After staring at the new Jeep Grand Wagoneer concept yesterday, I decided to sleep on the design before unleashing any hot takes onto this world. You see, upon initially seeing the vehicle on my computer screen, I thought the exterior design was “just okay,” and while that might be fine for the new Camry, it’s not fine for a Jeep Grand Wagoneer.
I’ll begin by saying that automakers “bastardize” car names all the time. The current Jeep Cherokee KL? So much less cool than the previous U.S.-market Jeep Cherokee (the XJ). The Ford Mustang Mach-E? “That ain’t a Mustang!” most mullet-toting Americans screamed after Ford’s electric vehicle debuted. The Chevy Blazer? What a sad crossover that is, especially when compared to the K5 of yore (though the S10 wasn’t exactly “All that,” I’ll admit). The new Defender? I’m not going to even touch that one, but some say it’s just a prettied-up Discovery, and not nearly as cool as the body-on-frame, solid-axled beast that it replaced.
My point is that for me to get upset about an automaker not staying true to a nameplate’s roots is a bit silly. Names are there to sell cars, and in some cases, to draw maybe a slight connection to an awesome vehicle, but not necessarily to mimic that awesome vehicle.
But the Grand Wagoneer’s design doesn’t just forsake its predecessor, it also just doesn’t stand out enough among modern vehicles. It looks good, yes, but I expected more.
As a two-time Jeep Grand Wagoneer owner, I know what that vehicle was and what it wasn’t. What it was was a big, comfortable swaggermobile that exuded charm and class. What it wasn’t was efficient, good at handling, powerful, safe—frankly, it wasn’t a particularly impressive vehicle in any other area other than comfort and style. Seems like a pretty low bar for the new Grand Wagoneer to clear, no?
Indeed. And in the former category—comfort—I think the new vehicle will do quite well. It’s got independent suspension all the way around instead of two leaf-sprung solid axles, and with that comes a rack and pinion steering setup that will be much less sloppy than the “SJ” Wagoneer’s steering box. Plus, the new vehicle’s improved aerodynamics will undoubtedly yield less wind noise.
More importantly, just look at the Grand Wagoneer Concept’s interior. It’s not as colorful as I’d like (the old Grand Wagoneer’s interior was brown, tan, or burgundy), but overall, I think the design is phenomenal for a modern vehicle:
Okay, so the new vehicle manages to hit the “comfort” part of things beautifully, but what about the other 50 percent of the old Wagoneer’s selling point—the gorgeous exterior styling?
The Old Grand Wagoneer was a work of art, with its design rooted in the work of styling legend Brooks Stevens. The vehicle featured a beautiful hood with a raised center section, largely flat slabs of steel on the sides, a tall and confident greenhouse, spindly mostly-vertical pillars, and lots of distance between the body and the ground.
By the time the Wagoneer became the Grand Wagoneer in 1984, the slab sides gained faux wood trim, chrome adorned the pillars and grille (which covered most of the face), the interior got swankier, and that aggressive hood got an ornament to really drive home that this was a status-mobile above all else.
The new Grand Wagoneer Concept, as I said before, looks good, and I can even appreciate that it has a body-colored B-pillar (something that has largely gone away these day). But is it a design icon like the old Grand Wagoneer was? It’s hard to make that judgement now, but I’m fairly confident that the answer is “no”—that in 30 years, folks won’t be paying into the six figures for a mint condition example.
I always imagined that, when Jeep finally unveiled a new Grand Wagoneer, my jaw would fall to the floor, and I’d say “damnnnn!” just like I did when I saw the new Bronco and just like I do anytime I see an old Woody. But upon seeing this, I thought: “Not bad.”
But again, “not bad” is a disappointment in the context of the Grand Wagoneer nameplate.
To be sure, a lot of the old Grand Wagoneer’s tricks might not have translated well into the modern era. Wood trim on the sides? Thin pillars? Boxy, upright, unaerodynamic shape with lots of ground clearance? I could see how fuel economy and safety regulations could have cut a number of these down. But I’d have at least liked to have seen something that reminds me of the Grand Wagoneer of yore.
But really, the one thing that I hoped this new Grand Wagoneer would carry over from the old one is a design that really stands out. Something with absurd presence. Something that, as soon as you saw it, you knew it was special. I didn’t feel that way when I first laid eyes on this new design. Maybe that will change when I see it in the flesh.
And also, maybe I have an overly romantic view of the Grand Wagoneer nameplate.
It’d be okay that the Grand Wagoneer is nothing like its predecessor, as long as it stands out from other SUVs on the market. But I’m not sure that it does. Even within the FCA lineup, there’s quite a bit in common with other vehicles.
That’s not a bad thing, of course. And if you look back in history, you’ll learn that even the old Wagoneer looked quite similar to its Cherokee and J-truck siblings in the Jeep lineup. But the reality is that, at least I think, the name “Grand Wagoneer” carries so much power—so much emotional appeal—that when a new variant came out, I expected it to be on a different level. And I know others did, too.
It’s possibly that my expectations were unrealistic, though I look at the new Bronco and see something that really succeeded in filling the shoes of a true icon. I believe Jeep could have done that, and built a truly distinct automobile.
Because what I see here isn’t exactly “distinct.” Check out how similar the Grand Wagoneer Concept’s face is to that of the Grand Cherokee:
It’s different, of course. But I don’t think it’s different enough. Even the rear gives me Dodge Durango vibes:
Perhaps to a lesser degree, I also notice a number of similarities to the China market-only Grand Commander. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but when you bring back an iconic nameplate, you don’t want people saying “It’s like a Grand Commander but bigger, with more chrome, and with a more upright greenhouse.” No, you want people saying “I don’t know how to describe it. You just have to see it” or maybe even “It’s like the old Wagoneer, but brought into the modern era in an extremely creative way.”
Let’s also take a look at the competition.
Does the Grand Wagoneer (above) truly stand out from these two cross-town rivals?:
Of those three, I actually think the Jeep looks the least powerful and opulent. This vehicle—the mighty Grand Wagoneer, which left the marketplace in 1991 as a symbol of high status, and which has since garnered a reputation for pure class and unrivaled exterior styling that has come to define “Americana”—doesn’t really rise above its peers stylistically, and barely stands out among its own siblings within the FCA family.
It also doesn’t hold a candle to the old Grand Wagoneer design (though what does?), and doesn’t carry over the heritage by incorporating design elements that made the old SUV great.
The new Jeep Grand Wagoneer fills the role of the old car only halfway. It ticks the “comfort” check but leaves the “brilliant and unmistakable design” box open. Still, it fills the three-row SUV gap in the Jeep lineup, and even if it lacks the presence that I expected from something called a Grand Wagoneer (again, maybe this will change when I see it in person), that will probably be enough for Jeep to move plenty off these things off dealer lots.