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A Chat With FCA CEO Kevin Flynn: A Renaissance Is Underway At Jeep

You might remember late last year we received the most terrific invitation (just saying that because I’ve never been to the Land of the Long White Cloud before and the subject matter was exciting) to attend Jeep’s international release of the new Gladiator dual-cab ute and you can read about that here. On the trip not only did I get to see that stunning country around Queenstown and before the COVID bullshit, but I also got to meet and talk to a truly nice bloke called Kevin Flynn.

Kevin had a couple of months earlier, been appointed to the role of CEO and Director of Fiat Chrysler Australia (FCA), a job likely no-one in the auto industry wanted after the drama that had played out in the business a few years earlier, but he was game enough to stick his hand up for and willingly. The difference will be that he’s not the sort of guy to just go through the motions, lining his pockets at the shareholder’s expense and damn the results, because he’s a career automotive journeyman.

You see the Jeep, Fiat and Chrysler brands in Australia have a taint that isn’t pretty, thanks largely to previous management that was frankly rudderless and with a moral compass that was big-time broken. Dogged with a reputation of unreliability and warranty denial, the marques under the FCA brand have been the butt of plenty of jokes and that takes some fixing. Kev’s likely the fixer guy.

He started, as those of us who are keen car-heads all started, with ‘auto 101’ in his DNA as a teenager fettling and fine-tuning a Sunbeam Imp Rallye his first car, got a start in the car industry on the production floor at British Leyland as an apprentice and steadily rose through the ranks and later swapping brands becoming a trainer with BMW in the UK.

An opportunity then presented a dealer-principal and general manager role at a UK BMW dealership, before scoring another coup running the Lexus operation in the UK. Next, and never one to pass up a chance at something different, UK Porsche concessionaire AFN (that’s Archibald Fraser Nash, not AFN the 4WD accessory house in Portugal) wooed him with the general manager’s position and later and keeping the German theme going (albeit with a familiar Japanese brand) he went to Germany to have another crack with Lexus.

With that success, Toyota asked him to go to South Africa and get the Lexus brand firing there and once that job was done he resigned and gave Jaguar Land Rover a kick up the arse on the sub-continent whilst based in Johannesburg.

The New Zealand launch of the Jeep Gladiator in late 2019.

That readers is a career more extensive than most of us would consider possible in one lifetime. It wasn’t the end of it either because he jumped ship once more and with FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) landed in Pune India and took control of the operations there for four years before the Australian role came along. 

Creating a brand and building a manufacturing hub in the second-most populous country in the world, sounds way-more-scary than the Australian challenge of merely rebuilding a reputation. Hmmm, the Australian reputation.

Let’s just say this. EVERY vehicle maker has its dog-days when it can’t take a trick, and around three years ago you’d be excused for thinking every Jeep was a lemon when it patently wasn’t true. I have plenty of mates here in Oz and in Hawaii who own Wranglers (and they’re supposed to be the most unreliable POS) who’ve clocked up huge kays, travelled extensively and done some seriously hard-core off-road trails that no IFS Japanese 4WD will ever get up and over, all without breakages and without troubling their warranty. It is possible. Yet there were a handful of celebrated cases that were fodder for the sensationalist TV news services and egg-on-face was the result and it still sticks.

In New Zealand in December at a round table with Jeep international managers and engineers, none of the attending Aussie journalists wanted to ask the question that was on everyone’s lips… what did Jeep plan to do about the reputational damage done and what was the fix?

Kevin Flynn is on the right.

Before Kevin would let me ask about the new Jeep Compass (the reason we were on the phone a fortnight ago), he pulled me up and wanted to firstly address the New Zealand question that I’d been cheeky enough to ask, because he had plenty to say about what had happened in the eight months since and that he was keeping good on a promise to the brand and its Australian customers.

Engagement with customers via new digital media has seen an 80% uptick in conversations compared to the same time last year, a sign perhaps that all bridges haven’t been burned and the faithful might return if the solution is a good one.

Blind-Freddy could tell you that Jeep’s after-sales service required more customer focus, placing greater emphasis on ensuring all Jeep’s owners were happy with the product and are getting the attention they deserved. Kevin’s admission that the business had failed a lot of its customers in the recent past was refreshing, as most vehicle manufacturers would never make a confession like that.

