Chrysler unveiled its future plans to Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep dealers last week including a shakeup at its trucks end. The Fiat-owned company is revisiting an old idea and also expanding its truck offerings.
According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, Jeep brand CEO Mike Manley debuted a truck during the Orlando, FL dealer meeting. Manley made no comments as he showed off what is believed to be a model similar to 2005's Jeep Gladiator concept (pictured here), which combines a Wrangler's front end with a standard truck body. Since this silent unveiling there have been multiple reports that Jeep will have this Wrangler-based small truck on the market for 2012.
If the production rumors are true, Jeep may have solved the dilemma that has caused the small truck market to shrink in the U.S. One of the reasons small trucks are faltering here is because most lack style. A fashionable appearance is not usually an essential truck characteristic, but it is becoming necessary to sell compact pickups. More fuel-efficient engines (such as Ford's new 3.7-liter V-6) in large trucks make it harder to justify giving up full-size's utility for a smaller truck's economy. This is where style comes into play. A truck with an exceptionally original appearance, like the Gladiator concept, may get a number of truck buyers to trade some utility for style.
Fiat-owned Chrysler also confirmed to dealers that there would be a new Dodge Dakota truck. This new Dakota should be a strong departure from previous models. Until now the Dakota has been the largest of the small trucks, inventing the "middle-sized" truck category. According to the Wall Street Journal, the next Dakota will be a "lifestyle sport truck". Although this is the only detail given, it signifies that the vehicle that once offered the most truck for the money will likely trade power and torque for a trendy personality.
A possible fit could be Fiat basing the new Dakota off of a version of the Strada (pictured right) it currently sells on the Brazilian market. This is the kind of truck on a car's chassis made popular by unibody domestics like the Chevrolet El Camino and Ford Ranchero (Chrysler also flirted with this in the 1980s with the short-lived Dodge Rampage.) If this became a reality, Chrysler would have a very unique product on its hands, but keeping the Dakota name on the least truck-like truck may be awkward for a little while.
The new Strada-based Dakota is just speculation, but one that would fit well. Dodge and Jeep usually share showroom space. The new Jeep truck will be a well-styled small or mid-sized truck that can drive traffic on its appearance. By moving the Dakota into a more niche market last tried by the Dodge Rampage, Chrysler/Jeep could avoid trying to vie for the same customers and instead maximize the corporate potential sales.
There is also a wildcard on Chrysler's truck horizon. The Ram brand (remember all former Dodge trucks are now branded simply "Ram") is reported to be looking into building a new small truck. This "Baby Ram", suggested by brand CEO Fred Diaz, would seat four people and aim for 30 mpg.
The idea of a fuel-efficient four-seater truck is not a new design. This kind of vehicle already sells well outside the United States in areas such as the Asia Pacific region and South America. When equipped with a diesel engine, these small four-door trucks get well over 30-mpg. Diaz did not mention the use of a diesel nor the Baby Ram's international sales plan, but most automotive companies have already decided that the U.S. does not have a large enough market for this kind of truck. It will be interesting to see if Chrysler can develop a small Ram truck that will not only appeal to the U.S., but will also not steal sales from the Jeep truck and new Dakota.