Editorial: Will DCX's move taking Jeep 'out of the woods' dilute the brand?

The Jeep Compass, arguably the 2006 North American International Auto Show's leading whipping boy has been outed (along with company's upcoming Patriot twin) by James Healey at the USA Today as potentially damaging brand extensions. The two vehicles are based on the DaimlerChrysler's on-road-only Dodge Caliber, offering comparatively little of Jeep's trademark off-road prowess, thus calling into question the marque's direction and identity.

The question is: Will DaimlerChrysler's division to forsake the Rubicon Trail for the Primrose Path lead to a sales success, a tarnished image... or both?

This author went so far as to call the Compass the NAIAS' 'Worst In Show' within hours of the vehicle's introduction and has yet to see anything to change his mind. As a Dodge-branded vehicle unencumbered by Jeep's 'mountain man' aura, the Compass might have made for a reasonable offering. In fact, it likely will be a fine offering-- as a Caliber. But as it stands, the model's name takes on an unwelcome ironic sheen for a company clearly losing sight of who it is and where it's going. This is a particular shame given that Jeep has arguably long remained the most self-aware brand in the entire domestic auto industry.

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For their part, the company's marketing director John Plecha argues: "We're not watering down the brand. We know what we have, and we're protecting it." But it would appear that if Jeep isn't headed for brand currency implosion, it is at least toying with the idea: 2004's oddball Treo city-crawler concept and the production-bound Compass fairly spit on the brand's hard-won off-road credibility and machismo. Oh, there are still people within the company that know how to be proper custodians of the brand's heritage-- they're the good folks responsible for the Hurricane, Gladiator, Jeepster, and Rescue... but producing vehicles like the Compass (and to a lesser extent, the Patriot), have us questioning Who's Zoomin' Who.

The biggest question remains: Will they sell? Possibly. But that doesn't mean the hit to Jeep's image is worth the risk. There are a fair number of vehicles that have sold respectably, yet served to incalculably damage their manufacturer's reputation over the long haul. And given the Compass' projected low entry-price, we can't imagine the model being a cash-cow. Perhaps the Compass and the Patriot exist in large measure to help amortize platform costs for the Caliber, but building three low-margin vehicles in order to justify the existence of one doesn't exactly a shiny business case make. As brands like Jaguar have learned the hard way, not every company needs to be everything to all people-- volume isn't always the answer. The DaimlerChrysler family has many umbrellas under which to house a full lineup of vehicles without soiling the Jeep brand with limp-wristed offerings like the Compass.

Yes, not everyone needs a vehicle of genuine off-road ability. But those people don't need a Jeep... they just want the outfit. And unfortunately for DCX, when too many wannabes start rolling around with the 'outfits' on, those that earned the marque its image in the first place will be observed looking elsewhere.

[Sources: USA Today, Jeep, Jeep Horizons]

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