FCA’s future role in fixing those issues and when they first appear is in establishing better communications with all parties, improving access to technical information, procedures and training in the dealer network, extending right down to the nuts and bolts of repair and getting the job done in the shortest timeframe.

Gladiator Rubicon is my fave 4X4 right now and for good reason.

Now, when a dealer can’t diagnose and resolve a problem in a reasonable time, Jeep dealers can call in the “Flying Squad”, a specially trained team of technicians who can either run virtual diagnostics or fly into the dealership in any State and solve the unsolvable (although Kevin commented that this was slightly derailed by COVID) and especially vital to regional dealers who were struggling on their own thanks to distance.

If you think about it, modern automotive design largely revolves around safety electronics, fuel efficiency and emissions and it is a seriously complex bit of engineering that takes years of understanding, expertise some dealers won’t have at their fingertips. Having a squad of super-techs who can reach into the problem and decide on a speedy resolution has got to go a long way in restoring brand confidence.

To take the sting out of servicing costs some 17,000 common Jeep parts have been repriced making the whole of life ownership a far cheaper experience. One of the early analyses that Kevin made upon arrival revealed a lot of servicing was being done by 4WD specialist shops rather than Jeep’s franchised dealer network (which tells you a couple of things – their services were too expensive and maybe they didn’t know what they were doing). Recently introduced capped-price servicing makes visits more predictable and avoids scary moments when the bankcard might potentially get an unexpected whack. It brings Jeep in line with competitors and customer expectations.

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Warranty and roadside assistance are now more generous, with 5-years/100,000kilometres coverage and available anywhere in the country. I did quiz Kevin on the length of the warranty as I recall other makers who had similar reliability or durability question marks had extended their obligations even further (Mitsubishi once had a 10-year powertrain package and Kia today has a 7 year/unlimited-kilometre offering) as a sign of confidence and commitment in the brand and another way of drawing more customers in. He was confident that the 5-year term would be up to the job with the new vigour that Jeep would apply to it.

Another issue Kevin saw was an overly complicated model line-up and to streamline the range some models have been culled and that reduces complexity. One that wasn’t getting the chop was the road and track-focused Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, you know the one with the stonking 6.2L Hellcat Hemi that we tested last year and you can read that article here. As a halo car and one that still draws in customers, both Jeep and Kevin have been pleasantly surprised with its popularity in what is a seriously niche category.

One thing he really wanted to stress and one worth a boast is the raft of new models in its line-up, making Jeep the maker with the freshest of inventories and with more to come. The new product creates new desire and likely more reason for past and present customers to return to the brand and with newer engineering and refinement applied, likely greater levels or ownership satisfaction will flow.

Whilst we are talking about new product, another question that everyone wanted an answer for is why the Gladiator wasn’t offered with the 3.0L diesel engine seen in the USA?

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It all comes down to volumes and engineering-costs and return on investment. It’s another casualty of the RHD market not being big enough. So with that thought in mind, I asked Kevin what about the potential of seeing the 2.2L diesel seen in the Wrangler instead? Surely with the engineering already done on that vehicle, a transplant into Gladiator wouldn’t be too much of a stretch?

The torque output of the 2.2 is as good as plenty of others in the ute market and at 450Nm goes better than most. Sounded like a good idea to me, because if there’s a reluctance to engineer the 3.0L with the push to hybrid and EV demanding greater Jeep R&D resources, surely using the existing science would satisfy a lot of Australian-buyers curiosity who demand diesel in a ute? Watch this space.

We got around to the Compass which is available in an FWD/2WD variant the Night Eagle or the Limited and Trailhawk models with AWD. I had an opportunity to drive the Trailhawk eighteen months ago and you can read that here. I have to admit I wasn’t expecting anything great at all in it in the off-road stakes and I doubted its “Trail-Rated” badge. I was wrong. It is easily the most capable off-roader in its class, something Kevin was at great pains to emphasise. He told me that Jeep will always be a proper 4WD as the 4WD architecture is important to the brand and its customers.

One of the reasons Compass Trailhawk is good is its diesel engine, something that shouldn’t go unnoticed for the Gladiator and hopefully the next time I speak to him there’ll be an announcement! Maybe I shouldn’t hold my breath?

Footnote…

2nd September 2020 – Just as well I didn’t hold my breath because a week-and-a-half later the announcement has been made that diesel had been dropped in Wrangler. Completely. Petrol only until the hybrids and then EVs arrive. No diesel in Gladiator anytime soon. Sorry folks!

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