ROME — The Italian connection with Jeep, the storied U.S. vehicle manufacturer, has just gotten stronger.
Following the takeover of the firm by Italy’s Fiat in 2011, the Italian military has purchased six Jeeps in the militarized J8 format for road testing to see whether they could be a long-term replacement for the Italian Army’s Land Rovers.
“We are looking at a new reconnaissance vehicle and expect all six to be delivered by year end,” an Italian defense source said.
Italy’s procurement office signed the contract in December for the J8, which is based on Jeep’s Wrangler model. A variant has already been bought by Israel.
The vehicle was the only candidate offered after Italy issued a tender in July for six vehicles, including two soft-top versions, two special operations forces versions, one hard top and one pickup. The total cost specified in the tender was 631,000 euros ($808,000) plus sales tax, including technical assistance during testing.
If the vehicles pass muster, they will be certified for military use and will be considered if a decision is made to buy new, light vehicles, the source said.
Other sources said it was premature to expect the retirement of Italian Army Land Rover Defenders anytime soon.
“They have some years left in them, and defense spending cuts mean this is not a priority,” one source said.
But the deal marks a strengthening of Italy’s role in Jeep’s future as a military vehicle, following its success in the 20th century.
Owned by Chrysler, Jeep effectively became Italian-controlled in 2011 when Italy’s Fiat took a controlling stake in Chrysler. Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne was widely credited with pulling the U.S. manufacturer back from the brink and boosting sales to pay back U.S. government loans.
Marchionne also planned to blend U.S. and Italian car designs and technologies, including building a new Maserati SUV in Detroit based on the body of a Jeep.
The Italian procurement office signed its contract for the six Jeeps with Iveco, the Fiat unit that builds trucks but also specializes in military vehicles including the LMV, likened to an uparmored Humvee, of which 4,000 have now been sold to 10 nations. Iveco also builds the Centauro wheeled tank and the Freccia wheeled armored vehicle in partnership with Finmeccanica unit Oto Melara.
“Iveco is giving assistance on the Jeep deal, and it could prove to be an example of synergy between Iveco and Jeep since Iveco is an expert in the military business,” a source close to the company said.
“But there are no plans to build the Jeep in Italy, and this contract with the Italians is just a pilot project to test a product,” he said.
Iveco has meanwhile shelved a plan to build a Land Rover-type vehicle called the Massif. The J8 is a ruggedized, militarized version of the Jeep Wrangler offering an upgraded chassis, brakes, suspension, axles and engine cooling, and a 1,164-kilogram payload that can be augmented.
Launched at the DSEI defense show in London in 2007, the J8 has been produced in Egypt and also went into production in Israel by Automotive Industries Ltd. for supply to the Israel Defense Force, in a variant named Storm 3.
“Because of the evolution of Fiat and the Chrysler group, it makes sense to go into the Italian market with Iveco,” a company source said.
The source said J8s had been sold in Latin America and the U.S., while the U.N. has used them in Haiti. Switzerland is also close to buying the vehicle, he said.