Jeep: A different kind of obstacle course
1st Sep 2016 9:50 am
Three years later than promised, the iconic American brand enters India with the wrong kind of bang. Makes you wonder, has FCA really got a plan this time?
Just two days before Jeep made its long-overdue foray onto India’s challenging terrain, I found myself at the wheel of a Grand Cherokee Summit Diesel on some literal challenging terrain. There I was, tearing down an absolutely ruined country track that looked like it had been carpet-bombed back into the Jurassic Age by the monsoons. Craters that would give a geologist wet dreams, whose treachery was made just that bit more mysterious by the water that filled them. The perfect environ for something with the iconic seven-slat grille on its nose, then. The Jeep shone. It ploughed through without so much as a creak, rattle or whimper, and it felt like it could take a lot more. The criticisms I had earlier – poor interior plastics, heavy steering, clunky ride, ageing tech – all suddenly vaporised. This thing was a tank, and this is the battlefield it was made to conquer! I started to see the appeal now – this was not something that could merely be judged by the sum of its parts. Much of the draw is intangible, like the feeling of invincibility it gives you. A feeling that was rudely interrupted by one of my rather smitten passengers, inquiring about how much this Rolling Rambo costs. “Well...” I started, estimating prices in my head.
“Actually, give me two days and I’ll know for sure.”
Flash forward to a ballroom in Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, the third and final event in a lavish two-day launch extravaganza, the numbers flash on the screen, and as everyone collects their jaws from the floor and hits ‘send’ on their gobsmacked tweet, my first dizzying realisation is, “Wow, I really should not have been pushing a Rs 1 crore car so hard off-road.” What a difference price makes. The American Dream has just been deflated.
Let’s put that into perspective. As a product, the Mercedes-Benz GLE 350d is, without question, this car’s closest competitor, not just because it’s roughly the same size, with a similar seating layout and a similarly sized engine, but also because they’re actually the same car underneath. Yup, these cars were developed back when Daimler and Chrysler were a team, they share a platform, and the fourth-gen Grand Cherokee came out a year before the third-gen M-class (now GLE). So when a GLE 350d costs Rs 72.9 lakh, you really start to wonder why the Grand Cherokee Summit 3.0 diesel costs Rs 30 lakh more. All those vaporised criticisms start to materialise again, and that ‘intangible’ appeal makes way for an excel sheet with numbers and checkboxes.
Of course, the brouhaha over the prices is only amplified by how long ‘modern’ Jeep has spent trying to enter India. We first broke the news of Jeep’s impending arrival back in 2012, with a launch scheduled for the following year. We even tested the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee extensively back then, assuming the prices were around the corner. We then learned it would be delayed to 2015, with ‘unfavourable market conditions’ and a ‘careful approach to pricing’ being the reasons. But, well, here we are today.
The obvious culprit for the stratospheric prices is import duties, since all these cars are CBUs, but then the far newer Volvo XC90 is imported too, and it costs well under a crore. And even if there is a reasonable explanation for why that is so, customers, sadly, are not going to care. They only see the finished product; they don’t care about the backstory. Jeep is confident its strong brand value will see it through this, but thinking as an average Indian luxury SUV buyer, why would anyone walk past the tried-and-tested visages of an X5, a Q7, a GLE, a GLS or even an XC90 and pick one of these? The only other brands with the gumption to charge over a crore for a five-seat diesel SUV are Porsche and Range Rover, and they’ve had a much longer time building their brands here in India. To most Indians, the Jeep brand is best known for the Willys from WW2 (and subsequently Mahindra), not modern luxury.
Thing is, though, I’m talking about a diesel luxury SUV here, and we have several reference points for what such a car should be. The Wrangler, on the other hand, is a wild card (literally). It’s also screams ‘JEEP!’ a lot louder than the Grand Cherokee. Objectively, it too is wildly overpriced at Rs 71.6 lakh, but subjectively, for many, it’s worth it. It’s the ‘real’ Jeep; the greatest off-roader on the planet (again, literally). Ironically, the most expensive Jeep is the only one that could pass off as good value. Sure, the Grand Cherokee SRT may be about 100hp down and slower than most other super-SUVs, but then it costs about Rs 40 lakh less, at minimum. For 390 cubic inches (6.4 litres) of classic American muscle, that’s one hell of a deal.
The sense I get is that this is a stop-gap to the bigger picture. That making a big impression with flagship vehicles was necessary to (re)establish brand Jeep here. The fact that the press release (and Jeep India’s MD Kevin Flynn) talked as much about dealership networks and next year’s new, locally assembled model as it did about the three cars being launched, says it all. They didn’t invest $280 million in the Ranjangaon plant just to burn out with a few overpriced CBUs. At the launch event in Jodhpur, they used palaces, a polo match and Maharajas to establish that they were more than your average luxury brand. I don’t imagine these three cars will fly off the shelves, but for FCA India’s sake, I hope this expensive brand-building exercise pays off in the end.