When I envision what it would be like to drive a convertible, I see myself driving down a long strip of paved road, with the top down and the wind blowing through my hair.
And if I were to put myself in the driver seat of a Jeep Wrangler, I envision myself slowly climbing up precarious terrain in a rugged, all-wheel-drive off-road machine.
But in the eyes of the Federal Government, Jeep decided to classify the wrangler as a convertible. This fundamental error has earned the Jeep Wrangler as having the most lethal roll-over incidents than any other vehicle sold in America, and they made a lot of money doing it.
Our system of defining different car classes allows manufacturers to design vehicles to be safe for the purposes they are expected to perform in. A Semi-Truck has a purpose that is different than a sedan, just as an ATV has a different purpose than a SUV, as a convertible has a purpose just as unique as the rest of the car classes. Each class of vehicle has its own set of rules of design that makes the vehicle ‘safe’ for its intended purpose.
This system has worked for years, and consumers have expectations when choosing one class of vehicle over another.
But what happens when a car manufacturer decides to market their car for heavy duty purposes, but follows the safety design rules of a convertible? What happens when consumers expected a rugged, durable machine but drives off the lot something less capable?
The Chrysler owned brand Jeep decided to go this route. They found a market looking to drive off-road into terrain, and built the ‘Wrangler’
The usual Advertisement of the wrangler consists of the vehicle perched upon a boulder with a mountain in the background. Rock climbing is a sporty adventure, it requires the right tools to get it done safely. We can see a great amount of ground clearance of the Wrangler. Consumers expect the utility of the Wrangler to be effective in these situations.
The Jeep Wrangler, has been and continues to be marketed as the model for use both on and off road, touting it as a “rugged,” “go anywhere and do anything” vehicle that is “hard to the core.”
The manufacturer could have followed the safety design requirements of the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) class. This class requires various tests of strength before being sold to the public.
Instead, Jeep vied to pass the safety test of a convertible.
|EVERY OTHER CAR CLASS||Convertible||Jeep Wrangler|
|✅Purpose built safety requirements||❌Not expected to climb mountains||⚠Advertises on a mountain|
|✅Roof protection test||❌No safety test required||⚠Tests not available to the public|
|✅Rollover test||❌No safety test required||⚠Tests not available to the public|
|✅Minimum Roll-bar strength||❌No safety test required||⚠Looks like a Rollbar, named a “Sports-bar”, doesn’t protect as much as an actual rollbar|
|Comparatively lower risk of rolling||⚠Highest risk of death in a rollover|
What could go wrong?
- Out of all models of vehicle listed under the convertible classification, Jeep’s Wrangler has the most lethal rollover incidents than any other vehicle. Go figure
- the Jeep Wrangler 4-door had the highest single- vehicle overall death rate as well as the highest single-vehicle rollover death rate for vehicles in its class.
— Source: Insurance institute for Highway Safety 2017 Status report
Even more troubling is the manufacturer’s attempts to present the Wrangler in a Class above a Convertible.
Wrangler manufacturer’s recognized the vehicle has a high roll-over risk, providing warnings in the 2014 Jeep Wrangler manual:
Given this background, the government standard for vehicle roof strength in a roll-over becomes even more relevant, particularly for the ’07-’18 JK Wrangler model, which was less than two years from being launched when the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (“NHTSA”) announced it was upgrading the government roll-over standard. Initially NHTSA stated that the Wrangler would no longer be exempt from this important testing as a convertible. Following is a summary of that history and its relevance to human safety.
As noted, the Wrangler JK model was sold as 2007-2018 model year, thus, the “sport bar” structure was designed and developed in and around 2005. At that time, the predecessor Wrangler Model, “TJ” Wranglers (1997 – 2006 model years) were in production, and Chrysler may have tried addressing any observed issues with the roll bar and seat belt systems in its designs for the JK. Further, the successor JL vehicles (2019-present), which were produced and sold as 2018 model years, at the same time that the JK was still being produced and sold, contain some modifications that appear to incorporate design changes specifically intended to improve the sport bar structure. These changes were suggested prior to the 2007-2018 JK model introduction.
