Curbside Classic Visits The 2018 New York International Auto Show, Part 4: FCA And Volkswagen

The North American automotive market generally marches to the beat of its own drummer. Executives at FCA and Volkswagen have struggled to understand that simple truth for quite some time. That being said, both automakers seem to be doing decently in America right now. For FCA, their recent prosperity rests on the back of Jeep and Ram, while Volkswagen makes do with the Tiguan, Atlas, and the Audi brand in general.

The Dodge Challenger rests on old bones, but FCA has done a remarkable job keeping it and its LX platform siblings fresh these past couple of years. Does the attractiveness of the coupe play a role? I think it does. This design still looks good after ten years, and buyers seem to agree.

What is the future for vehicles like the Charger, Challenger, and in the bigger picture, Dodge and Chrysler? FCA recently outlined a new five year plan for the company, and those two companies, along with Fiat, weren’t included in any product announcements. The only solid information about the Challenger and Charger is that they’re not going anywhere for at least another generation. What does this mean exactly? Who knows. They did say that both cars are staying on their current platform for the foreseeable future, but with “heavy modifications.” It will be interesting to see exactly what that means.

The party continues for now. I imagine FCA is going to keep up the momentum created by the Hellcat and Demon with additional limited edition models, as both generated quite a bit of buzz upon their respective debuts.

FCA may have won the award for best individual piece of swag with the “DODGE” ball. But who buys this stuff? Probably hardcore enthusiasts, right? Or dealers who need something a little more substantial to throw at their sales team when they don’t move as many vehicles as management wanted? At $9.95, you really can’t go wrong.

We often think of the sporty entries in the Dodge lineup, but what about the more family oriented products? The Journey somehow still exists, and buyers have scooped up about 68K examples of the Durango since 2016. FCA definitely wants a three row Jeep Grand Cherokee, and they’re also reviving the Wagoneer nameplate for a vehicle that will likely compete with the likes of the Expedition and Suburban, which means the Dodge crossovers might get put out to pasture.

And what about Chrysler? Only the Pacifica and 300 carry the brand now. FCA’s previous five year plan revealed their desire to produce a compact hatchback named the 100, but we know that never happened, along with the Dart SRT. The market for minivans and full size sedans continues to shrink. Chrysler and Fiat don’t really make a business case for themselves anymore. Perhaps Fiat never did.

It’s obviously not all doom and gloom at FCA. Jeep is one of the bright spots in its American lineup, and the Cherokee is a unique product is a segment filled with cookie cutter entries. Genuine off road capability and a class exclusive V6 make the Jeep stand out in a crowded segment.

The 2019 model cleaned up the exterior design, which was needed, because the older model had a very scrunched up face. Now it looks like a baby Grand Cherokee. Not exactly a bad thing, right? The rear end also received updates, although that region was always reasonably good looking.

This particular Cherokee was one of many at the Jeep display. Automakers generally only keep one or two of each model on hand at the auto show, but Jeep decided to bring a whole bunch with them, which is why this gray example looks abandoned.

This red Cherokee was positioned right behind the gray one.

The small army of Cherokee crossovers must have messed with my brain because I forgot to snap a picture of the new Compass, despite having multiple examples to choose from. Can you blame me? Both share very similar styling. “Baby Grand Cherokee” is a design motif that will wear out eventually, but for now its basically the template for any Jeep vehicle not named Wrangler or Renegade.

The previous generation Compass primarily catered to entry level buyers looking for a Jeep product that contained all the identity associated with the brand, but not necessarily the off road capability. For the 2018 model year, that mission remains relatively unchanged, although the Renegade has complicated things a bit. Complicated is probably too strong of a word to use in this situation, because it appears the market has accepted every crossover positioned below the Grand Cherokee. Jeep has moved almost exactly the same amount of Cherokees as the Grand Cherokee so far this year, and customers have snatched up about 72k examples of the Compass through May. Although the Renegade sold less than half as many units as its bigger sibling, Jeep will likely move about 100k of the little things for calendar year 2018. All of those numbers are impressive. And now you know why FCA’s five year plan is focused on expanding Jeep’s international profile.

I’ve already mentioned the Grand Cherokee about 7,652 times in this article. “This Jeep product looks like a miniature Grand Cherokee!” “This other product is selling just as fast as a Grand Cherokee!” “The Grand Cherokee design has been around for quite a while, hasn’t it?” Jeep’s top of the line crossover represented an important part of FCA’s post-recession recovery. And it continues to perform very well as a vehicle that sits between the mid and full size crossover category, despite lacking a third row.

There are considerable similarities between the development of the current generation Explorer and the Grand Cherokee. Both vehicles owe their existence to the corporate tie ups each automaker embarked upon in the late 1990’s. And their contemporary forms helped resuscitate their appeal (and reputation) after sales of both vehicles cratered before and during the recession. These two stalwarts sell at rates not seen since the early 2000’s, a notable feat when you take into account how many additional models have entered the segment over the past fifteen years or so.

You can tell how important the Explorer and Cherokee are to each company by looking at their powertrain offerings and trim levels. The Jeep and Ford each have at least three engines. And their trim levels range from basic minivan adjacent family haulers to posh transportation statements that serve as credible alternatives to products like the Range Rover Velar or Alfa Romeo Stelvio. The Trackhawk is an extension of Jeep’s desire to compete with the performance luxury crossovers currently available.

