Jeep calls on partner to help develop entry-level, front-drive model By RICK KRANZ AND MARY CONNELLY | Automotive News (08:49 April 05, 2004) DETROIT -- The Chrysler group is developing a Jeep model from a front-drive platform, a bold departure for a brand that specializes in rugged off-roaders. Two industry sources say the new Jeep will be based on a small, fwd platform co-developed with one of Chrysler's alliance partners. One source says the partner is Mitsubishi. The vehicle will be positioned as an inexpensive, entry-level SUV positioned below the Liberty. The vehicle is expected to offer four- or all-wheel drive. Chrysler officials say the lineup will stay true to Jeep's robust brand image. But the new vehicle represents a significant change for Jeep, a brand that has relied on dedicated 4wd platforms and assembly plants. Besides being built on a front-wheel-drive platform, the vehicle almost certainly will be assembled in a plant that also produces non-Jeep vehicles. "Is there a chance that one of our alliance partners could use this same platform that we would use for one of the Jeeps? Absolutely," says a Chrysler source familiar with the project who asked not to be identified. Mitsubishi and the Chrysler group are co-developing a fwd platform for a wide range of vehicles. The unnamed Jeep vehicle is expected to debut in 2006 or early 2007. "Final decisions have not been made on that," says the Chrysler source. The vehicle is part of a plan to expand the Jeep line from three to at least five nameplates by early 2007, a source says. The two-door Compass, a small, entry-level concept that debuted at the 2002 Detroit auto show, signals the styling direction for the new nameplate, an industry source says. Some Jeep loyalists at the company believe creating Jeeps off shared platforms will erode its brand image. But Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche has said Jeep can share parts, electrical systems, powertrains and portions of vehicle platforms, yet maintain its distinct identity. Such sharing saves development time and money. If a Jeep vehicle meets or surpasses a buyer's expectations, "nobody cares what's underneath," Zetsche says. At a press event last month in Texas, Jeff Bell, Jeep's vice president for marketing, said, "You can take any type of platform" to create a Jeep. But Jeep characteristics, such as ground clearance and a tight turning circle, must be engineered into the platform from the beginning. The exterior styling also must be true to the brand, he said. Bell did not acknowledge the development of the new Jeep. But he did say that if Jeep shared a fwd platform used for cars, "it will be pretty unique. It is not going to be a car. It would be a Jeep 4x4." Jeep will move into new territory, offering models that are less rugged than current entries. The strategy will test Jeep's ability to retain the loyalty of die-hard off-roaders. "It is such a well-accepted brand that you can take it in different directions without losing the heartbeat of it," says Ron Jelling, chairman of the Chrysler Jeep National Dealer Council and owner of Chrysler of Paramus in Paramus, N.J. Jeep needs to expand its lineup because it has not kept pace with the SUV explosion in recent years. In 1995, Jeep held a strong 24.3 percent of the SUV market in the United States excluding sport wagons. Last year, its share was 14.8 percent. Historically, Jeeps have been capable of traversing the Rubicon Trail, an off-road route in California. But not all future Jeeps will be required to meet that rigorous standard. Instead, the company will require that existing nameplates - including the Wrangler, Liberty and Grand Cherokee - retain their performance capabilities. The new breed of Jeeps will be less rugged than current vehicles. But to safeguard the brand's image, the company is mandating that the new Jeeps be the most capable vehicles in the segments in which they compete, including in off-road capability.