There's an old adage in the auto business, if you want to make a statement, build a new model with a polarizing look. Jeep is certainly doing that.
When the company unveiled its new Gladiator pickup truck at the Los Angeles Auto Show the message was clear: This is not your typical truck. The Gladiator is part SUV, part pickup, and designed to catch the attention of those who want more than strictly an SUV or a traditional truck.
"We absolutely wanted it to look different, bold and standout from anything else, but give you everything that the truck buyer was looking for and everything that Wrangler has always been known for," said Tim Kuniskis, president of the Jeep Brand for Fiat Chrysler (FCA-IT).
The Gladiator definitely looks like a Jeep, with the styling cues that have made models like Wrangler and Cherokee best-sellers in the U.S. What stands out about the new model is the flatbed that gives it the functionality of a small pickup truck.
Why would Fiat Chrysler try to merge two segments, SUVs and pickups, that have largely stayed independent of each other for years?
For starters, FCA is looking to extend the lineup of Jeep, which has been one of the hottest auto brands over the last decade. When Fiat bought Chrysler following a structured bankruptcy in 2009, then-CEO Sergio Marchionne built his company's future largely around growing the Jeep brand. The strategy has been wildly successful. In 2009, Jeep's U.S. sales were under 300,000 vehicles. Less than a decade later, Jeep's U.S. sales are on the cusp of topping 1 million vehicles.
"The Jeep brand is as strong as ever," said Jeremy Acevedo, analyst for auto website Edmunds. "It is the best-selling SUV in America. Now they are going to move on to pickup trucks to add to that portfolio."
Jeep is not simply tapping into America's growing demand for pickup trucks. It's targeting lifestyle buyers who want a smaller pickup so they can throw stuff in the flatbed, while also having a model that stands out from other pickups in the market.
"This really does give them an opportunity to take advantage of that lifestyle truck buyer that is looking for off-road capabilities as well as some towing capabilities along with the bed," said Acevedo.
Will it work?
Opinions are mixed, which is actually a good indication Jeep may be do well with the Gladiator when it goes on sale early next year. Remember, in the auto business, the models with polarizing styling have the best chance of standing out and winning over buyers.
"The brand has to stand out, and the vehicle lines within that brand have to stand out," said Kuniskis. "We think this absolutely breaks the mold."