Over Memorial Day weekend I ventured into the mountains of Virginia in a Jeep Wrangler Sahara, one of the terrain-themed models under the larger Wrangler brand. The sky-blue, two-door vehicle turned heads in D.C. where I had picked up the keys from the Event Solutions guys. And coming from Brooklyn, I felt pretty unique driving along Mass. Ave. in today’s version of a Willys.
When I got about 20 miles west of the nation's capital on 66, things began to change. I started to see Wranglers. Lots of them. By the time I was west of Front Royal and heading south on 81, you couldn't throw a stick without hitting one. And while Jeep has gotten the most volume out of the four-door version, I saw a pretty even mix of two-doors, four-doors, hard tops, ragtops, modified, hopped-up and stripped down off-roaders.
Wranglers are, in fact, selling like hotcakes right now. Chrysler sales figures for May show it was not just a good month, or Wrangler’s best month of the year, or even the best May. It was Wrangler’s best month of any flavor, ever. Total sales were 14,450 units. If you consider that the vehicle is not a people mover in the dead center of the mass market, but something with a niche appeal, those are numbers to toast. "Our best-ever month had been last July, and we have exceeded that," says Becky Blanchard, the Wrangler brand manager, who adds that those numbers are not being fueled by incentives. This is also a big year for the brand in another way, as it has begun activating on sponsorship of USA Basketball ahead of London.
Driving it all is the vehicle Jeep introduced five years ago when it totally redesigned the 25-year-old nameplate: it introduced for the first time a long-wheelbase, four-door version called Wrangler Unlimited. She says that vehicle is Jeep’s acquisition of urban and suburban consumers and thus the brand’s sales gains. That makes a lot of sense if you have driven a two-door Wrangler. There's not a lot of room for the accoutrements of suburban life such as soccer gear, groceries and kids.
Unlimited now accounts for 60% of the sales mix, and it has overturned the rural versus urban mix. In 2006, per Blanchard, 55% of Wrangler customers were rural, and 34% were metro. As of last year, 44% of Wrangler owners were rural while 56% were metro and suburban (Okay, maybe I was too busy trying to find parking to notice other Wranglers in downtown Washington, D.C.). "We do appeal to a broad demographic because [the Unlimited] is a fun getaway vehicle; it is a good daily driver that appeals to people with an 'escape' mindset." She says that 80% of Wrangler owners take their vehicles off road (AutoPacific has had data out there suggesting that 13.4% of all sport-utility drivers go off-roading for recreation. The industry has put the number at 15% for owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles.)
The top Wrangler markets are the Northeast -- which is the biggest SUV market in the world -- and the Southeast. That may seem to explain the automaker's decision to back USA Basketball, a sport that has a broad appeal in cities. "This fits into our efforts to broaden awareness of Wrangler," Blanchard says. "Jeep owners are very active-lifestyle consumers, and they over-index for sports of all kinds, so we felt that the sponsorship was a good fit." The company is, in fact, touting the Wrangler Altitude, based on the Sahara unlimited, with the partnership. “The Altitude is a more urban vehicle, in terms of its sound system and black exterior color scheme,” she says.
Jeep is also putting Wrangler behind the Winter X games in Aspen in January next year, and that deal is going to expand to be a global effort, per Blanchard, with Jeep of Europe getting involved.