Ford Will Resurrect the Bronco as a Genuine Wrangler Competitor
Of course, so are GM, Toyota, and Nissan. But each either bailed out before reaching market or delivered a compromise product that failed to earn market acceptance. The fundamental question is not whether Ford can build a legitimate Wrangler alternative, but will it?
“Yes, Ford will resurrect a Bronco to go head-to-head with Wrangler. It will follow the same BOF, removable top, off-road oriented formula as the Wrangler. And much like the original Bronco, this one will sidestep Wrangler by offering a mildly more livable, refined product, at the expense of off-road capability at the limits.”
And if it does, how will it stack up versus Wrangler?
This week at the North American International Auto Show, Ford subtly inserted in its press conference an announcement it would release four all new SUVs over the next “few years.” Upon questioning, a senior Ford official confirmed that some or all of these will be “global.”
In Ford speak that means some—and perhaps all four—will make their way to North America.
There is no agreed upon definition of SUV, CUV, or crossover. And though we will not endeavor to define them here, we will henceforth collectively refer to them as “utilities.” Every automaker wants to wrap its products in the winning cloak of utility, making OEMs subject to classification abuse. For example, this week in Detroit, Chrysler labeled its new minivan replacement, the Pacifica, a crossover. Likewise, Ford might easily tag a Flex replacement as a crossover. Additionally, it may count the upcoming Expedition redesign as an all new SUV.
Taxonomy and mathematical transgressions aside, if Ford says it’s launching four new SUVs, they will not all be embellishments.
Ford has invested heavily in the Escape, Edge, Explorer, and Expedition. And in 2015, as consumers drove record North American new car sales, Ford reaped the benefits of its fresh, well-established range of utilities. Ford’s utility sales were up 7.8 percent and each product was a top five seller in its segment. Moreover, Ford’s utility products are nearly contiguous—there are no yawning gaps above, below, or between.
Nonetheless, auto makers are slicing segments ever thinner in the search for new customers.
German manufacturers, for example, are demonstrating that through dexterous platform management, intelligent product development, and skillful packaging, profitable white space can be found. Much ink has been shed over BMW’s niche defying X4, X6, and Gran Turismo models now surrounding their traditional sedan, wagon, coupe, and SUV offerings. The proliferation of nameplates from continental manufacturers may not be an ideal parallel for volume-driven Ford, but their example is instructive.
Ford has traditionally positioned its products squarely in the middle of each mainstream segment. To over-simplify Ford’s process, the company identifies the mix of layout, features, pricing, etc that define the top of the demand bell-curve for a segment. It then designs a product that will appeal to the 95.4 percent of consumers who fall within two standard deviations of the middle. Ford seeks volume and is more than happy to cede sales to the likes of Subaru Forester, Honda Crosstour, and others. However, with Ford’s new-found willingness to add utilities to its lineup it will inevitably be aiming its offerings at ever thinner target markets.
This pundit believes that Ford will identify and exploit the most profitable, established market opportunity where its product range is weakest. Namely, a mid-size, lifestyle product with legitimate off-road capability.
Ford will not be the first OEM in recent years to stake out a corner of the utility market with an off-road ready SUV. The Grand Cherokee, 4Runner, Discovery, Xterra, FJ Cruiser, and Wrangler are each top of mind all-terrain utilities. The 4Runner, Grand Cherokee, and Discovery are genuinely capable off-roaders, but most consumers view them as Explorer, Highlander, Pilot, and Traverse competitors. For the limited set of buyers who want a daily driver with an off-road mean streak, these products exist. But just as the Raptor would not survive without F-150, the Grand Cherokee, 4Runner, and Discovery would have been canceled long ago were it not for their mainstream grocery-getter success.
The Xtera and FJ Cruiser, on the other hand, came closer to the Wrangler formula, and may have been deserving of greater market acceptance, but were both killed by compromise.
“There are numerous differences that would recommend Everest over Explorer for off-road enthusiasts, but not for mainstream consumers. An Everest-turned-Bronco sold beside the Explorer would rapidly become a standard business school case study in cannibalization.”
Toyota and Nissan enjoy well deserved off-road pedigrees, primarily earned through their utility offerings abroad. The Land Cruiser family is second to none, and the Patrol is highly respected, if less commercially successful. However, each of their attempts to develop lifestyle utilities with an off-road-first appeal in North America were hamstrung by compromise. They did not concede in terms of quality, capability, or utility. Nor did the unassailable devotion of Wrangler fans keep them from straying into Toyota and Nissan showrooms.
It was the omission of removable tops that doomed Xtera and FJ Cruiser. No utility lacking a removable top can compete directly for Wrangler buyers. Period.
This is half the reason the oft-proposed Ford Everest is unlikely to morph into the next Bronco. The other half is that if they were to share showrooms, Everest is too visually, functionally, and dimensionally similar to Explorer to do anything but divide sales between the two. There are numerous differences that would recommend Everest over Explorer for off-road enthusiasts, but not for mainstream consumers. An Everest-turned-Bronco sold beside Explorer would rapidly become a standard business school case study in cannibalization.
