Slowly, carefully, the driver eases his Jeep Wrangler forward, its big wheels grabbing a purchase on the boulder blocking its way. The nose now pointing up at a seemingly impossible angle, the SUV quickly scrambles to the top of the craggy hill, offering a commanding view of Texas Hill Country.
Jeep fans likely would say it’s all in a day’s driving off-road with a Wrangler. But what’s particularly notable about the excursion is the fact the SUV is doing it all in near silence. That’s because it’s the new Jeep Wrangler 4xe, the brand’s first electrified model.
Since it was launched this past April, the plug-in hybrid 4xe has caught on like a California wildfire, accounting for more than 20% of total Wrangler sales — a figure limited only by available production. Jeep’s U.S. brand boss Jim Morrison said dealers have now ordered every one of the plug-in hybrids the brand can build for the rest of the year.
A plug for every purse and purpose
The Wrangler 4xe may be the first plug-based model in the Jeep line-up, but it won’t be last — nor will it be alone for long. By mid-decade there will be a 4xe version of every model in Jeep’s product portfolio, global CEO Christian Meunier said during a webinar earlier this week. About the same time, Jeep will offer a full battery-electric vehicle in every single product segment it competes in, he added.
A 4xe version of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee will debut late this year, Jeep officials confirmed, with a plug-in option coming soon for the new Compass model introduced this week at the Chicago Auto Show.
“Electrification is the big opportunity for Jeep,” said Meunier. While the automaker will have to comply with increasingly stringent emissions and fuel efficiency standards, it plans to get out ahead of the regulators because it believes there will be growing consumer demand. “It’s an opportunity to make our products even more capable.”
The Wrangler 4xe puts out 375 horsepower and 470 pound-feet of torque. But even those seemingly impressive numbers tell only part of the story. The SUV’s two electric motors deliver virtually all of their rock-crawling torque the moment they start turning, quickly earning the plug-in a reputation for being especially capable off-road.
The electric drive system allows a motorist to shut off the Wrangler’s gas engine entirely, operating in near silence when driving off-road. On pavement, the SUV can manage up to 21 miles in electric-only mode, while also boosting mileage when its 4-cylinder gas engine fires up.
Since the 4xe’s launch, “We’re seeing customers who wouldn’t have considered a Wrangler because it was politically incorrect” (and often derided by environmentalists as a gas guzzler), said Morrison during an interview in Chicago. But now, the SUV is winning over eco-friendly converts. And Jeep officials are betting they’ll gain even more traction as they add more PHEVs and, eventually, BEVs to the brand.
An important anniversary
Meunier formally estimates that plug-based products will account for 70% of Jeep’s global sales by 2025. “And I think 70% is on the low side,” he added during this week’s webinar.
The transformation comes at a significant time for the brand. It is celebrating its 80th anniversary July 15, and it is in the midst of one of the most aggressive product campaigns in its history. Along with the Compass, it brought to Chicago the new Wrangler Rubicon Recon model. It is launching the next generation Grand Cherokee, and the first 3-row Grand Cherokee L. There’s also the high-line Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer models coming later this year.
While Jeep was an early SUV pioneer, it missed a number of opportunities, Morrison conceded, by not expanding its line-up nearly as fast as key competitors such as Ford or Toyota. And that gave an opportunity to upstarts like Subaru, as well.
Now, brand officials are confident they’ve left few open niches. If anything, however, going electric will create even more options, said Mark Allen, the director of Jeep exterior design.
A new design paradigm
Pure electric vehicles, in particular, offer “exciting” possibilities,” said Allen, since their batteries and motors are moved under the load floor. That essentially eliminates the need for a conventional engine compartment.
“I see us able to open up (the design) of a vehicle in ways we can’t now,” added Allen, highlighting sketches of some radically different Jeep designs that could come to market in the decade ahead.
There will be “plenty of new opportunities for Jeep,” echoed Morrison. As it goes electric, it will give the brand a chance to enhance the off-road capabilities it is best known for, while adding on-road comfort and features it couldn’t offer with conventional, gas and diesel-powered products.