In an article last month, Top Gear interviewed Daniele Calonaci, the designer of the Jeep Avenger. In the article, they learned a lot about the future of the Jeep brand and some of the challenges they face selling it, especially in the European market. But one thing is for sure: the company is not going to optimize for aerodynamics the way most manufacturers do.
Before we can get into why they’re staying boxy, let’s first explore the history of the Jeep.
Why Jeeps Are The Way They Are
The United States military was an early adopter of motor vehicles. That might sound like a low-risk investment, but we have to remember that 100 years ago, motorized ground transport wasn’t the mature and evolved industry it is today. As long as most of us have been alive, driving across the continent has been no big deal, but in 1919, it was a nightmare.
A young Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower (yes, he went on to become a five-star general and president) was assigned to help lead an expedition of military trucks from Washington, DC, to San Francisco along the Lincoln Highway, and this journey took weeks. Eisenhower said of the trip, “In western Utah on the Salt Lake Desert, the road becomes almost impassible to heavy vehicles. From Orr’s Ranch, Utah to Carson City, Nevada, the road is one succession of dust, ruts, pits, and holes.”
Between the experiences of this convoy, World War I, and the expedition into Mexico to attempt the capture of Pancho Villa, U.S. armed forces learned a considerable amount about using vehicles in warfare, and as anyone familiar with the military knows, the logistics of war are as important as the fighting. In the decades that followed, there were efforts both to improve the roads and to create robust, low-cost vehicles for the military.
World War II wasn’t a surprise that blindsided the United States on December 7, 1941. The United States wasn’t directly involved in the fighting before Pearl Harbor, but efforts to supply allies with lend-lease programs, ammunition, and even volunteers from the U.S. military were underway. Americans were even deeply involved in China’s efforts to defend itself against Imperial Japan, with a government-tied U.S. company basically supplying the republic with an air force.
Military authorities were watching to see what equipment the Nazis had, and they knew the U.S. had no equivalent to the Volkswagen Kübelwagen (the VW Thing vehicle was based on the Kübelwagen). Going to war against Germany without something that could keep up would be suicidal, so there was great pressure to come up with something that could not only do the job, but do it well. There could be no repeat of the 1919 military expedition while facing enemy fire.
To get the vehicle designed, built, and performing quickly, a team of engineers and testers from the United States Army Quartermaster Corp, Bantam, Willys, and Ford all collaborated. The end result (after much trial and error) was a light vehicle that could go just about anywhere, like a character named Eugene the Jeep in 1930s Popeye cartoons. Ford was one of the higher volume manufactures of the vehicle, and gave the Ford version the “GP” name. Whether the Popeye character or the GP codename was the origin, or both, is debated to this day.
Subsequent Jeeps made since World War II have carried on the utilitarian tradition of the original Jeep. First, there were Jeeps given the “CJ” (Civilian Jeep) designation, and Willys capitalized on the wartime fame of the Jeep to market it. After decades of successful production and sales, the Jeep company (which had by then passed to Chrysler ownership) switched from the CJ to the Jeep Wrangler. Today, several generations later, the Wrangler design comes in a number of variants, including two-door, four-door, and a truck-bed model, and it lives alongside other “Fiat” Jeeps made less rugged by the company’s current owner, Stellantis (formerly Fiat-Chrysler).
The Jeep Brand Crawls Into Electrification
Now that we’ve covered the wartime roots of the Jeep for those unfamiliar, we can now talk about taking Jeep electric.
In some ways, you couldn’t ask for a worse place to start for an electric vehicle. Online memes joke that the Jeep Wrangler’s shape is less aerodynamically efficient than a cow, and they’re pretty much right. Heavy solid-axle suspensions, efficiency-r0bbing transfer cases and transmissions, and a number of other design elements critical to making a real Jeep are all at odds with getting range.
Theoretically, Jeep could abandon all of this. The company would have to do what the other electric pickup manufacturers are doing and use transverse front and rear drive units, independent suspensions, and break out some sandpaper to smooth the edges. Execs and designers could keep a Jeep-esque front grille if they wanted, though.
But, Jeep buyers aren’t so easily fooled. While the average car buyer has no idea what’s under the hood and between the wheels of their crossover transportation appliance, Jeep’s following wants the boxy look, the solid axles, and everything else that makes a Jeep the go-anywhere vehicle it was originally named to be. Taking any of those measures to get some more range would alienate not only the existing buyers, but the people who want real off-road capability (whether they use that capability or not).
So, when we look at the interview with Top Gear, what Jeep’s current designer is saying makes a lot more sense. He knows not only the target market, but is an avid Jeep adventurer himself (having taken extreme expeditions around Eurasia and Africa, driving directly to far-flung places from his European home).
“There’s a lot of companies around the world that are going into the crossover world, but Jeep will remain more… boxy world.” he told Top Gear. “Right now, people ask to have high ground clearance, or a commanding position. A lot of people require electrification.”
He goes on to tell them that he sees many aero-optimized crossovers driving on the highway today with roof racks and cargo boxes because the curvy and cut-off design of the vehicle left insufficient interior room for cargo. He doesn’t mention this, but the bulky roof cargo boxes end up negating much of the aero benefit, leaving them in just the same place as a boxy Jeep would be on the highway.
He’s also very clear that no off-road or power sacrifices will be made to go electric. “So we think electrification should be perfect for the Jeep brand for the future. I think we have a huge [background] that talks about powerful, big engines, but this power can be replaced by electrification. And maybe also enhanced.” he told Top Gear.
And, keeping those capabilities is a key marketing strategy for the brand to set itself apart from all of the other compromised electric offerings coming out. Plus, the electric Jeep of the future could end up going where no Jeep has gone before (underwater).
Featured image: A screenshot from a Jeep video showing a future electric Jeep going underwater (internal combustion engines cann0t work submersed this deeply in the water).
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