The last of Jeep’s “JK” Wranglers is slated to roll of a Toledo, Ohio, assembly plant on Friday. Photo credit: REUTERS
TOLEDO, Ohio — The Jeep Wrangler JK and Wrangler Unlimited JKU, the latter a great product move for a doomed company, go out of production this week. They represent the bookend of a game-changing, if initially flawed, vehicle that was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and completely unmatched by rival automakers.
So how best to mark its passing? I guess we’ll find out Friday.
That’s when the last two-door Jeep Wrangler JK and four-door Wrangler Unlimited JKU are scheduled to roll down the assembly line in what was initially known as Toledo Supplier Park, ending a production run that began in 2006 and was only interrupted for an extended period by Chrysler’s 2009 bankruptcy.
For the Jeep faithful, Friday is the delayed end of an era that’s already been actively replaced by the next one. The redesigned — and much improved — “JL” Wranglers have been rolling off of the assembly line on the North end of FCA US’ massive Toledo assembly complex since November. The south end of the plant, the old Toledo Supplier Park, is set to be retooled starting next week to begin building the Wrangler-based pickup next year.
In some ways, the end of the JK is like the child of a thrice-married woman mourning the death of his first stepdad: He was a great guy who did great things in the day, and he definitely helped get mom back on her feet. He made us all a bunch of money, and we’re grateful, but mom’s found someone better now, so it’s time for him to go.
It may seem an ignominious end for what is easily the greatest single product call of the entire DaimlerChrysler era — the decision to add two more doors to the Wrangler and create the Wrangler Unlimited, enhancing the iconic nameplate’s popularity globally — but it comes after what can best be described as a product life well lived.
The story begins with the JKU’s miracle birth.
DaimlerChrysler President Tom LaSorda was tasked with building a product with great commercial potential but which wouldn’t fit in Jeep’s current Toledo factory. Oh, and he had no money to build it. So LaSorda turned to suppliers, who built Chrysler a factory adjacent to the one turning out unibody Jeep Libertys at the time, with Chrysler paying back suppliers with a “wheel tax” funding mechanism.
It’s also remarkable to recall that when the 2007 Wrangler Unlimited arrived, its popularity was about half that of the traditional two-door, short-wheelbase Wrangler. Early on, assembly workers here built a pair of two-doors for every four-door produced. Now production of the four-door versions outnumber the two-doors by more than 2-to-1.
Before the arrival of the JK, the Wrangler — and the CJs before it — sloshed around in kind of a fixed sales range year to year, not really venturing too far from 70,000 units a year. Though it had the longest pedigree of any Jeep, its heavy off-road niche limited Wrangler’s usefulness to a narrow consumer demographic. Adding the two extra doors, as well as other long-overdue product improvements, made the Wrangler a passable daily driver for a whole new range of potential customers, and thrust a plant intended to produce a maximum of 160,000 units a year into overdrive, cranking out 230,000 units a year or more just to keep up with domestic demand and largely without incentives.
All of that new popularity also brought with it problems from people who didn’t recognize that the Wrangler wasn’t — and isn’t — a car or truck in the traditional sense, but a toy that you can take on the highway or up a mountain or through a mud pit. The JK and JKU have the aerodynamics of rolling bricks with windows, along with the accompanying wind noise. And all those new customers were shocked to discover that their new Wranglers’ drag-link steering — which gives it the ability to climb over boulders like a mountain goat — sometimes didn’t track straight and true at 70 mph. All these issues meant that despite its popularity, the Wrangler always landed at or near the bottom of Consumer Reports’ and other vehicle quality measurements, whether it deserved to or not.
The Jeep Wrangler JK and especially the JKU Wrangler Unlimited were remarkable vehicles when they were introduced, and remained so even as they grew more and more obsolete over the ensuing decade. When the last one rolls on Friday, Jeep fans everywhere should raise a glass to its passing.
A mudslide seems appropriate.