Mid 2000s. Myspace. Neopets. Razr flip phones.
And in this era of boy bands, Harry Potter books, and a Blockbuster empire at its height, the Jeep Wrangler TJ is slowly dying.
From a 1999 sales high of nearly 90,000 vehicles, the Wrangler now was hovering slightly above 70,000 units per year thanks to quality concerns, rising gas prices and lack of support.
DaimlerChrysler had the Liberty and the Grand Cherokee, but somehow the Wrangler - a two-door descendant from a Jeep line long known for its ability to solve problems - now was a problem no one quite knew how to solve.
“The Wrangler was something that we built and sold in the summer months,” said Jeep Design Head Mark Allen, during a recent interview with Automotive News. “Jeeps were maintained; they weren’t really pushing it. They would get somebody that was working on whatever and put them in Jeep for a little while, and then move them out.”
“All the attention went to cars and minivans.”
Then something changed.
Chrysler designers had been working on a Wrangler TJ successor – code named JK – since 2001 that would totally overhaul the vehicle. Needless to say, with the TJ’s declining sales figures, executives were a bit wary on rolling out a redesign.
So on the way to release, the Wrangler design team decided to split the vehicle into two categories – the 2-door JK and a 4-door JK Unlimited which would pattern itself after the longer wheelbase 2-door TJ Unlimited.
It would turn out to be perhaps the biggest decision in Jeep's history. Life-saving, even.
“Honestly, without the four-door, we would have probably killed (the Wrangler).” Allen said. “(The 2-door Wrangler) was never seen as a real big design challenge.”
The JK series Wrangler Unlimited was unveiled during the New York Auto Show on April 12, 2006, becoming the last-remaining 2-door SUV in North America to gain a four-door option, and the only four-door convertible in production. A full 20.6 inches was added to the 2-door JK Wrangler's 95.4-inch wheelbase.
It offered more options and equipment than any previous Wrangler model, including standard electronic stability program and optional seat-mounted side airbags, remote keyless entry, navigation system, and Sirius Satellite Radio.
Sales exploded as a whole new category of buyers, ones who would have never looked at purchasing a Wrangler, now saw it as an option because of its four door versatility.
As a result DaimlerChrysler sold almost 120,000 Wranglers in 2007, nearly a 35 percent sales jump versus 2006. The JK Unlimited accounted for about 66,000 of those sales.
The tally was even larger in 2008, with the JK Unlimited selling 95,000 of Wrangler’s 154,000 total.
Today, sales estimates vary for 4-door versus 2-door JKs. Usually somewhere between 2- or 3-to-1 as Jeep has enjoyed a record resurgence this decade.
And the vehicle's ongoing success has now spawned yet another redesign – the upcoming JL Wrangler – which will arrive next year in both 2- and 4-door options.
“We’re neck-deep in that thing, but there’s no discussion: It’s going to look like a Wrangler,” Allen said. “We had to do all the exercises (when designing it), although in our hearts, we knew what it would be, but we had to do all the wrong answers, too, visually."
“We did things that were Wrangler-like and things that were disruptive to Wrangler styling, but in the end, we made the right call.”
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