Fiat Chrysler has some of the best three-row vehicles on the domestic market right now but, if you’re not a fan of minivans, you probably couldn’t care less about them. Dodge’s Grand Caravan remains a darling for budget-conscious families and fleet managers, despite being stuck in its fifth generation for over a decade. Meanwhile, the Chrysler Pacifica takes the Caravan concept and adds modern refinement at a higher price point.
The problem is that neither are SUVs. Even though Dodge does have the Durango on offer already, FCA chief Sergio Marchionne has been begging engineers to come up with a three-row SUV that would surpass the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Suburban since at least 2013. The theory was to produce a hulking and rugged luxury vehicle that could compete with Land Rover and swipe some business from the domestic luxury rivals. He was heralding the return of Jeep Grand Wagoneer.
However, the vehicle’s development has been plighted with delays and the initial vision has become muddied. While it’s still coming, dealers are beginning to wonder if the model has missed its opportunity as gas prices climb, sales stagnate, and material costs rise.
“I think our window of opportunity is closing,” a veteran FCA dealer explained to Automotive News. “We could have killed with [the Grand Wagoneer] if it had been available when they first told us about it, but it’s a much tougher sell with interest rates and gas prices going up.”
That certainly has been true over the last few months but the expanded outlook on fuel prices is really anybody’s guess. Shale oil could quell domestic fuel prices quite a bit but OPEC has still agreed to cut production in the coming years. Regardless of the confusion and volatility, the average price per barrel will go up quite a bit in the longterm. North American consumers just won’t be hit quite so hard.
Fuel isn’t the only deciding factor of the Grand Wagoneer’s success, though. John Murphy, a research analyst for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, told the Automotive Press Association last week that the “Goldilocks” period for auto retailing was wrapping up.
“The Grand Wagoneer will still sell because it’s a Jeep,” a second dealer said. “But it would have been nice to have them already.”
SUVs will still be big business for automakers for the foreseeable future but the increased cost of raw materials, highly competitive used-car values, and creeping interest rates means fewer consumers will have the means to purchase the really big ones. There is also a lot of competition right now. Premium and entry luxury manufacturers have all driven hard into utility vehicles over the last few years. As a result, FCA decided to shift the Wagoneer downmarket slightly to compete more closely with the Suburban and Expedition. In January of 2017, Marchionne said Jeep would assemble the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer as body-on-frame vehicles. It’s still supposed to be able to go toe-to-toe with Lincoln and Cadillac but it probably won’t be chasing Land Rover anymore.
Likely a wise move, but the change forced FCA to push back the production date even further. The SUV is now presumed scheduled to appear for the 2021 model year, meaning assembly wouldn’t start until 2020. “We’ve been working on it for several years,” Jeep head Mike Manley explained earlier this year. “It has a long gestation period, and will be clearly positioned significantly above Grand Cherokee.”
While we’ve seen images of Wagoneer test mules floating around the internet, Jeep employees have been clear that the brand hasn’t decided on the vehicle’s styling. Hopefully the end result doesn’t pursue a similar trajectory as the Jeep Commander, which was introduced to accommodate larger families but crashed and burned during the Great Recession and spiking gas prices.