Consumerist Talks To Jeep's CEO About Being The Most Reliable U.S. Auto Brand — But Still Middle Of The Pack

Yesterday, our gearhead cousins at Consumer Reports released the results of their Annual Auto Reliability Survey, which had Jeep jumping up seven spots from the previous year to become the top-ranked domestic brand, though it was still #13 overall. Soon after this news came out, we got the chance to speak to Jeep CEO Michael Manley about this mixed blessing

CONSUMERIST: Jeep is now the most reliable domestic auto brand. What happened?

MANLEY: Well (laughs) it… (long pause) the only reason for my delay is that I’m smiling when you say that because obviously, it’s huge news for us and for the brand. Since we came out of our restructure process we’ve been talking a lot about all of the work we’ve done on our product development process as well as the increases that we’ve made in terms of our reliability testing. And that combined with the changes we made in our manufacturing plants with “World Class Manufacturing”, I think you are now beginning to see the results of those things come through in our products and our reliability in the marketplace. And it’s good news that it’s beginning to be recognized.

CONSUMERIST: Would you say that Fiat has actually helped you build more reliable SUVs? Because that seems a bit counter-intuitive.

MANLEY: (laughs) Well, remember that from the birth of a vehicle there’s obviously a lot of different things that go into it. We still have a full complement of our Jeep engineers who work on the vehicle itself, but in terms of the product development process, absolutely [Fiat has] helped us. I think we’ve put much more rigor in that whole process. As I said, it’s completely overhauled. It was after our alliance with Fiat that we introduced World Class Manufacturing.

World Class Manufacturing is a fairly broad program that looks after safety and looks after cost and efficiency, but also very much focuses on the quality of the vehicle as it goes through the plant. And the Grand Cherokee really was the first vehicle to completely benefit from those changes in process. Even from the beginning, our internal indicators showed that the reliability of this Grand Cherokee had improved by 50% over the previous one. So we were really looking forward to getting this result and seeing it come through from the customer perspective.

CONSUMERIST: One of our readers was concerned that the very close bond that Jeep owners have with their mechanics would deteriorate and that we would have fewer friends.

MANLEY: (laughs) You mean as a result of the of the improvement in reliability?

CONSUMERIST: Yep. You’re having a deleterious effect on our social lives.

MANLEY: (laughs) Well, I would say to the to the readers that all of that money that they’re gonna save, maybe a good place to meet is in a nice restaurant.

CONSUMERIST: This one that might hurt your feelings, but I think it’s important to hear. One reader said, “When your products are completely unreliable pieces of crap, you have nowhere to go but up.” Does that hurt?

MANLEY: No. I think in general that sort of statement is absolutely true, but the result is in the feedback that you see today in terms of reliability. We gained seven places over the previous year and we are now the Top Domestic Brand. This is one of the industry standards in terms of reliability, and there are, I think, 28 manufacturers… We’re now 13. Heading in the right direction. We’re gonna continue to work on our reliability. We’re gonna continue to work on the quality. And I expect the brand to continue to go up. But to be the Top Domestic Brand with a solid seven-place jump year over year I think is one of the best indicators that we can have from an external party, of the interventions that we’ve made to the vehicles.

CONSUMERIST: The top nine spots are still dominated by Japanese brands. Can your customers expect Jeep to be competing for the top spots up there with the Japanese brands or are you happy just being the Top Domestic Brand now?

MANLEY: We have really focused on our brand and trying to continue to make all of the improvements so that we can offer our customers very, very reliable high quality vehicles. So despite the nice year over year increase… I believe in the future you are gonna see continued improvements with Jeep. The new processes have been in place now for a couple of years. They’ll continue to be improved and refined. We won’t be stopping here, but it’s a great start.

CONSUMERIST: What does the President and CEO of Jeep have nightmares about? Is it Congressional hearings or fuel standards?

MANLEY: (laughs) No, from a fuel standard perspective, we’ve got, I think, a very clear plan to make sure that we can comply with all of the fuel standards. I think one of the things that I wouldn’t say keeps me up at night, but I continue to think about it — is how we can continue to keep the momentum going with Wrangler and with Grand Cherokee. We’ve had some significant year-over-year gains with those vehicles and I think rightly so. And I obviously want to keep those two icons moving in the right direction. It’s a very competitive marketplace. We’ve been able to do it so far. I just need to be able to keep that going for a while.

CONSUMERIST: I am a confessed Wrangler owner. For really hard-core Jeep enthusiasts who are worried that the Wrangler is actually still your least reliable model…What’s the future of that iconic vehicle?

MANLEY: We’ve just finished two phases of intervention in the Wrangler. We, we put the new interior into it last year. This year we made a very major upgrade in terms of the transmission and the engine, and the initial reports coming back from that have been incredibly positive by the press. The Pentastar engine that’s now in that vehicle has won a number of awards. I think what we’ve been able to do is not only improve its on-road capability – its fuel economy, its power, and its torque – but that also has translated into continued leadership in off-road capability as well. And what I would say to all of the Jeep fans out there, and the Wrangler fans, is that we as a brand know just how important Wrangler is to us. It is the icon, it’s the standard, and we have no absolutely no intention of doing anything but to continue to improve that. And as I said, the power train changes that we made this year have gone a long way to addressing some of the concerns that our customers have had. And when you get a chance to drive it, I’d love to get your feedback in terms of the comparison with the one that you have.

CONSUMERIST: You came into a controversial political situation with the bailout of Chrysler. How do you deal with that? What is your obligation to the American taxpayer is in terms of producing a great product?

MANLEY: We are talking about a brand that’s 70 years old this year and is known in every continent around the world. We sell Jeep in over 120 countries. So what comes with that is a great deal of responsibility. The brand leading up to 2009, I think it had a difficult few years. And what we wanted to do was to really focus on what the brand means, focus on the products, make sure that they were in line with everybody’s expectation of what a Jeep is. I think we were able to do that. We’re gonna continue to continue to do that into the future. And, that for me has been the key focus from me and, as well as everybody else here in the company… It’s a great job for me in terms of leading the Jeep brand and I’ve got a phenomenal team. And I think our engineers, our guys in the plants, everybody will be, rightfully, very pleased with the results from Consumer Reports. They know it’s just a start.