At the turn of the century, Jeep could feel the heat around the corner. Where the marque previously held onto the title of the most rugged American brand, all of a sudden that appeared to be in the balance. Approaching fast along the trail was another company with a seven-slat grille and a similar stars-and-bars theme. GM's Hummer had arrived and was preparing to sell real vehicles to flush American pocketbooks (those pocketbooks, it would turn out, wouldn't actually have real money in them, but that's a topic for a different blog). While Hummer had been around since 1992, the massive H1 (previously known as the M998 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle until GM bought the Hummer brand from AM General in 1998) was really more of a circus freak than a car that anyone really drove. But with a new, smaller (yet still massive) H2 model coming in 2001, Jeep felt the earth move beneath their feet.

Jeep's designers and engineers moved quickly to try to find religion again. With the Grand Cherokee successfully becoming the suburban soft-roader du jour during the 1990s, it appeared the company had lost sight of its true roots. It was with this in mind that Jeep engineers cooked up a series of "Willys" concept vehicles in 2001 (the name a direct homage to the iconic Willys Jeeps that played a starring role in WWII), each one looking like it was ready for battle duty. With the Wrangler selling for about $14,000 at the time, the idea was that these smaller Jeeps would retain the off-road guts of the brand, but for an even lower price.

The vehicle you see here was the most interesting of the Willys concepts. Dubbed "Willys2," it debuted at the Tokyo Motor Show just a month after 9/11. Looking every bit like a rescue vehicle, the Willys2 featured salad-bowl-sized driving lights on its roof rack, go-anywhere 21-inch wheels and an exterior design that looked like it had been form fitted in an ice tray. Auto show specific stuff could be found throughout, including a green exterior with a translucent finish that mimicked the Apple iMac (the design zeitgeist of the era), while the all-aluminum frame molded to carbon fiber body panels. If Jeep truly wanted this to be a vehicle with a sub-14k price tag, they were headfaking pretty well.

The business plan for a cheaper Jeep did come to fruition, but in the opposite (and wrong) direction. Jeep moved the Wrangler upmarket (the new Wrangler starts at $21,165) and launched the Compass and Patriot in 2007 as their entry models, each with a price around $15,000. The two small Jeeps were seen as imitators and further diluted the notion that Jeep was America's off-road brand (they will be discontinued by 2012, according to Chrysler's new management). Had the company focused on a production model like the Willys2, that might have been a different story.

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