Its reputation battered by recalls and with sales still slumping, the beleaguered Jeep SUV brand is rebooting in Australia.
Global Jeep boss Christian Meunier this week revealed the troubled local division will be totally overhauled to chase a huge 50,000 annual sales target.
That’s a staggering ambition, considering Jeep will sell only about 6000 vehicles in Australia in 2019.
But the Frenchman is convinced Australia can be rebuilt as a major market for Jeep. He’s only been in charge since May, yet he’s been here three times already and a new managing director is in place.
“I want to revitalise the love affair between Australia and Jeep,” Meunier told Australian journalists at a drive of the new Gladiator utility in New Zealand this week.
“For me, between Jeep and Australia, there should be a love story. I don’t think it’s dead but it’s a little slow now.”
Even saying that, Meunier is undoubtedly downplaying the scale of the issue.
Jeep sales in Australia have plummeted from a record of more than 30,000 in 2014, as a series of recalls and reliability issues have plagued its vehicles, most notably the once hugely popular Grand Cherokee.
The backlash from buyers stuck with unreliable vehicles has been dramatic.
One Cherokee owner generated national media coverage when he publicly destroyed his car. A disgruntled Grand Cherokee owner wrote a rap: “I made a mistake I bought a Lemon Jeep,” that has had more than 2.6 million views on YouTube.
The brand even took its own former local chief, Clyde Campbell, to court several years ago alleging financial irregularities. The case was dropped, but only after a heap of salacious allegations had played out through the media.
However, in an early sign of its desire to rebuild, Jeep has added autonomous emergency braking to Wrangler for 2020, which should boost its score to at least three stars. That’s better, but still well shy of the five-star maximum.
Australia will also be the first market to offer the Wrangler-based Gladiator with standard AEB when it goes on sale in the second quarter of 2020, meaning it should also avoid the dreaded one-star ANCAP safety rating.
From there, Jeep will be looking for the arrival of a new-generation Grand Cherokee to boost its stocks, while the larger Wagoneer, a Toyota LandCruiser rival, is under study.
It was in the context of model supply to Australia that Meunier revealed the 50,000 target.
“I will push like crazy to feed Australia with everything we can get to get to the 50,000 units we deserve in Australia, that’s what I really think,” he said.
“I didn’t give a timeframe though.”
Meunier will be back in Australia in February for the roll-out of the Jeep reboot plan by his new local managing director Kevin Flynn.
Meunier and Flynn are both insistent Jeeps are now reliable and the need now is to win back customers and re-energise a dealer network disillusioned by slumping sales and poor profitability.
“The entire plan … covers brand, marketing, dealer margin, press, communication, CRM (customer relationship management), product, positioning, pricing,” Meunier said.
“When we address all these things you will see momentum building because the employees are going to start believing again, the dealers are going to believe and the customers are going to talk about it.”
Meunier lays a lot of the blame for Jeep’s predicament on Jeep’s previous management in Australia.
“What is clear is whenever there were a few issues that popped up, the responsibility of an executive is to jump on it and fix it and that wasn’t done,” he said.
“That was done too late and in a poor fashion and that is unacceptable. ”
That seems a harsh judgement of the previous managing director Steve Zanlunghi, as Jeep was already sliding when he arrived and he did try and restore buyer confidence with a five-year warranty, lifetime roadside assistance and capped-price servicing.