After months of confirmed reports from inside Fiat-Chrysler suggesting otherwise, mercurial FCA chief Sergio Marchionne has confirmed that the next-generation Jeep Wrangler will not follow the Ford F-150’s lead and adopt an all-aluminum body. Instead, the 2017 Wrangler will stay predominantly steel, and use an aluminum hood, doors, and fenders to keep weight down.
This news comes weeks after Jeep CEO Mike Manley announced that the rugged, go-anywhere Wrangler would keep its body-on-frame construction, quashing rumors that the nex-gen model would use a unibody design. While this is good news for Jeep fans, who feared that a radically different Wrangler would sacrifice off-road performance, it’s a very good sign for Jeep’s Toledo Assembly Plant, which has been making open-top Jeeps since 1941, and is at risk of losing the Wrangler if FCA decides the factory isn’t equipped to handle the advanced construction techniques of an aluminum-intensive model.
Speaking to reporters after receiving an SAE foundation award, Marchionne said bluntly that “There will be a large portion of that vehicle that will be aluminum. It will not be all aluminum.” He later said that “Because of the difference in cost—not just of the material but the actual assembly process—I think we can do almost as well without doing it all-aluminum. I think we can get very close.”
While the Jeep faithful have bemoaned the idea of an aluminum Wrangler, worrying that a lighter and more complex truck would detract from its off-roading prowess, FCA needs to take some drastic measures in order for Jeep’s most iconic model to survive another decade.
Today, the Wrangler is about as old-school a new vehicle as you can buy, and as capable as it is off-road, its heavy body-on-frame construction and solid axles make for a rough ride on the pavement. Add to it the lack of crash protection from its iconic removable doors (it earned it a “Poor” side impact rating from the IIHS), and its thirsty 3.6 liter V6 getting a combined 18 miles per gallon (worse than the V8-powered Chrysler 300 sedan), and you have a vehicle that is at risk of becoming obsolete due to increasing federal safety and emissions standards.
While its steel construction makes the Wrangler plenty strong (especially in front and rear collisions), Jeep desperately needs to find a way to improve fuel economy, and until Marchionne’s latest comments, it looked like going aluminum was the answer. When Ford gambled and gave its best-selling F-150 an all-aluminum body for 2015, it shed 700 pounds compared to the out-going steel model, bumping fuel economy up to a combined 22 miles per gallon, from the previous model’s 19. While Ford’s aluminum gamble appears to have paid off – it’s still the best-selling vehicle in America – no other automaker has followed suit with an aluminum model of its own.
For now, it looks like the Wrangler won’t be America’s next aluminum truck. Instead, Marchionne has found a compromise that could potentially make everyone happy. No decision has been made on the Wrangler’s fate in Toledo yet, but these latest developments suggest that the plant should have the resources to produce the next-generation Wrangler (even if Wrangler production leaves Toledo, the plant will still build the Jeep Cherokee). The city of Toledo and the state of Ohio have presented FCA with a host of lucrative cash and real estate incentives to keep the Wrangler in Toledo, and it would be shocking if FCA turned it down.
Like the Chevy Camaro, and the Ford Mustang, the Wrangler is one of the most iconic American cars of all-time, and with each update there’s always a risk of alienating the faithful. With Marchionne’s blustery, emotional style, the news coming from FCA on the next Wrangler has been especially fraught and contentious, even for the automotive world. But his latest comments show that there could be a light at the end of the tunnel, and that a stronger, safer, more fuel efficient Wrangler could still be the rugged, go-anywhere truck that FCA, the City of Toledo, and millions of Jeep buyers want after all.