Just three months into his current role as Jeep president in North America, former SRT chief for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Tim Kuniskis sat Monday in an upstairs office above the 2019 North American International Auto Show.
The admitted car guy who prefers T-shirts and drag strips looked tired from the morning's show as he wore suit and tie but he perked up after questions about Jeep's rumored high-powered Gladiator, reportedly called Hercules.
"Hercules? Wow. That's getting a lot of traction today," he said. "I think the pictures are cool—I don't know who made them—but they look interesting."
"We've done a lot of work in the space, we build those cars for Moab every year. It fits. It works. It's awesome...the problem is: They're not street-legal."
About 3,000 Jeeps with high-powered engine swaps are sold every year from tuners, he said. That's a sizable collection of vehicles that makes Jeep take notice, but not enough to engineer a cost-efficient cooling system required to stuff a V-8 with more than 6.0 liters under the hood.
Kuniskis estimates that aftermarket sellers charge about $80,000 for a lifted, modified Jeep Wrangler with a 6.4-liter V-8 under the hood. For 3,000 customers each year, the profits would be motivation alone for any automaker.
Yet, it's the buyers' motivations that Kuniskis says makes the rumored Hercules different. Save the few, outrageous SEMA builds each year, Kuniskis says their surveys indicate that most Jeep owners willing to shell out the big bucks for a super-stout engine are looking for more torque on the trail—in the neighborhood of 450-475 pound-feet of torque.
The Gladiator will offer that in 2020—just not from a fire-breathing V-8.
"We've got our diesel coming with 442 pound-feet, with a warranty, from the factory. The torque that they're looking for, we're to able deliver to them with a diesel," he said. "I don't know where the Hercules thing comes from."
Kuniskis speculated that the rumors stem from his comments at the 2018 LA auto show that the Gladiator's low-speed rock crawling features and high-speed off-road modes tipped off enthusiasts that a dune-busting, high-powered Gladiator must be in the works. Competitors such as the Toyota Tacoma TRD and Chevy Colorado ZR2 gave more momentum to the idea that Jeep would respond in kind.
"Sure, there's a space there," but with the coming Rubicon he added that already Jeep would be on "a level playing field."
Kuniskis headed FCA's SRT brand from 2014 to 2018 and famously ushered in a horsepower arms race beginning with the Challenger SRT Hellcat, Demon, and Redeye, all with at least 700 horsepower. Before the Challenger SRT Hellcat went on sale, Kuniskis publicly sandbagged the then-secret horsepower rating for the engine before he unveiled its 707-hp potential. He laughed off the reactions, even proud that FCA's skunkworks effectively smoke-screened enthusiasts and the industry to the engine's potential.
He admitted the upcoming pickup has a long future in the lineup, too.
"I think we’re just scratching the surface on where that thing can go. There’s nothing else like it…it has massive potential," he said.
On Monday, Kuniskis couldn't hide a wry smile about speculation that a high-powered Jeep was inevitable in the Gladiator's future, especially given his history with high-performance vehicles.
"What do you think we should do?" he asked.
"It makes too much sense not to but it's not my decision," I answered.
"That's interesting," he replied with a smile.
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