice to enter on the ground because people weren't really happy to take the metropolitan. So I think we are working to have a better future, but for sure this is the first step.”
A big job indeed for the company’s littlest car…