Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel: Mainstream or niche?

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SPRINGDALE, Utah — There’s a batch of consumers who’ve been clamoring for a diesel-powered Wrangler for a long time.

Kevin Metz, the Wrangler’s senior brand manager, joined the Jeep team 15 years ago and remembers two main questions coming from the public: When will Jeep bring out a pickup, and when will Wrangler get a diesel engine?

Jeep crossed one request off the list this year with the rollout of the Gladiator midsize pickup. Now the wait is nearly over for the diesel Wrangler, a new trail mate that will bring a rush of torque to the lineup in addition to greater fuel economy and range.

The model, equipped with the third-generation 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 engine, is expected to begin production this month and go on sale by year end as a 2020 model.

Diesel enthusiasts will be pleased as Jeep moves the Wrangler into the niche segment, but will the brand be satisfied with only selling a few units — or can it broaden the base for this model and convert consumers into first-time diesel users?

Jeep officials wouldn’t share any sales expectations last week, with Metz saying only that Fiat Chrysler will build as many diesel Wranglers as people want. Yet Jeep believes it has a chance to take diesel mainstream with its versatile stalwart.

“We’ve done quite a bit to it to make it as quiet as possible [and] as comfortable as possible on the road without compromising the ride,” Pete Milosavlevski, chief engineer of the Wrangler and Gladiator, told Automotive News. “This could easily be an everyday driver.”

To keep engine noise outside the vehicle, engineers added a new acoustic package inside the engine box. They also used unique spring and shock tuning, Milosavlevski said, to manage ride control and minimize shake. He said the Jeep brand and diesel have something in common: “They’re both synonymous with capability.”

“From an on-road perspective, what we wanted to give our customer was the torque feel as they’re driving the vehicle every day to work or they’re hauling things,” he said.

Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting for AutoForecast Solutions, doesn’t expect much interest for the Wrangler EcoDiesel beyond core Jeep buyers who will take it off-roading and “need that extra grunt that’ll get them over the next rock.”

Fiorani predicts that the diesel version will make up 5 to 10 percent of the model mix.

“Diesel seems to be matched perfectly to the old-school, core buyers for Jeep, not to the new wave of Jeep buyers,” he said.

Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle evaluation for Edmunds, said the diesel Wrangler might pull customers from the Toyota 4Runner, an off-road option that doesn’t have a diesel.

The Wrangler EcoDiesel is for the “kind of person who isn’t a pickup truck buyer, [but] who’s an off-road SUV buyer,” Edmunds said.

“Somebody who might be looking at a 4Runner, or perhaps waiting for the new Bronco. And then we have this, and it has a diesel. There’s certainly a group of people out there that have always wanted an off-road vehicle with a diesel engine in it.”

Jeep hasn’t revealed fuel-economy figures yet, but Metz thinks the mileage will grab the attention of those who haven’t owned diesel vehicles before, as will its 442 pound-feet of torque, versus 260 pound-feet in the 3.6-liter gasoline-fueled V-6.

“If you’re not familiar at all with the diesel engine, it’s going to be the fuel economy. I think when you see the label numbers, it’s going to far exceed expectations for that type of vehicle,” Metz said.

“And then you’re very quickly going to start to understand the power and the torque because the driving experience is phenomenal as a result.”

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