Re-establishing a legendary vehicle is nothing new for Ralph Gilles.
He’s worked for the company currently known as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles since 1992, back when it was still called the Chrysler Corporation; by 2006, he was vice president in charge of interior design for the company’s Jeeps, trucks and specialty vehicles; he was named vice president of design come 2008; head of FCA’s North America Product Design Office come 2009; and the last five years, he’s held the title of head of design for the entire FCA Group. (Along the way, he also served as president and CEO of the SRT brand before it was subsumed back into the fold, did a stint as CEO for Dodge in the U.S., and spent time as president and CEO of FCA’s Motorsports division.)
He’s presided over the looks of Vipers and Power Wagons, Gladiators and Chargers — all sorts of mean machines whose names carry more weight than the average automotive nameplate. And now, he’s adding a new Jeep Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer to that list.
Still, out-and-out retro hasn't been FCA’s bag for quite some time. This new mega-Jeep is clearly a Jeep, but it’s also very much a modern-looking one.
“We actually had a few themes that were...emulating the last version, from 1991,” Gilles says. “It was almost too retro. We quickly got off that bandwagon.”
Instead, the vehicle bears clean, straight lines that seem to embrace its size, rather than aim to reduce it. “We think we found a nice blend of simplicity [and] gorgeous details. It looks impenetrable, almost like a fortress in a way — but still elegant,” he says.
His favorite aspect of the design, perhaps unexpectedly, is the stern. “I actually love the rear view of the vehicle,” he said. That’s where the design team spent a lot of time trying to integrate the details, like the license plate frame area and the details around the rear window, into the overall look using tasteful dashes of chrome and so forth. “You rarely see that anymore, the way it’s framed in brightwork,” he says.
Indeed, brightwork abounds on this unabashedly fancy vehicle. One thing that doesn’t abound on it, however: the brand’s familiar logo. Gilles says you shouldn’t look for too many instances of the name “Jeep” on the car. The designers minimized the brand’s badge in favor of the Wagoneer badging, to play up its distinctive character (and perhaps, much as Hyundai used to do with its Genesis and Equus, to distinguish it from the affordable rides on the far end of the showroom).
“It’s so important, it almost deserves its own name,” Gilles says.
Important might even be understating it. Full-size SUVs remain a gangbuster business for the Big Three — or rather, the two-thirds of it that currently compete in that realm. The Wagoneer and its grander sibling aim to steal away not just sales from the likes of the Expedition and Tahoe, but also the Navigator and Escalade — and even perhaps the likes of the Lexus LX, Mercedes-Benz GLS and BMW X7.
Gilles brings up the fact that take rates for the company’s high-end trucks like the Limited version of the Ram pickups has been much higher than expected. “That tells us there’s an appetite for luxury, as long as it’s well-presented and practical,” he says. “If it’s there, they will buy it.”
Yet while you might assume that such a giant body-on-frame SUV cares little for the environment, this is 2020 — even the mega-machines are going eco-friendly. Sustainable materials are set to make up an increasingly large part of the parts inside the new Wagoneer, thanks in part to added options from FCA’s suppliers. “There’s a lot of choice now,” Gilles says. “The supply base is responding nicely.” And the concept truck uses a plug-in hybrid powertrain, much like the new Wrangler 4xe — which suggests what might lie beneath the hood when the production version arrives next year. (“The Jeep brand — and Wagoneer — are looking strongly at all forms of electrification,” Gilles said diplomatically when pressed on the issue.)
And in case you were wondering: yes, Gilles is well aware how people feel about a lack of a certain tree-sourced material on the exterior of the new Wagoneer.
“I know I’m gonna get a lot of crap about not getting the wood on the sides,” he says. The design team did, mostly as a lark, mock up a version with wood paneling on its flanks — “for a hot minute,” Gilles says. “Then I killed it.”