The Wrangler has developed a lucrative space all to itself. In 2005, the previous peak year in North American auto sales, Jeep sold fewer than 85,000 Wranglers in North America. In 2015 it sold 223,000. And due to production constraints, nobody knows how many units Jeep could have sold. Each Wrangler earns FCA a gross profit of about $10,000, motivating FCA to bring every resource it can to the Wrangler program. In 2018, or thereabouts, an all-new Wrangler will launch and an additional production line will stand up in Toledo. Look for a Wrangler pickup, a diesel, and perhaps an additional gasoline engine. The already successful Wrangler is about to get a major market-broadening overhaul, along with the elimination of its sales cap.
The Wrangler franchise is worth $7 billion in annual revenue to Jeep and it is entirely uncontested. Having rebounded from the great recession and solidifying its core utility and truck offerings, Ford can now attend to developing a Bronco aimed at consumers who are attracted to the Wrangler value proposition. Some buyers will defect from Wrangler, others will be new to the segment, and some will be new to Ford.
The Bronco will share a new body-on-frame (BOF), rear-wheel/four-wheel drive architecture with the upcoming Ranger. Both Ranger and Bronco will feature an independent front suspension and solid rear axle. The new platform will benefit from the weight-saving expertise Ford gained over the past seven years developing the F-150, and subsequently the Super Duty. It will be relatively light weight and due to the payload and towing requirements of its platform mate, the Bronco will be mildly over-built versus what it would have independently required.
FCA will bring all its weight saving expertise to the next Wrangler, but Ford will still deliver a lighter vehicle, giving Bronco payload and towing advantages.
The original Bronco shared the same 68-inch width as the contemporary CJ-5. However, the Bronco was 11 inches longer between the hubs and 13 inches longer overall. Today’s Wrangler is 73.7 inches wide and in four-door form, 173.4 inches long. As with almost every vehicle redesign, the Wrangler will grow in 2018. Consumers want more rear seat leg room and cargo space and the Jeep loyalists who staff the Wrangler development team will be forced to indulge them. The resulting Wrangler will be marginally longer than the current version, but will retain the relatively short wheelbase and abbreviated overhangs, which are crucial to the Wrangler formula. The Bronco will be materially the same width as the Wrangler. The real dimensional differences will again be in the wheelbase and overhangs. Much like Ford’s 1966 foray into the utility space, the Bronco will seek to be a marginally more refined and comfortable lifestyle utility versus the Jeep.
“The removable top and hose-it-out interior will ensure that the Bronco is no Lincoln. Consumers in this space are not motivated by a quiet ride or neutral handling. They want an extroverted, fun-machine that, depending on trim, either looks like it can go anywhere, or actually can.”
The removable top and hose-it-out interior will ensure that the Bronco is no Lincoln from an NVH perspective. And the truck-underpinnings will ensure that it drives as such. But consumers in this space are not motivated by a quiet ride or neutral handling. They want an extroverted fun-machine that, depending on trim, either looks like it can go anywhere, or actually can. On-road, the Bronco’s longer wheelbase will deliver improved handling versus the Wrangler, as well as make it a somewhat better towing platform.
On road manners may be marginally better than Wrangler, but that is not what the Bronco will be about.
Off-road, an appropriately spec’d Bronco will be more than capable of meeting Jeep’s Trail Rated standard. It will make short work of California’s Rubicon Trail, as does the Wrangler. The Bronco’s mildly stretched dimensions, versus the Wrangler, will result in high-centering and approach and departure challenges. But these deficits will be uncovered only through the most rigorous comparison tests. Even for the hard-core off-road enthusiast, their Bronco versus Wrangler decision will rarely be made based on pure off-road capability or on-road manners—the two products will simply be too close.
Aesthetic preferences, brand loyalty, content, powertrain, towing capacity, roof configuration, and retail incentives will determine what dealer a buyers visits.
Just as the Wrangler is an attainable aspirational product, the Bronco will be too. This is good news for enthusiasts because it means there will be a Ford Performance Bronco. It will almost certainly be motivated by Ford’s 2.7L Ecoboost engine, making between 320 and 350 horsepower. Ford enjoys a heritage in desert racing through Stroppe, which could inform some unique styling ques, as well as a Raptor-like setup. Alternatively, the strong likelihood that a Stroppe Bronco would cannibalize Raptor sales might lead Ford to an alternative off-road mission for Bronco. Rather than giving it the high-speed off road assignment like Raptor, the Ford Performance version may alternatively target the all-purpose all-conquering Wrangler Rubicon.
Yes, Ford will resurrect a Bronco to go head-to-head with Wrangler. It will follow the same BOF, removable top, off-road oriented formula as the Wrangler. And much like the original Bronco, this one will sidestep Wrangler by offering a mildly more livable, refined product, at the expense of off-road capability at the limits. The relative desirability of each product will be a question of individual taste and priorities. Regardless, enthusiasts have a lot to look forward to.
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