Ralph Gilles Is Sorry It Took So Long to Resurrect Jeep’s Grand Wagoneer
Jeep apologizes for not bringing back the Grand Wagoneer sooner, but the team at Fiat Chrysler (FCA) probably would not have been able to do the premium three-row SUV justice if it had come out a decade ago, at least according to the automaker’s head of design, Ralph Gilles.
“The times were not quite right at the time,” says Mr. Gilles, in an interview following the global reveal of the Jeep Grand Wagoneer Concept that is a precursor to the short wheelbase version of the top-end SUV which goes on sale next summer for the 2022 model year. There will also be a long-wheelbase version, and it will be part of a larger Wagoneer family with two sizes of a more affordable, mainstream three-row, as well.
“Had this vehicle been born 10 years ago, I don’t think we would have executed it as well,” says Gilles. “There is luxury in every square centimeter of this vehicle. “My team 10 years ago wasn’t ready for that.” Since then, a lot has been learned, from other parts of the company, about how to build luxury vehicles.
“A lot of things had to align, whether it was our know-how, our capabilities, the platforms available to us, but honestly our confidence in the fact that the segment is very stable,” says Gilles. “Clearly looking back now, yes, we probably should have tried to get it out sooner, but I think our customers are still ready for it.”
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There Is a Warehouse Full of Stillborn Grand Wagoneers
Gilles has helped create a number of versions over the years—designs that date back to the mid-’90s and are stored in a warehouse—as the full-size SUV project gained favor and was pushed back, repeatedly. Despite numerous delays, it was never dropped from the automaker’s series of five-year product plans.
“I think we ended up with the right one,” Gilles said. “Some of them were trying too hard to be retro or trying too hard to be spaceships. We went with something much more timeless. I think the design is elegant.”
The automaker has enough retro with the Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Challenger, he said, acknowledging everyone wants to know where the wood panels went. “We thought about it for about two minutes. But then reminded ourselves the original had contact paper on the sides. There was no credible way to do it without actually cheapening the vehicle, so we said we’re not going to put it on the outside, we’re going to put it on the inside of the car this time,” says an unapologetic Gilles.
And there are some similarities to the original, namely the way the windows were lowered as much as possible for an abundance of glass and a panoramic view. Also, the way the front grille leans forward is reminiscent of past Wagoneers, says Gilles. What did not make the cut: the rear window does not go down, a tradeoff to keep the glass width the team wanted.
Retro Would Have Been a Mistake?
Not going retro was the right call, says Christian Meunier, president of the Jeep brand. The large SUV segment has changed; the vehicles are larger and more premium, with more technology and functionality than they were during the Grand Wagoneer’s past life. Retro styling today would be a mistake, he said. The new timeless design will allow the vehicle to live for 20 years.
The segment sells about 500,000 units a year in the U.S. and Meunier says Jeep will be among top three in terms of total sales with 70 percent of customers opting for the Wagoneer and the rest choosing the Grand Wagoneer.
The beauty of the premium three-row SUV is it is truly incremental to the Jeep brand and to the automaker in general, says Gilles. It will grow the brand and also retain Jeep Grand Cherokee customers who want a third row. While some might switch to a Ram pickup, many had to turn to the competition. But, because it the GW’s sales are incremental and it is not replacing an existing vehicle, there was no urgency, either.
Finally, a Flagship for FCA
“This vehicle is a flagship of interiors for FCA in general, a flagship hopefully for the brand and we aim to be at the very top of the segment on the get-go versus climbing our way slowly,” says Gilles. “We want to launch among the very best in the world.”
The Jeep team promises that while the mainstream Wagoneer will be premium and have a strong family resemblance to the much pricier Grand Wagoneer, there will be enough differentiation, especially in the quality of materials, to justify a the latter’s price tag that could be $40,000 higher. Creating the $60,000-$70,000 Wagoneer was definitely a challenge for the team, said Meunier.
And yes, we should expect further variants. Jim Morrison, head of the Jeep brand in North America, says they will listen to customers—who are already demanding versions that take on- and off-road performance to the limit. The executives would not say if additional models must wait for subsequent model years but they noted that Jeep has kept Grand Cherokee sales leadership by continuing to add new attractions, among them the supercharged Trackhawk and off-road-ready Trailhawk trims. And the Wagoneer family uses a modified version of the Ram platform and is expected to share some powertrains too. The new 2021 Ram 1500 TRX has the supercharged 6.2-liter Hellcat V-8 pumping out 702 horsepower and 650 lb-ft—perfect for a performance version of the Grand Wagoneer in the future.
FCA showed the new concept to dealers who have been clamoring for it for years. There will be more ability to order the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer online, customers will be offered concierge service to pick it up and deliver it after service, customers will have a free 24/7 hotline, and the SUV will come with three years of free maintenance.
“One of the reasons it took so long is we wanted to do it right,” Gilles says. “We did not rush this car at all. I apologize to everyone that it took us so long but when you come to a party late, you bring a damn good bottle of wine.”
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