We all know there’s going to be an all-new Jeep Wrangler coming. We’ve been speculating and obsessing over the little details for a while now. An all-new Wrangler means there’s also an all-old Wrangler. And an all-old Wrangler could become something amazing the car industry hasn’t seen in years: a dirt-cheap, desirable car.
I know what everyone will be saying: nobody wants bargain-basement cars, they’re impossible to make money on, the used market is too strong, and on and on until I have to tell you to let go because you’re hurting my arm. But I’m here to tell you that what I have in mind I think can avoid almost all of the usual pitfalls of the ultra-cheap car.
Here’s why: we’re starting with an icon.
There was once a time when cheap cars were unashamedly honest about what they were, and as a result they managed to achieve a sort of classlessness. Cars like this include the original Mini, the original Beetle, the original Fiat 500 (see a pattern?), the Citroën 2CV, Renault 4, and so on.
These were cars that were among the cheapest you could buy, but thanks to a lack of pretension and a good bit of ineffable character, rich and poor alike would be seen in them. Today, entry-level cars don’t have this freedom, because they’re designed to be aspirational, to attempt to pretend they’re not the basic transportation they are. And that never fools anyone.
Look at the Nissan Versa or the Mitsubishi Mirage, for example. They’re cheap cars, and while they’re both capable, they’re not really desirable, and they just don’t have much personality. They’re just about value, and that’s a concept only exciting to dads who have managed to re-train themselves to get erections when reading mortgage statements.
But what if you made a cheap car out of something that had tons of character encoded right into its very DNA? What if you could find a platform that already turned spartan, bare-bones into a positive statement instead of a penalty? What if you could have an incredibly inexpensive car that was honest about what it was, and proud of its rugged, utilitarian nature?
You can have such a car: it’s the soon-to-be-replaced Jeep Wrangler.
Now, as it stands, the base Wrangler starts at about $25,000. That’s way, way too expensive for what I have in mind. Luckily, the current Wrangler is wildly overpriced, and you’re paying a lot for that Jeep heritage and the Wrangler name. We won’t need that.
We also won’t need any of the expensive, tough off-roading components, or even 4WD. Really, I want to re-create a modern version of the Jeep DJ, which most of us know as the Postal Jeep. Something as basic and crude as you can get in a modern car, but still safe enough and useful.
My goal is for the new Cheapjeep to start at $9999, and I think this is entirely possible. We’ll need to go on a brutal and protracted corner-cutting and de-contenting spree, but the good news is that the Wrangler platform is possibly the best suited to this sort of stripping-down of any vehicle currently made.
Here’s a chart of what I’m thinking:
...and, since we’re at it, I may as well list the big ideas, too:
• 2WD only. Specifically, RWD, with a dead axle in front. If an owner wanted to later convert to 4WD, that should be totally possible, though. Along with this, all skidplates and related off-road enhancing parts will be deleted, too. They can always be bought separately and added later!
• Very basic drivetrain. Engines offered will be FCA’s 2.8-liter diesel and whatever 4-banger gas motor is cheapest and can be made to fit. Maybe the base Multiair from the Fiat 500?
Transmissions will be manual by default (whatever’s cheapest in the parts bin that fits) and an optional automatic, the 4-speed one from the early JKs.
• Plain, cheap sealed-beam headlights. The Euro-market Wranglers already use these. Replacements are under $10 from Pep Boys or even some grocery stores.
• Use those dirt-cheap old trailer-grade Jeep taillights. You know, the standard box taillight.
• Yank the entire center stack. There’s a lot of complicated and expensive electronics in there. Take it all out. Leave a basic plastic housing with a double-DIN mounting hole, and that’s about it. Offer an optional cell phone charger/holder/speaker setup for the center console and that’ll do most of what you need.
Oh, and A/C is an option now, too, but we’ll keep the heater. Just minus any fancy climate control system beyond a LO-MED-HI switch or something.
• Yank as much out of the interior as possible. Like I said, the Wrangler is one of the few cars that can actually be really stripped down, so let’s do it. No carpets, just optional rubber mats, no interior door panels, even the rear bench seat is an option.
• Half-doors and soft top standard. This means the only glass is the windshield, the mostly flat windshield, even. Full doors and the already-developed plastic roof/rear cap are optional, as are options from many aftermarket suppliers.
• Simple metal beam replaces complex rubber/plastic/metal bumpers. I’m thinking essentially like what was seen on the Jeep Salute concept, maybe minus the tow hooks.
• Steelies, basic tires replace alloy wheels and off-road tires. Again, this could be upgraded by the owner later on, if they wanted.
• Delete more stuff! Spare tire is optional. No proximity keys. Maybe even no outside lock on the passenger’s side door. Some panels are just matte black, like the face, doors, and rear cargo door.
• It’ll still have airbags and all the necessary safety equipment, of course. So don’t worry there. Every basic safety feature from the current Wrangler that can be kept, should be kept. Safety and a warranty are going to be crucial to competing with used cars.
Let’s be honest, the Wrangler is already likely the most basic car you can buy today, it just comes with a bunch of fancy crap tacked on. Get rid of all that and you’re left with something that still has that essential Jeep character, just stripped to the absolute basics.
So, who would buy a car like this? I think a surprising number of people would find this appealing. If it could be sold for the conceptually-important price of $9999, it would be the cheapest car available in America, and with the Diesel, would be efficient, too.
These Cheapjeeps would be fantastic for fleet use, too: delivery vehicles (without the optional back seat, it’s like a little trucklet), hard-wearing car-sharing vehicles for companies like ZipCar (maybe with A/C and the full doors and hardtop).
They’d be great for service vehicles for companies, great for plumbers, gardeners, and other mobile tradespeople, with the top down great for tourism/resort use, pretty much anything that needs a car of some sort, the Cheapjeep could do it. Cheaper, and jeepier.
For people who just need good, basic transportation, a dirt-cheap stripper Jeep could fill that role as well as a Mirage or a Spark, but with more character and less cheap-car stigma, real or imagined. It could be an ideal first car for a high-school kid, able to be easily hosed out when disgusting things happen inside, and with plastic fenders to be forgiving of the inevitable new-driver mishaps.
A decent basic, under $10K-stripped-down Jeep would be popular as a starting point for serious off-roaders who are going to customize and strip the hell out of a Jeep as it is. It would be cheap enough that wealthy people might buy one just for the hell of it, and turn it into a half-assed Burning Man art car or some other shit that people with way too much money do.
A $9999 incredibly basic Jeep is a machine that can be appealing to almost any demographic. It’s a blank slate, an open platform for customizations, a capable, no-bullshit tool for work, and a safe, reliable (hopefully– at least warrantied) form of basic transportation.
I don’t know precisely what my problem is, but I’m sort of excited at just the thought of this thing. And it only exists in my head. That’s how appealing I think this could be.
Fiat-Chrysler could still make money on these, too, I think. All the tooling is long paid for, there’s hardly anything new that needs to be developed and, since it’s like the Ryanair of cars, there’s money to be made selling the optional stuff.
This thing would own the sub-$15K new car market, and I think could actually compete with boring old used 2012 Camrys and similar cars for people looking for cheap, reliable, and, most importantly, non-wrist-slittingly-boring cars.
What should this be called? Cheapjeep won’t fly. The Jeep Worker? Jeep Basic? Jeep Workhorse? Maybe we could do something abstract-conceptish, like the Jeep Liberty? The Jeep Honesty? Maybe just Jeep DJ, again? The kids love their DJs.
Admit it, FCA: you like this idea. You know you do. You know how to get ahold of me when it comes time to get me one to review.