As successful as the Grand Cherokee has become in its modern form, its still just a unique entry in a highly competitive segment, which means there’s always a chance it gets lost in the crowd. By contrast, the Wrangler sits atop its own segment as a truly versatile off-road vehicle. While some elements of the Wrangler remain virtually unchanged, there are some new innovations that make the iconic nameplate worth talking about. The JL does not feature a 4X2 model in any capacity, and it now boasts a 2.0 liter turbcharged four cylinder that shares its mild hybrid technology with the Ram 1500. With 270 horsepower and 295 Ibs.-ft. of torque available, I don’t think the Wrangler community will shun the new four cylinder, and I bet it eventually overtakes the V6 as the volume engine.

The previous generation succeeded because Jeep decided to add a four door model to the lineup. But the two door is still around, waiting to be taken to the beach, like you see in the movies.

I would have been concerned if Jeep didn’t bring any swag with them to the auto show, but they delivered. If any brand should have their own line of camping gear, its Jeep.

The light duty Ram, and the entire Ram lineup in general, has traditionally sat at the bottom of the American pick up truck hierarchy. With a more refined exterior and some additional tech offerings, FCA is looking to gain a bit more market share with the 2019 Ram 1500.

High-strength steel, increased rigidity, improved NVH; these are some of the advancements automakers boast about when extolling the virtues of a newly redesigned vehicle. With pick up trucks, its a bit different, as companies tend to focus on more tangible aspects of their products, like towing capacity and payload ratings. That also extends to things like integrated cargo boxes, which adorn the sides of the 2019 Ram 1500.

The new Ram also generated a lot of buzz when FCA revealed its new eTorque system. Unlike Ford and General Motors, FCA has shunned turbocharged engines and instead developed a mild hybrid system in order to eke out some fuel economy gains for its truck line and the Wrangler.

Alex Dykes recently created an excellent primer on FCA’s mild hybrid system, which shouldn’t be too surprising, as his content is generally top notch.

Step into upper level trims of the 1500 and you’ll be greeted by a massive 12 inch Uconnect infotainment system. While the sight of such a huge screen takes a bit to get used to, it works reasonably well.

The instrument panel is the only area that didn’t really work. Those gauges look like they belong in a base model Journey, not a truck that probably costs twice as much.

While Jeep and Ram offer vehicles that are explicitly designed for functionality and utility, FCA’s other brands tilt more toward the luxurious side of things. Alfa Romeo may not generate a lot of volume in North America, but they make up for that in prestige.

Of course by prestige I mean horrible reliability. If you want one of these things, you should lease, and even that seems risky. And now you know why FCA will focus on their more profitable divisions.

Volkswagen, like FCA, is focused on creating the vehicles consumers want. That means crossovers like the Tiguan. VW didn’t have a true entry in this segment until this current generation, as the previous model was too short and way too expensive. The five  or seven seat crossover now sits at 185′ in length and 72′ in width. Identical dimensions to the Nissan Rogue. And the VW is $300 cheaper too.

Yes that’s right: Volkswagen is now selling vehicles with the dimensions Americans want, at prices in line with the competition. Take the Atlas for example. Very rarely does an automaker devote so much space to one product. But VW allocated a substantial portion of their display to their largest people mover.

They did that because like the Tiguan, the Atlas is steadily gaining momentum with the buying public. And its not hard to see why. Unlike the Pathfinder and Pilot, the Volkswagen avoids looking bloated.

The Volkswagen Cross Sport Concept, like its seven seat sibling, succeeds at translating the VW design motif into a no-nonsense look. Although a production model hasn’t been announced yet, Volkswagen did outline some powertrain details that could theoretically be equipped on this hypothetical vehicle. Two electric motors supplementing the V6 that is standard on the production Atlas is one such idea, and it would produce 355 horsepower and allow the crossover to travel 26 miles after being plugged in and charged. A regular hybrid is also rumored to be in the works, and the output of that engine would come in at around 310 horsepower. Seems like VW is doing just fine without diesels.

Did you think VW was done with its stubborn ways? Nope! Approximately zero people in the western Hemisphere asked for a sedan-like vehicle larger and more expensive than the Passat and its CC spin-off. But we’re getting it anyway. It’s unlikely this thing will start at a price less than $35,000. And that gets you a 2.0 turbocharged four cylinder with an output of 268 horsepower. It’s all mated to an 8 speed automatic transmission and will have optional all wheel drive.

And that money doesn’t really get you an interior that handily outclasses an Accord or Camry. Although the Digital Cockpit is extremely nice. But the Golf and Jetta have that too.

On the merits however, the Arteon is undeniably a good looking liftback. The problem is that its competitors are vast and probably less expensive. Aside from the Passat, you’ve got the Kia Stinger, Nissan Maxima, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, and Mazda 6. Let’s not forget about Audi either. Let’s see how long this thing lasts.

Unlike the Arteon, the Jetta makes more sense in America. The new 2019 model joins the modern VW lineup in using the MQB platform as the basis for its architecture.

The new Jetta basically borrows a whole bunch of interior parts from the Passat, like the steering wheel. Overall quality felt very good and that Digital Cockpit will impress anyone that test drives one of these cars.

The Jetta really is like a baby Arteon in some ways. It has a bit of its styling, sits on the same platform, and has the same 8 speed automatic transmission. Although the 1.8 turbo four is no longer available, critics felt that the 1.4 acquitted itself just fine. They also enjoyed its sporty driving dynamics, which is a characteristic of the MQB platform. It seems VW finally made a decently priced Jetta without losing its Germanic essence just in time for the crossover revolution.

And with that I will leave you with this display of VW swag that inexplicably included a teddy bear.

2018’s New York auto show coverage is officially at the half way point! Stay tuned for part 5.

Related Reading:

CC Visits The NY Auto Show, Part 1

Part 2

Part 3