Development and production of Wrangler spans various corporate entities. Chrysler Corporation was the brand owner of Jeep, and it became DaimlerChrysler in 1998. In 2007 that merger ended and the company became Chrysler LLC. In 2009, emerging from bankruptcy, the company was Chrysler Group, LLC. And in 2014 it was purchased by Fiat S.P.A and was renamed FCA US LLC, which has since merged into an entity called Stellantis, NV. Since 2007 through 2018, Jeep Wrangler was on its “JK” platform, which was first introduced as a 2007 model year vehicle and continued in production through 2018, replaced by the “JL” Wrangler, which is currently in production.
When the initial government roof-collapse rule was promulgated in the 1970s, the Wrangler was considered a convertible and thus, exempt from the standard. The Wrangler has never been certified to meet the standard given its convertible exemption. In the late 1980s and again in the mid-2000s the government proposed extending the requirements that would have included the Wrangler. However, corporate lobbying during the rulemaking process ensured that it did not have to meet the roof strength standard – and they were successful and it continues to maintain this exemption through the existing standards today.
When the new rule was finalized in 2009, the government back tracked on the classification of the Wrangler claiming that their discussion of the Wrangler in the NPRM may have caused confusion and that the vehicle was really a convertible under its definitions
Notably, NHTSA went on to say the following about the Wrangler and convertibles in general:
We are also not making the changes to the proposed definition of convertible suggested by some commenters. The definition proposed was previously adopted in FMVSS No. 201 (62 FR 16725), and the agency believes the applicability is the same and is unaware of any concerns. Furthermore, we do not believe further specificity is warranted given our revised position on the Wrangler. We believe our discussion in the NPRM concerning the Wrangler may have caused confusion. We also do not agree that there is a need to specify that convertibles have folding hardtops or removable hardtops. These roof systems are not intended as significant structural elements but are designed primarily to provide protection from inclement weather, improve theft protection and are generally offered as a luxury item. These types of roof systems are also designed of lighter weight materials, such as aluminum or composites, for ease of folding and storage within the vehicle or removal by the consumer and we believe consumers readily recognize they will afford the occupants limited protection in a rollover.NHTSA
This statement, as it applies to the “convertible” Wrangler, is likely completely opposite of what reasonable consumers actually believe about the rugged looking vehicle with its beefy looking “sport bar” that has the appearance of offering rollover protection
Because of this lack of occupant protection, a cottage industry of aftermarket products filled the safety void with dozens of companies manufacturing and marketing roll bars as replacements for the “sport bar” that provide substantial protection in the event of rollover.
the options for Jeep Wrangler JK owners who want to replace the sport bar with an actual roll bar. We’ve included five different company’s products – most of which are sold on Rubitrux, an online retailer. The brands include Rock Hard 4×4, Poison Spyder, GenRight, Smittybuilt. Rubitrux’s website includes the following note:
An article by Extreme Terrain Off-Road Outfitters, a provider of aftermarket Jeep Wrangler parts, also discusses the structural issues of the OEM roof and windshield structure:
The factory bar is designed to protect occupants in low speed roll overs, but develops some structural integrity issues during a single roll over, let alone several.
The article also points out the weakness in the windshield resulting in lack of protection in a rollover:
Jeep even makes it a point to refer to it as a sports bar instead of roll cage, establishing the bar isn’t designed for rolling over. While the bar is made of steel and is tied into the Jeep’s tub frame, establishing a solid skeletal frame, the windshield is a weak point in the structure, since the sports cage doesn’t have a bar that spans the width of the Jeep along the top of the windshield. The lack of protection and support in that area is problematic during a roll over, because there’s a possibility of the windshield frame collapsing and folding into the cabin. In addition, the lack or cross support in the front allows the bars along the sides to be weakened during a roll over. Understandably, any tubular cage is better than nothing and certainly better than a unibody frame that is designed to compress in order to absorb impacts. Ultimately, the sports bar is tubing primarily used to superficially cover the occupant from rain and keep in heat.
Specifically, FARS data for 2010-2018 calendar years was queried for all incidents in which vehicles coded as 2007-2018 Jeep Wrangler vehicles rolled at least one quarter turn. The focus was on those calendar years because the records regarding crashes occurring before 2010 are typically unavailable due to record retention policies, and calendar year 2018 is the most recent available data.