Just days ago, in his quarterly grilling from auto analysts, Fiat Chrysler (FCA) CEO Mike Manley, a former Jeep brand boss with a crisp British accent, went all-in on the future of Jeep and its importance to struggling FCA.
FCA, he said, is investing heavily in the launch of the next generation Grand Cherokee, one of FCA’s most profitable rigs. Jeep is also planning to launch two all-new models in segments in which Jeep does not compete. They’ll be luxury models, very profitable, and are due to go into production in late 2020, early 2021.
There’s more at Jeep to come, too. The Renegade and Compass plug-in hybrid vehicles were revealed at the Geneva Auto Show in March. They start rolling down the line in early 2020. Finally, finally, Jeep is joining the electrified vehicle world, with these SUVs representing, said Manley, “the initial ramp up of high-voltage vehicles for our European fleet.
FCA is also planning an all-new, battery-powered Fiat 500, as well as 10 other “heavily electrified vehicles over the following two years.” FCA is aiming for 17 electrified nameplates by 2022.
That sounds impressive, but it’s not, really. FCA’s electrification effort lags far, far behind rival car companies. And much of its global business is in tatters.
The hope at FCA is that a luxury car push would bolster the profits from Jeep and the Ram truck brands. The truth is, FCA is slowly fazing out its Chrysler and Dodge brands. They aren’t dead yet, not entirely, but an old-school performance brand like Dodge seems an anachronism, minivan sales are withering and FCA does not have the money to turn Chrysler into a true American luxury brand, as has long been hoped.
The Fiat brand is a disaster. As for the FCA stable of European luxury brands, Alfa Romeo remains a work in progress, with a limited and now quickly aging lineup. Ferrari is doing well, but it’s a small business. Maserati is an utter disaster, with sales down 32 per cent year-on-year.
The reality at FCA is simple: as Jeep goes, so goes the company. But even at Jeep there are problems for a company whose operating profit fell 29 per cent in the first quarter.
Case in point: in the critical North American market, FCA found itself selling new-generation Jeep Wranglers alongside deeply discounted outgoing models. That is bad news in the car business. Yes, that action boosted overall Jeep volumes, and it also made for an unfavorable comparison.
A year ago, former FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne, who has since passed away, was loudly touting Jeep sport utility vehicles (SUVs) with the promise of a high-margin Jeep brand with global appeal. Jeep had the potential to “drive very positive share price movements,” Morgan Stanley analysts said in a report on FCA. Jeep had been expected to make up nearly 70 per cent of the company’s profit for 2018.
And, indeed, last year Jeep was a major player in FCA’s NAFTA (North America) unit. Profits were up 25 per cent in NAFTA, largely thanks to Jeep and the all-new 2019 Ram 1500 pickup.
But here in 2019, car sales are slipping and Jeep is not immune to the macroeconomic challenges. Factor in the billions in costs associated with launching new models, opening new plants, going aggressively into electrification and autonomous drive and expanding Jeep’s footprint into China – just as the U.S. and China engage in the early stages of what could yet turn into a wicked trade war – and you can see the headwinds facing FCA.
Jeep, it might be argued, needs a jolt at this critical time. It appears that this is why FCA has just poached Christian Meunier to run Jeep and take a seat on the company’s most senior management board. Meunier is jumping from Nissan Motor, where he had been running the Infiniti brand out of Hong Kong and apparently waiting the opportunity to leave in the wake of the ongoing turmoil associated with the legal issues swirling around former Nissan Renault Alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn.
Meunier is an impatient, hard-driving salesman who for several years ran Nissan’s operation in Canada. He is among the most results-oriented bosses I have met in 35 years of covering the car business. His take-no-prisoners approach to challenging the competition and his own people is well known, admired and at times feared.
Expect Jeep to flourish under his leadership, at least in the short term.