SEMA News—April 2014

By Alysha Webb

China’s Growing Love Affair With Jeeps

China continues to be a very important market for Chrysler’s Jeep line. Last year it became the brand’s largest global market. Imported models have driven that growth, but Chrysler has been talking for years about producing Jeeps in China. It looks as though that will become a reality next year. Adding domestically produced models to the mix should boost both sales of Jeeps and opportunities for SEMA members.

A number of Jeep clubs have sprung up throughout China with their members enjoying off-roading trips lasting up to two or even three weeks and venturing as far away as Mongolia and Nepal, among other destinations.
A number of Jeep clubs have sprung up throughout China with their members enjoying off-roading trips lasting up to two or even three weeks and venturing as far away as Mongolia and Nepal, among other destinations.
Courtesy of Jeep

According to Chrysler, Jeep sales in China in 2013 grew 29% compared with the previous year to 59,536 units. The Compass was the top-selling model in China in 2013, with around 32,000 units sold, according to IHS, a provider of global market and economic information. The Grand Cherokee was the second most popular model with around 10,000, followed by the Patriot at 7,800 units and the Wrangler at 6,500 units.

Jeep is part of the fastest-growing segment in China’s automotive market: sport utility vehicles. SUV sales rose 51% in 2013 compared with the previous year to 3.03 million units, according to LMC Auto, a provider of automotive production, sales and powertrain forecasts and automotive industry market intelligence. Sales of light vehicles rose 14% to 21.9 million units in 2013, according to LMC Auto.

Imported models carry a heavy price premium in China because of import taxes. Producing Jeeps domestically will allow Chrysler to offer similar products at lower prices. The three models initially slated for domestic production are the Cherokee, the new Compass compact SUV and the Jeepster compact CUV, said Chinese sources. The first two models will cater to the same customer base as existing models; the Jeepster is aimed at pulling in a new kind of Jeep customer.

IHS forecasted that the start of production for the Cherokee will be August of 2014, but disputes over where the production should be located and issues related to the merger of Fiat and Chrysler will likely delay that date until 2015, said a Chinese source at a supplier company.

Chrysler produces models of the Cherokee for the North American and the European markets because the two have different emissions standards. The drivetrain in the Chinese Cherokee will closely resemble the European version because China’s emissions standards are based on Europe’s, said a Chrysler China executive.

The Chinese Cherokee will offer a 1.4L turbocharged engine and a 2.0L or a 2.4L naturally aspirated engine specially designed for China. Future versions will offer a 2.0L turbocharged engine.

Luxury SUVs are especially hot in China, and Jeep is seen as a luxury brand, shopped against Audi and BMW, Jeep CEO Mike Manley said. Both European companies produce SUV models in China. To help it compete in the luxury segment, the Chinese Cherokee will have a better entertainment system and rear-seat entertainment to cater to China’s larger base of chauffeur-driven passengers, said the Chrysler executive.

Sales volumes for the domestically produced Cherokee are hard to predict without knowing prices, but Jeep has a good brand image in China, and Cherokee sales will probably be in the range of 2,000 to 3,000 units per month, said Kevin Huang of WAY-S Consulting in Guangzhou, China.

“The product image of Jeep is good off-road performance and good brand value,” said Huang. “Typical owners are people with successful careers or private businesses who enjoy exploration and have aggressive personalities.”

The new Jeep Compass will be domestically produced beginning in 2016, HIS forecasted. The new Compass is a compact SUV based on a Fiat platform. After its launch, the Patriot will be phased out.

As for customization, products such as steps, roof accessories and assistance lamps are popular for the Cherokee and Patriot, said Yang Jie, an automotive designer in Shanghai who owned a Cherokee and now owns a Jeep Patriot. Mobile Internet is also popular, he said.

The imported Jeep Wrangler is the most-customized model in China, but its low sales volume makes domestic production unlikely, said the Chrysler China executive. More than 50% of Wranglers in China will be retrofitted with accessories such as chrome, handles, lights, underbody protection, bumpers, axle reinforcement and front-mounted wrenches, said Chinese sources.

According to IHS, production of the Jeepster in China should begin in late 2015, but it seems to present relatively few customization possibilities for SEMA members. The Jeepster is based on the Fiat 500L platform, and buyers will be urban and young, said WAY-S Analyst Huang. It will offer a 1.4L turbocharged engine or a 2.4L engine.

“The target customers will be younger generations who favor fashionable lifestyles but have relatively limited budgets for a bigger SUV or crossover,” he said. They will likely go for appearance-enhancing customizations rather than performance enhancements.  

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