Jeep sales in high gear despite repeated knocks

Another week, another example of Jeep's role as the Teflon of auto brands.

Despite several surveys ranking the American SUV brand as one of the poorest in the industry for quality, reliability or sales satisfaction, Jeep remains the hottest brand in the auto business.

So far this year, the nameplate's sales are up a whopping 45.9 percent, while the market as a whole is up just 5.5 percent, according to Autodata.

The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.
Chrysler Group LLC
The 2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

"I hear nothing but praise for Jeep," said Dutch Mandel, associate publisher at Autoweek. "Maybe consumers are just so passionate about the Jeep brand that they don't care if it's ranking at the bottom of surveys."

J.D. Power's sales satisfaction survey, released last week, was the latest report to ding the Jeep brand. It ranked the nameplate 29th out of 32 brands for how customers rated their buying experience.

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Jeep trailed the industry average in sales satisfaction and finished ahead of only Dodge, Ram and Mitsubishi. That was actually an improvement over 2013, when Jeep finished second to last.

The results follow a dismal performance in Consumer Reports' annual reliability survey, released last month, which ranked Jeep second to last. And in June, J.D. Power's initial quality survey ranked Jeep as giving new vehicle buyers the second-largest number of problems.

Jeep declined to comment on the disconnect between rankings and sales.

But Kelley Blue Book's Jack Nerad offered his own explanation.

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"Those who want a Jeep, really, really want a Jeep," he said. "They may have seen these surveys or heard complaints about Jeeps, but they're willing to accept those shortcomings for the 'Jeepness' of the experience."

SUV sales boom

With gas prices on the plunge, part of the reason Jeep has thrived is due to the resurgence in SUV sales. As buyers have rediscovered their love for utility vehicles, sales of compact SUVs, such as the Cherokee, have boomed.

"A lot of people buying small SUVs, like the Cherokee, are new to the whole experience of driving a SUV," said Jessica Caldwell, director of pricing and industry analysis at Edmunds.com "Maybe the imagery and brand recognition give Jeep a leg up attracting those buyers."

Caldwell admits she's heard complaints about some Jeep models, including the Wrangler, but said the brand has not only held up—it's thrived.

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"Jeep has hit its stride. The new products are strong," she said.

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So strong that Jeep has become the linchpin to Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne's plan to grow the company's sales to 7 million vehicles annually by 2018.

To achieve this goal, Jeep's global sales must grow to 1.9 million vehicles, from their current level of approximately 1 million. And while the repeated low rankings in customer surveys have not yet hurt sales, many in the industry wonder if they could portend future problems for Jeep.

"If J.D. Power is a true gauge of the consumer, Jeep executives have to be concerned with these ratings," Mandel said.

Questions? Comments? BehindTheWheel@cnbc.com.