It’s no surprise that as SUV and truck sales remain strong in the wake of unusually cheap gas, Jeep and Ram sales are taking off. What is a surprise is that FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne thinks that cheap gas will be a “permanent condition,” and feels strongly enough about it to change up North American manufacturing plans.
Jeep appears to be the biggest beneficiary of the product realignment. In addition to increasing the sales estimates for the brand worldwide upwards to 2 million units a year by 2018, the brand will get a flood of investment for new product and powertrains. Consider the Wrangler Pickup to be part of the salvo, as well as the Grand Wagoneer three-row announced in 2014 as part of the original five-year plan.
The Wrangler four-door will get at least two new powertrains, a diesel and mild hybrid version, in its next generation. That mild hybrid powertrain may utilize a 48-volt electrical system like the one that’s being developed by Delphi and Bosch – which the suppliers think will be worth a 10 to 15 percent fuel economy gain at a minimum. Down the road, in the 2020s, the Wrangler could adopt a full hybrid system. The diesel powertrain is planned for 2019 or 2020.
The Ram 1500 is also pegged to receive a mild hybrid system, again potentially based on 48-volt architecture, sometime after 2020.
Lastly, Jeep and Ram will take over some of the production capacity of existing plants. The Sterling Heights, MI, plant that builds the Chrysler 200 will now build the Ram 1500; the Belvidere, IL, facility that produces the Dodge Dart will take over Cherokee output; the big Jeep facility in Toledo, OH, will be used for increased Wrangler demand. In 2015, according to FCA’s numbers, car and van demand went down by 10 percent, but SUV demand went up 8 percent and truck demand 2 percent. Considering that these are high-margin vehicles, FCA can’t ignore the math. FCA also won’t build any new factories to supplement production to meet demand, but instead are reshuffling production priorities.
Think of it this way: FCA is gambling on cheap gas being a permanent part of our lives, at least into the 2020s. By doubling down on SUVs and trucks, the company stands to win big, unless a spike in gas prices changes the landscape. FCA isn’t talking about a Plan B, so they’re all in. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.