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‘It’s cool to be green’: Jeep CEO on how he’s transforming the 80-year-old brand

Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Variety

(NEW YORK) — Jeep evangelists listen up: Your rugged adventure mobile is going silent.

The gas-guzzling SUVs that have rolled off Jeep’s assembly lines for 80 years will be recast as “green” vehicles that live up to the brand’s off-roading reputation, according to Christian Meunier, the global CEO of Jeep.

Meunier’s ultimate goal? For Jeep to become a “zero-emission freedom brand.”

First up: The Wrangler 4xe, a plug-in hybrid that went on sale this year and already accounts for nearly 25% of Jeep’s volume. The 4xe makes 375 horsepower and has an EPA fuel economy of 49 MPGe (miles per gasoline-gallon equivalent, including electricity). Drivers get 21 miles of electric-only driving range when the 14.0-kWh lithium-ion battery is charged. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine.

The Wrangler 4xe outsold the Prius in the first-quarter of 2021 and is now the No. 1 PHEV in the country. The Grand Cherokee 4xe arrives next year.

“The 4xe could make Jeep die-hards change their mind about leaving [internal combustion engines],” Meunier told ABC News. “When you drive electric Jeeps you fall in love with them.”

He added, “A lot of torque is awesome for off-road driving. It’s cool to be green.”

Electrification may be Jeep’s future — with a few exceptions. EPA fuel economy estimates of the newly launched Rubicon 392, the most powerful Wrangler with a mighty 6.4-liter Hemi V8 engine that produces 470 hp and 470 lb.-ft. of torque, clock in at 13 mpg (city) and 17 mpg (highway).

“The 392 is more of a niche market — 3% of total Wrangler sales. So very limited in volume and very exclusive,” Meunier said.

Jeep also reintroduced its iconic Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer to compete in the increasingly cutthroat luxury three-row SUV category. Moreover, Meunier and his team are aggressively targeting drivers in key markets — Europe, China and Latin America — to expand Jeep’s customer base. North America makes up two-thirds of Jeep’s global sales.

“There is a very big product offensive across the globe … [our] reliance on North America is getting less and less every day,” Meunier said.

Meunier spoke to ABC News about where the brand is headed and how to get more Americans to accept EVs. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christian, you want to make Jeep the greenest SUV brand in the world.

A: Our vision is really to be the zero-emission freedom brand and we have a plan to get there. It’s clearly a commitment to say we’re the greenest SUV brand in the world. Twenty-five percent of our sales in the U.S. are 4xe. I think next year it will be more. The 4xe is the most capable Wrangler. We’re pretty confident that we’re going to be the greenest, the most electrified SUV brand at a global level, which is a big departure from where Jeep was a few years ago.

When are we going to see an all-electric Jeep in the U.S.?

A: That’s a good question. The only thing I can tell you is that by 2025 we’ll have a BEV [battery electric vehicle] in every single segment and pretty much across the globe. And the first [all electric] Jeep will be launched at the end of next year.

We brought the Magneto [Jeep’s BEV concept] and 4xe to the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab. A lot of the hardcore off-roaders told us that the torque … of the Magneto and 4xe could make them change their mind about leaving ICE [vehicles].

Does Jeep feel extra pressure to produce an all-electric Wrangler to compete in the off-roading space? There is the Rivian R1T, GMC Hummer EV and upcoming Ford F-150 Lightning.

A: We will do it. The question is when and how. We’re full speed ahead on electrification. It’s an obvious thing for Jeep to accelerate the electrification for Wrangler and the other models.

Magneto was really a concept test … we wanted to have an impression from our community. We value enormously the community input and feedback. We have a lot of interaction with them.

How do you get Americans to buy EVs?

A: I think it will take a little bit of time. It takes product to prove that it’s equivalent or better and it doesn’t create annoyance. I think Americans enjoy their freedom and want to be able to use their cars whenever they want. And they want to drive as many miles as they want. When the technology is good they’ll jump on it. Americans are very open to [EVs] as long as it makes their lifestyle equal or better.

Which model in your opinion is the most important for the brand?

A: The two most iconic products that exist today when you talk about Jeep are Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. The Grand Cherokee is a wildly civilized machine. The best-selling Jeep in the U.S. is the Grand Cherokee with 250,000 units. Wrangler is No. 2, with 213,000 units. We’re off to a strong start with Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer — a premium extension of what Jeep is about.

Ford and Land Rover are determined to steal market share from the Wrangler with the Bronco and Defender. Have Jeep owners defected from the company? How can the Wrangler keep ahead of the competition?

A: The Wrangler has never sold as quickly as right now. We have zero stock on the ground and dealer inventory. Competition is healthy — it creates more visibility to a segment and it puts Wrangler more on the radar as well. It forces us to become better, come up with new ideas, new technologies. We’re not afraid of competition, it’s good. Is there a little cross shopping? Maybe. We don’t see a lot of defection from the Jeepers to Ford or another brand.

What is the biggest challenge facing every automaker right now?

A: The biggest challenge is — I would say there are many of them. We have raw materials going through the roof. Steel prices. Precious metal. Inflation in the materials we use to build cars so that puts pressure on the cost side. We have the microchips shortage which is a challenge for everyone. It forces us to be innovative and engineer cars with alternative solutions. The cost of electrification is quite high. We cannot pass everything to the customer so that puts pressure on us. We’re working with a lot of economies of scale to mitigate these issues. A lot of headwinds on the cost side.

So does that mean Jeep will have to raise prices on all vehicles next year?

A: It’s not only about pricing. It’s also about making sure we’re more efficient in the way we build cars.

Copyright © 2021, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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