With Jeep, Chrysler finally cracks the India code

Murali Gopalan | Updated on January 17, 2018

It has been a long wait for the American brand, which is now part of Fiat globally

It was in the early 1990s that Chrysler and Mahindra & Mahindra first contemplated bringing Jeep Cherokee to India. Nothing materialised eventually and the plan died a quiet death.

On Tuesday, the Jeep brand made its debut here with the launch of the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee. It is now part of FCA India, the local arm of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles which came into being worldwide in 2014. This was soon after Detroit’s motoring icons had their backs to the wall in the aftermath of the Lehman crisis and Fiat threw a lifeline to Chrysler. The merger followed in a matter of course and, today, Jeep is one of the biggest growth engines for the company with global sales of over a million units.

Its ownership status may have changed but Jeep as a brand is still linked with Chrysler which, in a way, finally has a foothold in India. When the country threw open its gates to multinational car companies over two decades ago, the American carmaker kicked off talks with M&M to bring the Cherokee here. However, the script changed when the latter opted for Ford as ally for its Indian innings and Chrysler had to start from scratch all over again.

Discussions then began with Bajaj Auto which, like many other Indian companies, was keen on entering the glamorous car arena. It was a big step for the two-wheeler maker and reports began doing the rounds that, along with Chrysler, it was working on an Asia-specific product. However, Bajaj Auto changed its mind about manufacturing cars when it became clear that Indian companies had little to contribute in alliances with multinationals. Globally, things were also not quite the same for Chrysler which was on its way to creating a historic marriage with Daimler AG of Germany. The news made headlines across the world and it seemed as if the sky was the limit for this new couple. From India’s point of view, the big question was if Daimler would consider Chrysler brands though it was soon apparent that this was not going to happen in a hurry.

At one point in time, speculation was rife that research was underway to explore the possibility of launching the Cherokee but its steep price tag was seen to be the big obstacle. Further, Daimler had its concerns about joint retail efforts which could cause brand dilution and India was, therefore, out of bounds for Chrysler.

Merger problems

There were bigger problems to contend with as the mega merger was not working according to plan either. It was clear that there were huge cross-cultural differences between the partners and Daimler and Chrysler eventually went their own ways. The autonomy for the American brand was short-lived though when Detroit tanked and Fiat stepped into the picture as the proverbial knight in shining armour.

Today, FCA has emerged the seventh largest global carmaker and one of its most reliable growth engines is Jeep. Fiat has also achieved precious little in India during the two decades it has been around and will bank on Jeep to kick off the turnaround journey. The Wrangler and Grand Cherokee are now being directly imported but local assembly next year will spawn a more affordable Jeep and hopefully help FCA get its India story right.

Published on August 30, 2016

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