If there’s one brand in the car business that’s consistently lapping the competition, it’s Jeep.
That’s partly because there is no competition—not in the market for affordable utilities able to do hard-core four-wheeling. Most all-wheel drive vehicles are made for soft off-roading—gravel roads, snowy passes, the occasional beach—not for the boulder-strewn mountain-goat trails the toughest Jeeps are built to roam.
Ford sees that as an opportunity. Its new Ranger pickup, revived after a seven-year hiatus, is aimed at recreational enthusiasts who don’t need a work truck but love the flexibility a pickup offers. I asked Ford executive vice president Jim Farley if Ford was going after Jeep’s territory. “What a great question,” Farley says in the video above. “The Ford brand has off-road credibility. I do think we have the chance to compete with the authentic off-road market, and Ranger would be a part of that.”
Jeep’s most capable vehicles are designed for severe off-roading, such as the 22-mile Rubicon Trail in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. And many off-roaders modify their Jeeps to make sure they can survive rocks stabbing the undercarriage or gulleys bending the axles. Relatively short trail rides can take hours as drivers haltingly scale gaping hazards.
That’s not quite where Ford is headed. “We’re going to play differently,” Farley says. “Our recreational position is not like off-road crawling. It’s go to the beach, go to the mountains, be safe and confident you can get there.” As Farley spoke, on the floor at the 2018 Detroit auto show, a giant video reeled nearby, showing a Ranger plowing through snowdrifts on a mountain road, as a bear roars nearby, in apparent approval.
Most owners of four- or all-wheel-drive vehicles never go off-road, so Ford is hoping to snag the cache that comes with a rugged image, without building in costly extra capability few drivers will ever use. The next chip on the table will be the forthcoming Bronco, another revived model, which Ford stopped making in 1996 (after the notorious O.J. Simpson chase scene involving a white Bronco). The new Bronco will be an SUV cousin of the Ranger, available as a retro-style two-door. That will compete with the Jeep Cherokee, which isn’t considered the best crossover, but is one of the best off-road.
Jeep has noticed what’s going on at Ford–and plans to respond. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Jeep parent Fiat Chrysler, said in Detroit that Jeep will probably build a pickup to compete with the new Ford Ranger, coming in a couple years.. Ford and Jeep owners may start bumping into each other a lot.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman